She was not afraid of truth, she was not afraid of life, she was not afraid of death, she was not afraid of enemies

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Florence Kelley -- A Woman of Fierce Fidelity

She was not afraid of truth, she was not afraid of life, she was not afraid of death, she was not afraid of enemies”Lillian Wald at Florence Kelley’s memorial

Among the many famous and powerful women whose names are associated with the Settlement House movement and the Progressive movement of the early 20th Century, one of the most remarkable was Florence Kelley. Yet, Kelley’s name and her wide range of contributions to social reform and social justice are not as frequently remembered as are those of some her associates and fellow reformers, such as Julia Lathrop or Lillian Wald. Kelley’s role in the abolishment of child labor, the passage of protective legislation for working women, the establishment of minimum wage laws, and the development of maternal and child health services qualify her for recognition as a seminal force in American life. (Goldmark, 2).

Florence Kelley’s important contributions to social reform also include her brilliant, pioneering skill in developing many new methods or strategies to use in challenging the status quo of social ills. Kelley developed such strategies as consumer boycotts of sweatshop-produced clothing and the use of clothing labels to guarantee legally-produced goods, demonstrating the important role of the consumer in the economic contract. She married science to moral zeal by developing detailed, scientific studies of child labor in factories, stockyards and sweatshops, and then reporting her solid findings with fiery style and vivid detail of the horrendous abuse of children. Her abilities to describe the oppressive conditions of the working classes were comparable to Charles Dickens. With Louis Brandeis as attorney, and with the help of her younger colleague, Josephine Goldmark, Kelley pioneered the use of scientific data to influence the decision of the U.S. Supreme Court, to set legal limits on hours of work for women. Florence Kelley was one of the first reformers to recognize that strategy for social change must address the prevention of social ills and injustices, not just their remediation or amelioration after the fact. She was creative in her ability to envision concrete, specific measures to respond to pervasive evils. For example, she proposed and fought for legal requirements for states to register births, and for employers (rather than desperately poor parents) to document workers’ ages, as steps toward ending exploitative child labor. Enforcement of mandatory school attendance was also a part of the strategy to end child labor.

But perhaps Florence Kelley’s greatest legacy is her example of unflaggling zeal and lifetime fidelity in the cause of justice for those oppressed by the worst excesses of early capitalism --especially women and children. In spite of personal tragedies, such as divorce and the death of her beloved daughter, in spite of numerous defeats, such as repeated Supreme Court declarations of unconstitutional rulings to many hard-won legislative reforms, in spite of public invective and libel, such as being labeled a Red because her former husband was a Russian, in spite of chronically tight finances, uncomfortable living conditions, and grueling, dangerous work, such as visiting cholera-infected sweatshops when no public officials would venture in, in spite of her naturally impatient temperament, Florence Kelley remained a faithful fighter for a just society until her death in 1932 at the age of 74.

Florence Kelley’s Role in Child Labor Reform

When Kelley herself was a child, her progressive father took her on a midnight tour of the factories where young boys helped in the manufacture of steel and glass. The dangerous and difficult conditions she witnessed influenced her lifetime campaign against the exploitation of children in factories and tenement sweatshops. When Kelley went to live at Hull House in Chicago with Jane Addams and other Settlement house pioneers (1891-1899), her first field work was an intensive survey of the square mile surrounding the settlement. She found children as young as three working in tenements at home (garment manufacture in homes). As a result of her research and other studies, Illinois State Legislature passed the first factory law prohibiting employment of children under age 14. Kelley was appointed by Illinois’ progressive Governor Altgeld to be the first woman factory inspector, to monitor this law and other reform legislation. In 1899 Florence Kelley moved to New York to direct the newly-formed National Consumers League. Here, she pioneered the use of labels on clothing to certify that garments had been produced without child labor and within the parameters of other new legislation regulating factory work.

Florence Kelley’s Role in Maternal and Child Health Services

Another childhood memory quickened Florence Kelley’s lifelong fight for government funds for maternal and child health services. She never forgot her own mother’s grief over the death of five little daughters. Florence was the only one to survive to adulthood. Lillian Wald, who lived with Kelley at the Henry Street Settlement in New York, conceived of the idea to establish a federal bureau to study and work to improve the condition of children in society. Florence Kelley and Edward T. Devine—editor of the Survey Graphic—worked tirelessly to enlist national support for Wald’s proposal, which finally resulted in establishment of the United States Children’s Bureau in 1912. Julia Lathrop, Kelley’s friend and colleague, became the Bureau’s first director. Among her numerous accomplishment in social reform, Florence Kelley herself judged passage of the Sheppard-Towner Act as having the most fundamental importance (Goldmark, 93). This 1921 legislation, administered by the Children’s Bureau, was innovative in its establishment of federal-state partnerships for research and services to combat maternal and infant mortality. Mrs. Kelley’s skills in combining passion with cold facts about social evils are best illustrated by her testimony to Congress about this legislation on December 20th, 1920, in which she compared Congress’s indifference to the daily deaths of 680 children—or 20,000 a month. (Goldmark, 107), to Herod’s slaughter of the Innocents.

Florence Kelley’s Role in Improving Working Conditions for Women

Personal experience fed Kelley’s zeal for social reform; but field studies of social conditions, and scientific mustering of data and evidence formed the solid foundation which supported the numerous successes she had in progressive reforms to industrial conditions in the early 20th century. Among her successes one of the most precedent-setting was the Supreme Court ruling on Muller v. Oregon, which established the legality of a 10-hour working day for women. In this case the Court determined that setting limits to working hours does not violate the U.S. Constitution. This was an important reversal of many previous discouraging cases in which the Supreme Court had declared many pieces of hard-won protective labor legislation unconstitutional. Subsequent to this case, state legislatures were able to forge ahead with a range of protective labor legislation. Florence Kelley and her good friend attorney Louis Brandeis (later himself to become a Supreme Court justice) made legal history in this case by their use of scientific, social data as a basis to argue the case before the Court. For several intense weeks before the hearing, Kelley and her assistants worked long hours to amass and present to the Court a wide range of evidence regarding the harmful effects of long working days (in many cases 12 to 14 hours) on women’s health.

Today the Brandeis Brief is so widely copied—the presentation of economic, scientific and social facts is so generally made part of the legal defense of a labor law—that the boldness of the initial experiment is hard to realize. But in 1907 the use of such facts in a legal brief presented to the Supreme Court was hazardous and venturesome. (Goldmark, 157)

Hazarous and venturesome are good adjectives to characterize the whole of Florence Kelley’s remarkable life and numerous accomplishments on behalf of children, and working women and men in America. In eulogy at her funeral, friends said everyone was brave from the moment she came into a room. Florence Kelley was a woman of fierce fidelity to justice who inspired others to also maintain their commitments.


Goldmark, Josephine, Impatient Crusader (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1953).

Sklar, Kathryn Kish, Florence Kelley and the Nation’s Work (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995).

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