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Florence Kelley: Social Work Pioneer

Jaclyn M. McCarthy

University of Michigan-Flint

As a profession, social work foundations were established by pioneers focused on social equality, social justice and a better quality of life for all people. This essay focuses on one of those pioneers; Florence Kelley. The following paragraphs serve to explore Kelley’s life and work. Kelley’s influences and contributions to social work will be recognized. Specific accomplishments in promoting the rights of women, children and African Americans will also be discussed. Finally, Kelley’s impact on my own life will be assessed.

Florence Kelley was born in 1859, to William Darrah Kelley, United States Congressman from Philadelphia, and his second wife Caroline Bonsall. Born into a progressive, abolitionist family, Kelley was raised in a culture focused on changing social inequalities. Kelley’s father especially worked on behalf of women’s rights. Kelley grew up surrounded by the likes of Susan B. Anthony and Henry Carey, a supporter of Karl Marx (Clark & Foster, 2006, p.252).

As stated in Kelley’s autobiographical writing titled “My Philadelphia”, her biggest inspiration was her father. It was through her father that Kelley developed an awareness of the world. Florence Kelley’s father instilled in her an understanding of social responsibility (as cited in Sherrick, 1986, p.46). Kelley often accompanied her father on frequent tours of Western territories and the industries within his Congressional district. It was during a factory inspection that Florence Kelley witnessed her first atrocity of child labor. Young boys dodged cascading molten steel while delivering water to thirsty workers. The shocking scene remained in Kelley’s memory for the rest of her life. (as cited in Sherrick, 1986, p.43).

Florence Kelley’s deep connection with her father came at a time of rapidly evolving social ideologies and growing industrial capitalism. Girls from affluent, progressive families like the Kelley’s were sometimes granted options in terms of social roles. In allying with her father, Kelley found a source of security in a world dangerous for women and children. Women were made vulnerable and seemingly trapped in an “endless cycle of pregnancy, childbirth and mourning.” (Sherrick, 1986, p.51). Infant and child mortality were high, leaving mothers unable to control their own lives let alone protect young children from harm. Kelley learned autonomy from her father and the risks to her independence if she chose the traditional role of a woman.

William “Pig Iron” Kelley’s successful political career was highlighted by an important role in the Civil War. William Kelley refused his right to legislative immunity and joined a Union artillery company just before the battle of Antietam (Sherrick, 1986, p.44). William Kelley’s dedication to the war effort and close relationship with President Abraham Lincoln influenced the life of young Florence Kelley. Only six years-old at the time of his assassination, Kelley remembered Philadelphia’s mournful atmosphere following Lincoln’s death. As one of Lincoln’s closest congressional allies, the murder of President Lincoln had a significant personal impact on William Kelley and his family. (Sherrick, 1986, p.45). This event helped shape Florence Kelley’s impressionable mind as it was one of America’s most far-reaching tragedies.

Through early adulthood, Florence Kelley found success in academia. Kelley attended Cornell University where she studied Greek, Latin, and algebra. Kelley began studying the rights of working women and children while researching her senior thesis. In her work “On Some Changes in the Legal Status of the Child since Blackstone”, Kelley included an analysis of the rights of women and children, and was published in The International Review (Clark & Foster, 2006, p.252). Kelley also benefitted from a close relationship with her great-aunt, Quaker humanitarian, Sarah Pugh. Pugh was an opponent of slavery and sexual discrimination. Pugh’s influence on Kelley proved important when Kelley experienced her own discrimination and social injustice. Kelley was denied entrance into the University of Pennsylvania graduate school for the “social crime of being a woman” (Athey, 1971, p.249). Furthermore, Kelley’s desire to participate in politics and social reform was hindered by the exclusion of women from voting. Such discrimination prompted Kelley to pursue her graduate studies at the University of Zurich, beginning in 1883. While studying in Zurich, socialist theory served to inspire Kelley’s motivation to fight social inequality and the “dynamics of a social system that created the conditions for exploitation and the degradation of life for the sake of profit” (Clark & Foster, 2006, p.252).

