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.


In 1859, Florence was born to William D. Kelley (1814–1890) and Caroline Bartram Bonsall in Philadelphia.[3] Her father was a self-made man who became an abolitionist, a founder of the Republican party, a judge, and a longtime member of the United States House of Representatives.

Florence was majorly influenced by her father and said, "I owe him everything that I have ever been able to learn to do".[3] Throughout her early years he read books to her that involved child labor.[3] Even at age ten, her father educated her on his activities and she was able to read her father's volume, The Resources of California.[3]

Caroline Bartram Bonsall, Florence’s mother, was not as much of a prominent figure. Bonsall had relations to the famous Quaker botanist, John Bartram. Unfortunately, Bonsall’s parents died while at a young age; where she was then adopted by Isaac and Kay Pugh.[3] Florence spent many happy years with her grandparents Isaac and Kay Pugh.

Florence's great-aunt, Sarah Pugh, lived as a Quaker and opponent of slavery. Pugh's decision to deny use of cotton and sugar because of the connection to slave labor made an impression on Florence from an early age.[4] Pugh was an advocate for women and told Florence about her life as an oppressed woman.[3]

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 [5] with (the couple divorced in 1891). She wanted a divorce because of his physical abuse[3] and overflowing debt.[4] Unable to divorce her husband for "non-support", she fled to Chicago and received full custody of her children.[4] She kept her maiden named, but preferred to be called "Mrs. Kelley".[3]


In her early years, she was severely sick, highly susceptible to infections, and therefore unable to go to school for a period of time.[3] On days she would miss school she would be in her father's library, reading many books.

In 1882, Kelley attended Cornell University at age 16.[3] At Cornell, she was a Phi Beta Kappa member.[4] At Cornell, she wrote her thesis about disadvantaged children. The topic of her thesis was influenced by her father's teaching about unprivileged children.[3]

Although Kelley desire to study law at the University of Pennsylvania, she was denied to attend due to her sex.[3] In the mean time, she pursued her passion for working women by founding and attending evening classes at the New Century Guild for Working Women.[4] Later, she attended the University of Zurich, the first European university to grant degrees to women, and joined a group of students advocating socialism.[4]

Kelley also earned a law degree at Northwestern University of Law in 1894.[4] She was then able to start a school for working girls in Pennsylvania.[3]

Socialism and Civil Rights[edit]

Kelley was a member of the Intercollegiate Socialist Society, an activist for women's 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 in 1885. The translation she made is still used today. She appears there as 'Mrs. F. Kelley Wischnewetzky' and was also known as Florence Kelley.

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.[6] Florence herself taught evening classes there.[4]

The New Century Guild intended to increase the quality of working and living condition of the lower class in urban areas.[7] The organization helped lead the battle for labor laws, such as the minimum wage and the eight-hour days, at the local, state, and federal levels.[4] In Chicago, Kelley organized the New York Working Women's Society Campaign in 1889 and 1890 "to add women as officials in the office for factory inspection".[8] By 1890, the New York legislature passed laws creating eight new positions for women as state factory inspectors.

Kelley joined the Hull House from 1891 to 1899. The Hull House allowed Kelley to advance from apprenticeship to journeyman in her career by providing her a network to other social organizations and an outlet to pursue the advancement of rights for working women and children.[8] While at the Hull House, Kelley bonded with Jane Addams and Julia Lanthrop, who worked together as major labor reformers. All three women were of upper middle class and had politically active fathers.[8] She also became friends with Grace and Edith Abbott as well as Alice Hamilton, a professional physician specialized in preventing occupational diseases.[9] Kelley interacted with the Chicago Women's Club under Jane Addams' sponsorship by establishing a Bureau of Women's Labor. The Hull House provided Kelley opportunity to surpass male organizations in order to achieve social activism for women. She is credited with starting the social justice feminism movement.[10]

In 1892, Kelley investigated the labor conditions of Chicago’s garment industry by persuading Illinois Bureau of Labor Statistics to hire her. During that same year, she conducted a survey of Chicago’s slums per the request of U.S. Commissioner of Labor, Carroll D. Wright,.[4] The survey uncovers children from three-years-old working in “overcrowded tenement apartments”. The survey also reveals women overworked past exhaustion, workers risking pneumonia, and children with burns.[4]

Kelley contributed to a variety of social organizations including National Child Labor Committee, National Consumers League, National Conference of Social Workers,[7] American Sociological Association, National American Woman Suffrage Association, NAACP,[11] Women's International League for Peace and Freedom,[4] and the Intercollegiate Socialist Society.

