Florence Kelley

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For the author and journalist, see Florence Finch Kelly.
Florence Kelley
Born (1859-09-12)September 12, 1859
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Died February 17, 1932(1932-02-17) (aged 72)
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Occupation American social reformer
Spouse(s) Lazare Wischnewetzky
Parent(s) William D. Kelley and Caroline Bartram-Bonsall

Florence Kelley (September 12, 1859 – February 17, 1932) was a social and political reformer. Her work against sweatshops, and for the minimum wage, eight-hour workdays,[1] and children's rights[2] is widely regarded today. From its founding in 1899, Kelley served as the first general secretary of the National Consumers League. In 1909, Kelley helped create the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Kelley studied at Cornell University.


Florence was the daughter of William D. Kelley (1814–1890) of Philadelphia. He was the son of Hannah and David Kelley. He was a self-made man who become an abolitionist, a founder of the Republican party, a judge, and a longtime member of the United States House of Representatives.

Florence had two brothers and five sisters; all five sisters died in childhood. Three of the sisters were Josephine Bartram Kelley, Caroline Lincoln Kelley, and Anna Caroline Kelley. Josephine died at the age of 10 months. Caroline died at the age of four months. Anna died at six years of age.

Florence Kelley was an early supporter of women's suffrage after her sisters died and worked for numerous political and social reforms, including the NAACP (which Florence helped found). In Zurich, she met various European socialists including Polish-Russian medical student Lazare Wischnewetzky, whom she married in 1884 and had three children [3] with (the couple divorced in 1891).

She is known for her translation of Die Lage der arbeitenden Klasse in England, written in 1844 by Friedrich Engels, with whom she corresponded. As The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844,[4] it has been in print ever since. She appears there as 'Mrs. F. Kelley Wischnewetzky' and was also known as Florence Kelley.

Socialism and Civil Rights[edit]

Kelley was a member of the Intercollegiate Socialist Society, an activist for woman suffrage and African-American civil rights. She was a follower of Karl Marx and a friend of Friedrich Engels, whose book, The Condition of the Working Class in England, she translated into English. The translation she made is still used today.

She assisted with the establishment of the New Century Guild of Philadelphia, along with Gabrielle D. Clements and led by Eliza Sproat Turner. It had classes and programs to assist working women.[5]

She is credited with starting the social justice feminism movement.[6]

Factory Inspection and Child Labor[edit]

Kelley's father had toured her through glass factories at night when she was young.[7] Kelley fought to make it illegal for children under the age of 14 to work and to limit the hours of children under 16. She sought to give the children the right of education, and argued children must be nurtured to be intelligent people.

From 1891 through 1899, Kelley lived at the Hull House settlement in Chicago. In 1893, she became the first woman to hold statewide office when Governor Peter Altgeld appointed her to the post of Chief Factory Inspector for the state of Illinois, a newly created position and unheard-of for a woman.[8] Hull House resident Alzina Stevens served as one of Kelley's assistant factory inspectors.[9] In the course of her Hull House work, she befriended Frank Alan Fetter when he was asked by the University of Chicago to conduct a study of Chicago neighborhoods. At Fetter's motion, she was made a member of Cornell's Irving Literary Society as an alumna, when he joined the Cornell Faculty.[10]

Kelley was known for her firmness and fierce energy. Hull House founder Jane Addams' nephew called Kelley "the toughest customer in the reform riot, the finest rough-and-tumble fighter for the good life for others, that Hull House ever knew."[11]

Differing View Points: the NAACP[edit]

In 1913, she studied the federal patterns of distribution of funds for education. She noticed a lot of inequitable distributions for White schools as opposed to Black schools.[12] This launched her to create the "The Sterling Discrimination Bill" which was an attack against the Sterling Towner Bill. This bill proposed a federal sanction of $2.98 per capita for teachers of colored children and $10.32 per capita children at White schools in 15 schools in the South and Washington, D.C. The NAACP held the position that this would perpetuate the continual discrimination and neglect of the public schools for the Colored. She and W. E. B. DuBois disagreed on how to attack this bill. She wanted to add the language that guaranteed equitable distribution of funding regardless of race. W. E. B. DuBois believed that there should be a clause added specific to race, because it would require the federal government to enforce that the schools for the Colored would be treated fairly. Kelley believed that if they added anything about race to the bill, it would not pass through Congress. She wanted to get the bill passed and then change the language. So when the bill was passed, it called for equal distribution to the schools to be handled by the states based on population. The issue remained on whether or not the states would distribute the money equally.