While exploring her new ideology, Kelley met and soon married a young Polish Russian medical student, Lazare Wischnewetzky. Together, the couple remained active in Socialist party politics as children Nicholas, Margaret and John were born. While Kelley worked to balance her duties as mother, daughter and wife, she felt increasingly conflicted. Her husband’s medical practice was failing and so was his health. Struggling to support the family, Kelley also shared the responsibility of caring for her ailing mother. Soon, Kelley’s father was stricken with cancer. Still, William Kelley helped finance his son-in-law’s convalescence and helped support his daughter’s family (Sherrick, 1986, p.48). With dwindling resources and no support from her husband, Kelley sought a divorce. She gathered her children and moved to Illinois where divorce laws were more liberal. Kelley’s final destination was a growing settlement program made up of like-minded women. Kelly was headed to Hull House (Sherrick, 1986, p.49).

It was the winter of 1891-92 that Florence Kelley moved to Chicago to live and work at Hull House. Hull House was a settlement house located in the highly industrialized, ethnically-diverse, working-class district of Chicago. Along with several other female, social revolutionaries, Hull House served as a headquarters for women activists devoted to social reform. These women worked with the community to transform their poor living and working conditions (Clark & Foster, 2006, p.254). The refuge that Kelley sought soon cultivated what would become her life’s work. Kelley immersed herself in the struggles of the community, while teaching economics to the residents of Hull House. Kelley surveyed the neighborhoods to establish documentation of the ethnic populations and employment statistics. It was that detailed work which helped lead to Kelley’s appointment as the first chief factory inspector in Illinois between 1893 and 1896.

As chief factory inspector, Kelley produced a series of annual reports revealing the unsanitary, hazardous conditions endured by workers, as well as the exploitation of children as laborers. (Clark & Foster, 2006, p.254). Florence Kelley’s legacy and contribution to social reform grew from her examination of industrial capitalism and its negative impacts on workers’ health. Kelley hoped that laborers and social reformers could gain empowerment and help foster major social change. Kelley’s advocacy brought industrial reforms protecting workers and children. Exposing these issues served as a basis from which past and present labor laws have been established (Clark & Foster, 2006, p.255). Mandatory education for children, adequate school funding, the 8-hour work day, and protection from hazardous conditions in the workplace were all reforms originated by Kelley (Clark & Foster, 2006; Goldmark, 1953; Sklar, 1985; Waugh, 1982). Kelley’s devotion to the cause fueled her activism even during a smallpox epidemic. Kelley risked infection to document conditions within tenement houses in order to prevent infected products from being distributed to the public (Clark & Foster, 2006; Addams, 1935a, pp.310-311; Sklar, 1995).

Florence Kelly recognized the negative effects of industrial capitalism’s unequal distribution of wealth. Business owners found cheap labor by employing children in their factories. The huge profits generated by cheap labor allowed the concentration of capital to stay among the wealthy. Kelley firmly believed that the accumulation of great wealth required more police to protect the wealthy, in addition to creating poverty, homelessness, and starvation for the vast majority of the population (Clark & Foster, 2006; Kelley, 1891). Kelley founded The Consumers’ League in an effort to unite laborers and consumers in a common effort to change the conditions under which commodities were produced. Kelley understood that to improve the lives of workers, consumers required awareness and needed to demand change. Kelley’s role in The Consumers’ League promoted the need for healthy growth and intellectual stimulation of workers, rather than being reduced to simple, mundane tasks within an industry. For society to become vibrant, its people must become vibrant. (Clark & Foster, 2006, p.260).

Modern day social work ideology shares its roots with the same causes Florence Kelley pioneered in fighting for. Kelley’s work mirrors and perhaps influenced the preamble of the National Association of Social Workers Code of Ethics, which states:

“The primary mission of the social work profession is to enhance human well-being and help meet the basic human needs of all people, with particular attention to the needs and empowerment of people who are vulnerable, oppressed, and living in poverty…” (Workers, 2008).

