Social reformer

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At the Vanguard

As a single mother, a socialist, and a sociologist working for suffrage, women's rights, and urban reform in Chicago and New York, Florence Kelley was at the vanguard of several reform movements. For thirty-four years, after she helped to found it in 1899, she served as the head of the National Consumers' League (NCL), the single most effective lobbying agency for protective labor legislation for women and children.

  florence kelley (18591932) supported federal funded health care, <a href=minimum wage, womens suffrage, and safe working conditions. upi/corbis-bettmann." align=bottom width=159 height=370 border=0>Florence Kelley (1859–1932) supported federal funded health care, minimum wage, women's suffrage, and safe working conditions. © UPI/Corbis-Bettmann.  


The daughter of Quaker abolitionist William Darrah Kelley—a founding member of the Republican Party, a Radical Reconstructionist, and a U.S. congressman from Philadelphia—Florence Kelley combined the firsthand education acquired from her father with the tradition of female political activism she inherited from her great-aunt Sarah Pugh, a leading abolitionist. After she graduated from Cornell University in 1882, Kelley discovered that women of her generation had no real opportunity to locate work commensurate with their talents. In September 1883 she went to the University of Zurich where she studied government and law and came into contact with European socialism. Translating several major works by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels into English gave her a solid grounding in European socialist thought. Her translation of Engels's Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844 (1887) is still the preferred scholarly version. In Zurich she also met Lazare Wishnieweski, a Polish socialist medical student, whom she married in 1884. By the time they arrived in New York City in 1886, they had one child, and two others followed in quick succession. In 1891 Kelley fled with her children to Chicago to escape her physically abusive husband.

Settlement Houses

In Chicago Kelley joined Jane Addams and other women working at Addams's Hull House and became deeply involved in the work of the settlement house. Such settlements allowed women to learn the intricacies of state, city, and ward-level politics. After she prepared a special report for the Illinois State Bureau of Labor on the conditions of child labor in Chicago sweatshops, Kelley was appointed the first state factory inspector in Illinois in 1893, and the lessons she learned became part of the lessons offered to the Hull House community. During the same period she studied law at Northwestern University so that she could conduct her own court battles. Kelley's routine of investigation, organization, education, and legislation was widely adopted by other progressive reformers.

Protective Laws for Women

Relying on her own extensive research, Kelley published leaflets and persuaded many states to pass laws restricting the number of hours women could work. In 1893 she convinced the Illinois legislature to pass an eight-hour-workday law for women, but the Illinois Supreme Court struck it down two years later. After it was established in 1899, the NCL supported women's strikes nationwide. In 1908 Kelley and her close friend and ally Josephine Goldmark prepared the statistics and arguments that future Supreme Court justice Louis D. Brandeis (Goldmark's brother-in-law) presented to the Supreme Court when he represented Oregon in Muller v. Oregon,defending Oregon's right to set a ten-hour limit on the workday of women employed in factories and laundries. The well-known "Brandeis Brief," which Goldmark actually wrote, proved to the Supreme Court's satisfaction that long hours were harmful to the well-being of women. Basing their decision on this sociological evidence instead of legal precedent, the court upheld the Oregon law, and most states enacted similar laws during the next decade.

Campaigning for Reform

In 1899 Kelley had moved to the Henry Street settlement house in New York City and become secretary-general of the NCL. She helped to establish sixty-four local consumers' leagues, traveling extensively among them each year to promote the policies of the national board. In 1909 Kelley introduced the social experiment of the minimum wage to the United States, and during the next decade she worked for suffrage and with Addams for peace. When America became involved in World War I, Kelley and Addams continued their campaign and were publicly vilified for their efforts. Their adherence to peace led to a split between them and the mainstream suffrage movement, which supported the war effort. In 1921 Kelley helped to create and guide through Congress the Sheppard-Towner Maternity and Infancy Protection Act, which for the first time allocated federal funds for health care. She considered this act her most important social contribution.


Allan Davis, Spearheads for Reform: The Social Settlements and the Progressive Movement, 1890-1914 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1967);

Kathyrn Kish Sklar, Florence Kelley and Women's Political Culture: Doing the Nation's Work, 1820-1940 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992).

Source Citation   (MLA 7th Edition)

"Kelley, Florence 1859-1932." American Decades. Ed. Judith S. Baughman, et al. Vol. 1: 1900-1909. Detroit: Gale, 2001. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 27 May 2013.

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Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3468300186

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