Florence Kelley (1859–1932) never saw the fruits of her efforts to agitate on behalf of working women and children in the United States. Her early efforts led to minimum wage legislation for women and children in 1937, and to the Federal Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. Most historians credit her with creating conditions for the legislative abolishment of unregulated child labor and establishing a minimum work wage for all U.S. citizens.
Florence Kelley was born to comfortable circumstances in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on September 12, 1859, the daughter of U.S. Congressman William Darrow Kelley. Florence grew up in an intensely political household. She was exposed to talk about political changes occurring in the United States, including abolition of slavery and the women's rights movement which was then focused on passing a nineteenth amendment to the Constitution to guarantee the right of women to vote.
Kelley graduated from a Quaker-run school in Philadelphia and then entered Cornell University, graduating at age 23 with a bachelor of arts degree. She taught briefly after graduation, and then in 1883 went to Zurich, Switzerland for graduate studies.
In Switzerland at the age of 25 she met a young Russian medical student whom she married in 1884. While living and studying with her husband, Florence came into contact with a number of European socialists. She learned their new ideas about economics and social structure. At one point she received permission from Friedrich Engels (1820–1895), a collaborator and friend of Karl Marx (1818–1883), to produce an English translation of Engels' important book, The Conditions of the Working Class in England. Kelley and Engels corresponded regularly thereafter for several years, and Kelly was deeply influenced by Engels' socialist ideas.
Kelley and her husband returned to the United States in 1886. They had three children together, but the marriage ended in divorce in 1891. During her married life Florence Kelley embraced socialist economic ideas. After her divorce, while raising her three children, she began to put her ideas together with her work life.
Florence began her work life in 1891 as a special agent for the Illinois Bureau of Labor Statistics, inspecting "sweat-shops"—small unregulated manufacturing companies usually in the clothing manufacturing business, where frequently 10-year-old girls worked 12 to 16 hours a day sewing for dismal wages. At this time in the 1890s, there were no restrictions or laws against these practices.
In 1853 Kelley was appointed by the newlyelected governor of Illinois, John Attgeld, as Illinois's chief factory inspector. In this position she was able to establish within certain factories a free medical examination center for working children. She also recommended legislation related to controlling dangerous machinery in the workplace. She also personally examined more than a thousand shops during a smallpox epidemic in Chicago, ensuring that contaminated garments of clothing were discarded. Unfortunately, after Governor Attgeld lost his re-election bid in 1897, most of Kelley's progressive programs were reversed or abandoned. An Illinois law Kelley had worked on which established an eight-hour workday for women, and banned employment of girls under age 14, was declared unconstitutional by the Illinois Supreme Court. Despite such reversals Kelley went on to become the General Secretary of the National Consumers League, continuing her fight against child labor and poor working conditions in factories.
During the 1920s Kelley came to realize that progressive political reform in the United States, popular in the pre-World War I (1914–1918) era, had changed; the United States had become more politically conservative. More and more people in the United States were associating social welfare programs with "radicals" and socialist subversion.
Florence Kelley died in 1921. Despite setbacks in the implementation of her ideas an astonishing number of them were eventually put into practice, mostly during the Great Depression era (1929–1939). In 1937 the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the Illinois Court decisions related to women's working conditions and millions of women achieved a minimum wage guaranteed by Federal legislation. Child labor was also abolished and maximum hours of employment were established and regulated.
Florence Kelley's "failures" during her lifetime likely represented a series of good ideas raised at the wrong time. During the 1920s, the peak activity of Kelley's work life, the forces of powerful unregulated business interests in the United States served to frustrate many social reforms aimed at improving the health and working conditions of millions of U.S. workers. Arguably it took a Great Depression in the United States to cause U.S. legislators and businessmen to see the values of social reform.
See also: Child Labor, Fair Labor Standards Act, Women in the Workplace
Blumberg, Dorothy. Florence Kelley, the Making of a Social Pioneer. New York: Augustus M. Kelley Press, 1966.
Forbath, William. Law and the Shaping of the American Labor Movement. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991.
