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Kelley, Florence (1859–1932)

Kelley, Florence (1859–1932)

First factory inspector in Illinois and general secretary of the National Consumers' League, who fought against child labor and promoted safer working conditions for all laborers. Name variations: Florence Kelley Wischnewetzky. Often confused with Florence Finch Kelly (1858–1939). Born Florence Molthrop Kelley on September 12, 1859, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; died in Philadelphia on February 17, 1932; daughter of Caroline Bantram (Bonsall) Kelley (a homemaker) and William Darrah Kelley (a lawyer, judge, and congressional representative); schooled at home and at Quaker schools in Philadelphia; received bachelor's degree from Cornell University in 1882; began graduate study in Zurich in 1883; received law degree from Northwestern University in 1894; married Lazare Wischnewetzky, in 1884 (divorced 1892); children: Nicholas Wischnewetzky (b. 1885); Margaret Wischnewetzky (1886–1905); John Bartram Wischnewetzky (b. 1888).

Following graduation from Cornell, traveled to Europe; returned to U.S. (1886); expelled from Socialist Labor Party (1887); was a resident of Hull House (1891); served as investigator for Illinois Bureau of Labor (1892); was chief factory inspector, State of Illinois (1893); dismissed (1897); served as general secretary, National Consumers' League (1899); was an organizer, New York Child Labor Committee (1902); was an organizer, National Child Labor Committee (1904); was an organizer, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (1909); was a founding member, Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (1919).

Selected publications:

four chapters of a projected autobiography appeared in Survey (October 1, 1926, February 1, April 1, and June 1, 1927); contributed articles to International Law Review, Survey, American Journal of Sociology, Journal of Political Economy, Annals of the American Academy of Political Economy, Outlook, and Century, as well as other magazines.

As a seven-year-old, Florence Kelley was taught to read by her father, using what she called a "terrible little book," illustrated with pictures of children no older than herself toiling in the brickyards of England. In the book's woodcuts, sadly disfigured children labored under burdens too heavy for their small frames to bear. It was a deliberate choice on her father's part, showing her the plight of children less fortunate than she. Her early years were filled with such lessons, as her father wished to create in her a social conscience, and to impress upon her the duty to fight against economic injustice. Florence Kelley was a willing pupil. She dedicated the majority of her adult years to a crusade against child labor and for better working conditions for all.

Everybody was brave from the moment she came in the room.

—Newton D. Baker

Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on September 12, 1859, Florence Kelley entered into a family with long-standing concerns about social issues. She was one of eight children (only three survived childhood) born to Caroline Bantram Kelley , a Quaker homemaker, and William Darrah Kelley, an abolitionist and a crusading congressional representative. Kelley noted in her autobiography that her father was a formidable opponent of laissez-faire economics of the day, believing in "forty acres and a mule for freedmen, homesteads for immigrants, and tariffs for American manufacture." William Darrah Kelley was the greatest influence in Florence Kelley's early life, and her education consisted of reading his library, top to bottom, before entering Cornell University at the age of 17.

Kelley began her studies at Cornell University in 1876, determined to achieve the education that was unavailable to women at the University of Pennsylvania, in her hometown of Philadelphia. Cornell was very much a leader in coeducation, allowing women relatively equal access to intellectual pursuits, although the college provided no athletics for women. There, she plunged into her studies, remedying her deficiencies in classical languages and mathematics. The thesis she wrote for her bachelor's degree foreshadowed a lifelong interest in the plight of children. She wrote a study of the legal status of children, based not only on statutes, but on labor reports as well. Her work was evidently well received, because she graduated from Cornell in 1882 and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. The International Law Review published her thesis in the same year.

After her graduation, she was to discover that not all institutions of higher learning were as receptive to women as Cornell had been. Kelley wished to study law and applied to the University of Pennsylvania in order to prepare for further study. After a long delay, her application was refused. Instead, she founded an evening school for young working women. She also accompanied her brother on a trip to Europe, and while abroad discovered that the University of Zurich had opened its doors to women. In September of 1883, she began her studies there.

