Florence Kelley: Biography & Quotes

Instructor: Thomas Davis

Thomas has taught high school age students for 34 years, undergraduate 12 years, and graduate courses for the last 8 years. He has a Masters Degree in Curriculum and Instruction from National Louis University in Evanston, Illinois.

Florence Kelley was a leader in the suffragette, labor, civil rights, and child labor movements. She was the first Executive Secretary of the National Consumers League and the vanguard of the ~'White Label Project. In this lesson, you will explore the life of Florence Kelley and read some of her famous quotes.

A Young Florence Kelley

Florence Kelley

Coming from an educated family, Florence Kelley knew when something was wrong, and she had the will to fix it. She was concerned with almost all of the major societal conflicts, including child labor, suffrage, abolition, and civil rights, during the post-Civil War period. Her 'White Label' project sought to identify what businesses consumers in the United States should support. Although Florence was an influential political and social reformer, she did not experience a great amount of success during her lifetime. You can liken her life to a baseball game. She may have taken her swings and struck out, but she hit a walk-off home run in the extra inning. Using the analogy of baseball, this lesson will examine the life and quotes of Florence Kelley.

Education and Socialist Roots

Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Florence Kelley came into this world on September 12, 1859. Her father was a United States Congressman, William Darrah Kelley. As you could guess, Florence was raised in a family with strong political and social ideals. At a very young age, she was already intelligently discussing abolition, women's rights, workers' rights, child labor, and a myriad of other issues.

After attending a Quaker school in Philadelphia, Florence turned her attention to college and attended Cornell University. She graduated at the age of 23 with a bachelor's degree. Shortly after her graduation, Florence was off to Switzerland for graduate school.

At the University of Zurich, she met a Russian student studying medicine, Lazare Wischnewetzky. In 1884, they married, and the couple had three children: Nicholas, Margaret, and John. Her experiences in Switzerland would have made her the envy of any socialist in Europe. She attained permission from the famous socialist Friedrich Engels to translate his book, The Condition of the Working Class in England, into English.

Rights of Women

In 1886, Florence and Lazare returned to the United States. By 1891, the couple divorced. That was probably obvious when the children were listed with the last name Kelley. Her husband was abusive, and for a time Florence had to take refuge at Hull House in Chicago.

She was even more motivated to fight for women's rights after that experience. She also knew it would be especially difficult to fight for women as a part of the workforce. She said, 'In order to be rated as good as a good man in the field of her earnings, she must show herself better than he. She must be more steady, or more trustworthy, or more skilled, or more cheap in order to have the same chance of employment.' Florence believed that the number of women in industry was growing, and, as a result, so should their influence. She said, 'The very fact that women now form about one-fifth of the employees in manufacture and commerce in this country has opened a vast field of industrial legislation directly affecting women as wage-earners.'

Strike One, Bureau of Labor Statistics

In 1891, Florence was hired by the Illinois Bureau of Labor Statistics as an agent. In the 1890s, there were no laws in labor concerning age or gender. As a special agent, it was not unusual for Florence to have inspected a sweat shop. What she often found were young girls working up to 16 hours a day. Regardless of what she saw, she was unable to affect change. Strike one.

Strike Two, Chief Factory Inspector

In 1893, Governor John Altgeld of Illinois selected Florence as chief factory inspector. She made some impressive advancements, including medical examinations for working children, recommending controls for the use of dangerous machines, and the elimination of the infected clothes of small pox victims. Women were the greatest benefactors to this change. Kelley said, 'Hence, within the space of two generations there has been a complete revolution in the attitude of the trades-unions toward the women working in their trades '

Women had become much more important in the labor market. So much so that men began to truly care about the advancements of women because they could also benefit. According to Kelley, 'their effort to place the women upon the same industrial level with themselves in order that all may pull together in the effort to maintain reasonable conditions of life.'

Success appeared imminent with the passing of the Illinois Factory Inspection Law of 1893, but a major set back was about to occur. When Altgeld was not re-elected, the Illinois Supreme Court declared unconstitutional an 8-hour work day for women and the banning of hiring a woman below the age of 14. The International Association of Manufacturers had too much power, and that was that. Strike two.

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