As a social work pioneer, Florence Kelley is most remembered for advocating the rights of working women and children; however one must not overlook her important role in campaigning for racial equality. W. E. B. DuBois declared in his eulogy to Florence Kelley that “save for Jane Addams, there is not another social worker in the United States who has had either her insight or her daring, so far as the American Negro is concerned” (Athey, 1971; DuBois, 1932). Kelley’s quest for equality led her to join the Board of Directors of the NAACP. Kelley played an active role in several committees, including the Nominations Committee, The Budget, Federal Aid to Education, Anti-Lynching, and the Inequal Expenditure of School Funds Committee (Athey, 1971, p.250). Kelley spent years examining new social welfare legislation looking to blow-the-whistle on any intended or potential discrimination. Kelley used her influence to support NAACP attempts to be recognized at charities and social work conferences. “Recognizing the Negro (is) fully as important, if not more important, to social progress and welfare than the immigrant, she demanded that Negroes be represented and their problems be discussed by social welfare organizations…” (Athey, 1971; Kelley, 1914).

Perhaps Florence Kelley’s quest for social equality is most evident today as a result of her crusade to improve education for all children, regardless of race or sex. Kelley proposed the Federal Government make education a priority. With the newly founded department of education and welfare, Kelley identified the need of a Secretary to monitor the use of federal funds. Kelley argued that the Secretary have the power to withhold funds from states that were discovered perpetuating discrimination and segregation in their schools (Athey, 1971, p.253). Far ahead of her time, Kelley’s ideas regarding racial equality helped provide a foundation for later civil rights leaders.

In reflecting upon the life’s work and legacy of social work pioneer Florence Kelley, I must recognize how her contributions have impacted my life personally. As a woman, I realize how fortunate I am to be alive in 21st century United States. I am afforded more opportunities, more rights and more freedoms than any other women in history. From the Suffrage Movement of the 1920’s to the Women’s Liberation Movement’s of the 1960’s and 70’s, the equalities gained all have foundations in the ideals of Florence Kelley. My right to vote, my right to work and my reproductive rights can all be traced back to Kelley’s ground-breaking work. Furthermore, as a working-class American, I benefit from protections I have against exploitation at work. Organizations such as OSHA and the guarantees provided by the Family Medical leave Act may not exist if not for Florence Kelley’s drive to protect the American worker.

Florence Kelley’s dedication to social justice and equality has helped make social work the important profession it is today. As a country, there continues to be opportunities for growth in terms of inequality; particularly in the LGBT community. If we are to make strides in true equality for all American’s, we must remember our social work pioneers and their contributions to society. It is clear, Florence Kelley and her ideals, serves an important purpose for the past, present and future of the social work profession.


Addams, J. (1935). Forty years at Hull-House. New York: Macmillan.

Athey, L. L. (1971). Florence Kelley and the quest for negro equality. The Journal of Negro History, 56(4), 249-261. Retrieved from

Clark, B., & Foster, J. B. (2006). Florence Kelley and the struggle against the degradation of life. Organization and Environment, 19(2), 251-263. doi: 10.1177/1086026606288224

DuBois, W.E.B. (1932, April). Florence Kelley. The Crisis, XXXIX, p.131.

Goldmark, J. (1953). Impatient crusader: Florence Kelley’s life story. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Kelley, F. (1891, August). A decade of retrogression. Area, 4, pp. 365-372.

Kelley, F. (1914). Modern industry: In relation to the family, health, education, morality. New York: Longmans, Greens, and Co.

Sherrick, R. (1986). Their fathers’ daughters the autobiographies of Jane Addams and Florence Kelley. American Studies, 27(1), 39-53. Retrieved from

Sklar, K.K. (1985). Introduction. In F. Kelley, Notes of sixty years: The autobiography of Florence Kelley (pp. 5-19). Chicago: Charles H. Kerr Publishing Company.

Sklar, K.K. (1995). Florence Kelley and the nation’s work: The rise of women’s political culture, 1830-1900. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Waugh, J. (1982). Florence Kelley and the anti-sweatshop campaign of 1892-1893. UCLA Historical Journal, 3, 21-35.

Workers, N.A. (2008). NASW Code of ethics, (rev. 2008). [Available on-line:]. Washington, D.C: Author.

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