While in Zurich, Florence Kelley was enlisted to translate into English Friedrich Engels' volume, The Condition of the Working Classes in England in 1844, and the translation coincided with her conversion to socialism. On June 1, 1884, she also married Lazare Wischnewetzky, a Russian socialist, who was a medical student. Their first child, Nicholas, was born in Zurich on July 12, 1885.

In 1886, Florence Kelley returned to the United States with her husband and young son, settling in New York City just before the birth of her daughter, Margaret. She intended to be an active member of the Socialist Labor Party but soon found herself expelled. The Socialist Labor Party was a German enclave, and Florence Kelley, with her impeccable credentials as a native-born American, was almost immediately in conflict with the group. Kelley had assumed that her personal relationship with Engels entitled her to a special position within the party, an assertion with which the other members did not agree.

Little is known about her family life in this period. There is no information about her husband's practice of medicine, or how the family supported itself during its time in New York. Kelley's third child, John, was born in January of 1888, and, sometime in the first half of that year, her husband experienced a serious bout of rheumatic fever. Kelley also began a work, never completed, on child labor in the United States. She believed that the problem of child labor was far more widespread and appalling than most people knew, and proposed that minimum wage laws and compulsory school attendance were the solution to the problem. She advocated government intervention in the form of factory inspectors, truant officers, and financial support for orphans. Although she never wrote the book she had planned, her pamphlet "Our Toiling Children," brought attention to the subject and to Kelley. In articles and speeches, she continued to attack the problem.

In 1891, Kelley's life took a dramatic turn, as she packed her bags and took her children with her to Illinois. Her marriage to Wischnewetzky had dissolved, for reasons unknown, and she wished a divorce on the grounds of non-support. Under New York law, she would have only been allowed a separation; Illinois law provided for divorce. The children remained for a time with the family of Henry Demarest Lloyd, while she established herself at Hull House, in Chicago. All around her, she found opportunities to fight the evil of child labor. In the multiethnic neighborhoods surrounding Hull House, the families were uniformly poor and forced to put their children to work at an early age. In her autobiography, Kelley claimed that even children as young as 18 months were not immune from the shared labor of piecework in their parents' homes.

In 1892, Kelley suggested that the Illinois Bureau of Labor Statistics investigate the sweat-shops of Chicago, and the Bureau named her as the agent to conduct the investigation. The U.S. Bureau of Labor also asked Kelley to conduct an intensive study of an area near Hull House as a part of a national examination of city slums. The resulting reports led the state legislature to pass the Factories and Workshops Act, which required a number of reforms, such as cleanliness in the workplace, a minimum age of 16 for all workers, and limitations on the numbers of hours of work for women. Enforcement of the law was to be insured by state factory inspectors. Kelley, under the Illinois law, became the first woman in the United States to be appointed a state's chief factory inspector.

Kelley used her position as chief factory inspector to promote her concerns about the welfare of children. Her inspectors ferreted out more than 8,000 underage children in Illinois factories and pushed for public and private relief for families whose children worked out of financial necessity. She also fought with local school boards, trying to force them to abide by compulsory attendance laws. Concerned about the plight of women workers as well, she attempted to enforce the state's eight-hour law for women in industry, but the Illinois Supreme Court overturned restrictions on women's hours of work in 1895. Perhaps as a result of her vigorous pursuit of the law, a new governor, John R. Tanner, replaced Kelley with a less forceful factory inspector in 1897. She remained in Illinois only two more years. In 1898, she helped to organize the Illinois Consumers' League and, a year later, returned to New York as the general secretary of the National Consumers' League.

In her position with the National Consumers' League, Kelley continued to promote those issues she held most dear, such as child-labor laws, factory safety laws, and regulation of the labor of women. The National Consumers' League sought to reform the behavior of manufacturers through the purchasing power of the American woman. The League encouraged women, who made the majority of purchases for their families, to buy only those products adorned with the League's "white label," showing that they had been produced by responsible manufacturers.