Goldmark, Josephine. Impatient Crusader: Florence Kelley's Life Story. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois, 1953.
Lemons, J. Stanley. The Woman Citizen, Social Feminism in the 1920s. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1973.
Tentler, Leslie. Wage-Earning Women: Industrial Work and Family Life in the United States. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979.
"Kelley, Florence." Gale Encyclopedia of U.S. Economic History. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 23, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/kelley-florence
"Kelley, Florence." Gale Encyclopedia of U.S. Economic History. . Retrieved July 23, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/kelley-florence
Florence Kelley (1859-1932), American social worker and reformer, fought successfully for child labor laws and improved conditions for working women.
Florence Kelley was born on September 12, 1859, in Philadelphia, Pa., the daughter of U.S. congressman William Darrah Kelley. She entered Cornell University in 1876, but poor health kept her from graduating until 6 years later, as a Phi Beta Kappa. She then studied at the University of Zurich, where she was influenced by Marxist thought. In 1887 she published a translation of Friedrich Engels's The Condition of the Working-class in England in 1844, to which Engels added a preface in 1892.
In 1884 Kelley married a Polish-Russian physician, Lazare Wischnewetzky, and set up housekeeping in New York City. Their marriage was not happy, and she left him in 1889, moving to Chicago with their three children. Although they divorced and she reassumed the name of Kelley for herself and her children, she retained her title of "Mrs."
After 1889 Kelley turned in earnest to the study of social conditions, taking special interest in women and children working in the Chicago trades. In 1891 she joined Jane Addams and her associates at Hull House. Kelley's analyses of sweatshops and slum houses resulted in a new child labor law, and she was appointed chief factory inspector for Illinois. When she found her efforts to enforce the child labor law and the compulsory education law frustrated by uncooperative city attorneys, she decided to study law. She earned her law degree at Northwestern University in 1894. Her reports and legislative achievements were outstanding milestones in social investigation.
In 1899 Kelley returned to New York to become secretary of the National Consumers' League. She lived at the Henry Street Settlement House and worked with numerous reformers and reform organizations for minimum wage laws, woman's suffrage, and Federal aid for mothers and babies. Kelley considered herself a socialist, though she was not involved in the Socialist party. She wrote Some Ethical Gains through Legislation (1905) and helped establish what became known as the "Brandeis brief" (named for Justice Louis D. Brandeis), a process of integrating facts and experiences in legal action to demonstrate the need for changing laws according to human realities.
Kelley later wrote the Modern Industry in Relation to the Family, Health, Education, Morality (1914) and a compilation, The Supreme Court and Minimum Wage Legislation (1925). She died in Germantown, Pa., on February 17, 1932.
Josephine Goldmark, a friend and associate of Florence Kelley, wrote Impatient Crusader: Florence Kelley's Life Story (1953). Sketches of Kelley appear in Lillian D. Wald, Windows on Henry Street (1934); Jane Addams, My Friend Julia Lathrop (1935); and James Weber Linn, Jane Addams: A Biography (1935). □
"Florence Kelly." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 23, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/florence-kelly
"Florence Kelly." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved July 23, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/florence-kelly
Florence Kelley, 1859–1932, American social worker and reformer, b. Philadelphia, grad. Cornell, 1882, and Northwestern Univ. law school, 1894. Married in 1884 to a Polish doctor, Lazare Wishnieweski, she divorced him six years later and became a Hull House resident. A confirmed socialist and active in many reforms, Kelley devoted most of her energies toward securing protective labor legislation, especially for women and children. From 1899 she served for many years as director of the National Consumer's League, which strove for industrial reform through consumer activity. Her writings include Ethical Gains through Legislation (1905) and Modern Industry (1914).
See J. Goldmark, Impatient Crusader (1953); D. R. Blumberg, Florence Kelley (1966); K. Sklar, Florence Kelley and the Nation's Work (1995).
"Kelley, Florence." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 23, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/kelley-florence
"Kelley, Florence." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved July 23, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/kelley-florence