Florence Kelley disagreed with the NAACP and W.E.B. DuBois on other issues as well. The Sheppard-Towner Act was the most contentiously disagreed upon issue between them. The act provided aid to mothers and children during pregnancy and infancy. The NAACP and DuBois were opposed to the bill because there were no provisions to prevent the discrimination in the distribution of funds to black mothers. Unlike her stance on equitable distribution of educational funds, Kelley was not demanding any provisions for equitable distribution. This was because she knew the bill would never pass if the issue of race was introduced, especially with opposition from southern states already present. Kelley believed it was more important to pass the legislation, even in its limited form, so that the funding would be secured and the primary principle of social welfare would be established. Eventually Kelley did earn the support of the NAACP on the issue, with the promise to monitor the bill if it passed and to work tirelessly toward the equity of all, regardless of race.[12]

National Consumers League and Eight-Hour Workdays[edit]

Kelley in 1925

From 1899 through 1926 she lived at the Henry Street settlement house on New York City. From there she founded the National Consumers League, which was strongly anti-sweatshop.[13] She worked hard to establish a work-day limited to eight hours. In 1907, she threw her influence into the Supreme Court case Muller v. Oregon, which sought to overturn limits to the hours female workers could work in non-hazardous professions. Kelley helped file the famous Brandeis Brief, which included sociological and medical evidence of the hazards of working long hours, and set the precedent of the Supreme Court's recognition of sociological evidence, which was used to great effect later in the case "Brown v. Board of Education".[14]

In 1909, Kelley helped create the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and thereafter became a friend and ally of W. E. B. Du Bois. She also worked to help the child labor laws and the working conditions.[15]

In 1917, she again filed briefs in a Supreme Court case for an eight-hour workday, this time for workers "in any mill, factory or manufacturing establishment", in the case "Bunting v. Oregon".[16]


Kelley died in the Germantown section of Philadelphia on February 17, 1932. She is buried at Philadelphia's Laurel Hill Cemetery.

She was named an Angel hero by The My Hero Project.[7]


  • The responsibility of the consumer. New York City: National Child Labor Committee, 1908?
  • The Present Status of Minimum Wage Legislation. New York City: National Consumers' League, 1913.
  • Modern Industry: in relation to the family, health, education, morality. New York: Longmans, Green 1914.
  • Women in Industry: the Eight Hours Day and Rest at Night, upheld by the United States Supreme Court. New York: National Consumers' League, 1916.
  • Twenty Questions about the Federal Amendment Proposed by the National Woman's Party. New York: National Consumers' League, 1922.


  1. ^ Kathryn Kish Sklar, "Florence Kelley", Women Building Chicago, 1790-1990: A Biographical Dictionary, Rima Lunin Schultz and Adele Hast, eds., Indiana University Press, Bloomington, Indiana, 2001, p. 463
  2. ^ Margolin, C.R. (1978) "Salvation versus Liberation: The Movement for Children's Rights in a Historical Context," Social Problems. 254. (April), pp. 441-452
  3. ^ Kelley, F. 1986. The Autobiography of Florence Kelley, Notes of Sixty Years. Chicago: Charles Kerr. p. 9.
  4. ^ "The Condition of the Working-Class in England in 1844". gutenberg.org. 
  5. ^ Anne H. Wharton (January–December 1892). "Business Training and Opportunities for Women". Arthur's Home Magazine. 62. Philadelphia: T.S. Arthur & Sons. p. 113. 
  6. ^ McGuire, John (2004). "Two Feminist Visions: Social Justice Feminism and Equal Rights, 1899-1940". Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies. 71 (4): 445–478. JSTOR 27778638. 
  7. ^ a b "The My Hero Project - Florence Kelley". myhero.com. 
  8. ^ Sklar, p. 463
  9. ^ Davis, Allen F. "Stevens, Alzina Parsons" Notable American Women Vol. 3, 4th ed., The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1975
  10. ^ Josephine Goldmark, Impatient Crusader: Florence Kelley's Life Story (1953); Dorothy Blumberg, Florence Kelley and the Making of a Social Pioneer (1966).
  11. ^ James Weber Linn, Jane Addams: A Biography, University of Illinois Press, 2000, p. 138
  12. ^ a b Athey, Louis L. (1971). "Florence Kelley and the Quest for Negro Equality". The Journal of Negro History. 56 (4): 249–261. 
  13. ^ Sklar, p. 464
  14. ^ Sklar, pp. 465
  15. ^ "Center for the Historical Study of Women and Gender". binghamton.edu. 
  16. ^ Sklar, pp. 465-466

Further reading[edit]

  • Blumberg, Dorothy Rose. Florence Kelley. The Making of a Social Pioneer. (1966)
  • Goldmark, Josephine. Imperial Crusader: Florence Kelley's Life Story (1953)
  • Sklar, Kathryn Kish. Florence Kelley and the Nation's Work: The Rise of Women's Political Culture, 1830-1900. New Haven and London: Yale University Press. 1995.


  • Amico, Eleanor B., ed. Reader's Guide to Women's Studies (Fitzroy Dearborn, 1998)

Primary sources[edit]

  • Sklar, Kathryn Kish, and Beverly Wilson Palmer, eds. The Selected Letters of Florence Kelley, 1869–1931 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2009). lxii, 575 pp. ISBN 978-0-252-03404-6

External links[edit]

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