Kelley's work for the National Consumers' League was not her only concern. On her return to New York, she had moved with her children to Lillian Wald 's Henry Street Settlement house. There, she helped organize the New York Child Labor Committee in 1902 and the National Child Labor Committee in 1904. Her daughter's death in 1905 may have pushed her to even greater efforts on behalf of children in the workplace. In 1907, the U.S. Supreme Court heard the case of Muller v. Oregon, deciding the constitutionality of an Oregon law restricting women to a ten-hour work day. Kelley and her colleague Josephine Goldmark were instrumental in persuading Louis D. Brandeis to prepare his famous brief in favor of the protection of women in the workplace. Following the success of the case, Kelley continued to promote maximum hours and minimum wages for women in industry.

A great believer in racial equality, Kelley was also one of the organizers of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909. As a pacifist, she was a founding member of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom in 1919. She was also a member of the National Woman Suffrage Association, but, unlike many of her fellow suffragists, did not support the Equal Rights Amendment. As a promoter of protective legislation for women, she did not wish to see an amendment passed that might endanger her work.

The 1920s were a difficult decade for Kelley. After the reform enthusiasm that the nation had experienced during the Progressive Era, the '20s were a grave disappointment. Many of the laws for which she had fought succumbed to the decade's commitment to cooperation between government and business. The Supreme Court struck down minimum-wage and maximum-hour legislation, as well as child-labor laws. The only bright spot was the passage of the Sheppard-Towner Maternity and Infancy Act in 1921. The act provided for public health nurses to teach maternal and child welfare; unfortunately, it was discontinued by the decade's end. Kelley's frustrations were enormous. Knowing that the courts would not support child-labor legislation, Kelley began a struggle for an amendment to the U.S. Constitution, barring child labor. For her troubles, she was castigated by many organizations as an unpatriotic radical. Her proposal made little headway.

One of Kelley's last crusades was against industrial poisoning in the dial-painting industry. In 1924, it came to her attention that a number of women workers at the U.S. Radium Corporation in Newark, New Jersey, were either ill or dying. The women placed glowing paint, containing radium, on the dials of clocks. In the painting process, they repeatedly placed the brushes in their mouths, and some had developed horrific jaw diseases. No amount of treatment could save them. Kelley believed that the Consumers' League would have to take action.

Studies undertaken by scientists soon proved that radium poisoning existed and was responsible for the women's injuries and deaths. Researchers found that the bones of the women who had died from radium poisoning were so saturated by the material that even four or five years after their deaths they glowed with the element. The women of the Consumers' League determined that they would ask the surgeon general for an investigation of the problem, and the development of a means to protect industrial workers from the effects of radium. The result was regulation of the manufacture of products using the substance. Workers would no longer "point" brushes with their lips, or inhale radium vapors.

When Florence Kelley died in Philadelphia on February 17, 1932, she was 73 years old. For more than 30 years, she had vigorously pursued reform issues. Her confrontational style had won her enemies as well as admirers. Although not as well known as her contemporaries Jane Addams and Julia Lathrop , she was instrumental in promoting the idea that childhood was a time for learning, rather than toil, and that all laborers had the right to humane working conditions. Florence Kelley was a powerful woman who refused to sit on the sidelines; instead, she sought to create her own opportunities.


Blumberg, Dorothy Rose. Florence Kelley: The Making of a Social Pioneer. NY: Augustus M. Kelley, 1966.

Goldmark, Josephine. Impatient Crusader. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois, 1953.

Harmon, Sandra D. "Florence Kelley in Illinois," in Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society. Vol. LXXIV, no. 3. Autumn 1981, pp. 163–178.

Kelley, Florence. Notes of Sixty Years: The Autobiography of Florence Kelley. Chicago, IL: Charles H. Kerr, 1986.

suggested reading:

Muncy, Robyn. Creating a Female Dominion in American Reform, 1890–1935. NY: Oxford University Press, 1991.


Kelley Family Papers, Columbia University; papers of the National Consumers' League, Library of Congress.

Pamela Riney-Kehrberg , Associate Professor of History, Illinois State University, Normal, Illinois

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