Factory Inspection and Child Labor[edit]

Kelley's father had toured her through glass factories at night when she was young.[12] Kelley fought to make it illegal for children under the age of 14 to work and to limit the number of hours for children under 16. She sought to give the children the right of education, and argued that children must be nurtured to be intelligent people.

From 1891 through 1899, Kelley lived at the Hull House settlement in Chicago. Kelley took the initiative by taking state legislatures on tours of sweatshops. She persuaded labor and civic groups to lobby on behalf of the reform legislation. 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.[13] She chose five women and six men to assist her.[14] Hull House resident Alzina Stevens served as one of Kelley's assistant factory inspectors.[15] 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.[3]

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."[16]

Kelley was appointed Special Agent of the Illinois State Bureau of Labor Statistics when she proposed investigating the "sweating system", "the practice of contracting out work to homes of the poor," in Chicago. In her report, she discovered employees working up to 16 hours a day, seven days a week with some wages that are not high enough to support the family.[14]

By 1893, the Illinois legislature passed the first factory law limiting work for women to eight hours a day and prohibiting the employment of children under the age of fourteen.[4][10] In the same year, Illinois passed protective labor laws, distinguishing the start of the Progressive Era in social reform.[10]

NAACP and Work on Racial Equality[edit]

Asked by William English Walling and Mary White Ovington, Kelley became a founding member of the NAACP. As a member of the board of directors, she belonged to committees on Nomination, The Budget, Federal Aid to Education, Anti-Lynching, and the Inequality Expenditure of School Funds.[13] According to W.E.B. DuBois, Kelley was well-known for asking pointed questions to find a course of action.[13] Her public discussions covered black people in churches, social welfare forums, and social inequality.  

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.[13] 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 black people. 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 black people to 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.[13]

In 1917, she marched in the New York silent protest parade opposing the violence of white citizens against black people in the East St. Louis, Illinois race riots of that year.[13] To pressure anti-lynching onto Congress, she appealed National Women's League of Voters to support the Dryer Anti-Lynching Bill in 1922. Despite the League's lack of action, Kelley provided a series of letters to Arthur Springarn of the NAACP in 1926 about the many cases of lynching in the United States. To gain support from the media, Kelley also suggested that newspaper editors who opposed lynching be published.

Kelley used her power in Congress to avoid discrimination from being passed in laws through her personal connections, especially toward expenditure toward school funds. In 1921, she pushed the Board of Directors of the NAACP to oppose bills that discriminate based on race in expenditure toward school funds. Kelley is famous for creating the tradition of protest against racial discrimination which transpired in the mid-twentieth century.

With the release of "Birth of a Nation", Kelley and other NAACP leaders demonstrated in numerous cities against the film for representing a racist interpretation of black people. In 1923, Kelley struggled for admission of the National Association of Colored Women as members of the Women's Joint Congressional Committee, which formed in 1920.[13] She succeeded by January 1924, when fifteen of seventeen organizations included N.A.C.W. members.

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 and acted as General Secretary of the National Consumers League, which was strongly anti-sweatshop.[17][4] She used her direction to raise public awareness and pass state legislation to protect workers, primarily for women and children.[4] The Consumers' League established a Code of Standards that served to raise wages, shorten hours, and required a minimum number of sanitary facilities.[9] Kelley used the NCL to address her own policies such as local hours and wages of women through data collection and activism.[10] Throughout her work there, she built sixty-four consumers leagues to promote and pass labor legislation.[18] Kelley often acted as a representative to address state legislators and expanded the NCL network through women's clubs. She worked hard to establish a work-day limited to eight hours. By 1892, the Illinois legislature passed the first factory law that limits women to work eight hours a day and prohibits children under fourteen to be employed.[4] 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".[19] Her pursuit to enforce the eight hour work day for women was later declared unconstitutional by the Illinois Supreme Court in 1895 because it restricted women from making contracts for longer hours.[20]

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.[21]

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".[22]

Kelley's NCL sponsored a "Consumer's 'white label'" on clothing that restricted garment production with child labor and working conditions against state law. She led the National Consumers League until her death in 1932.

Other Accomplishments[edit]

Kelley worked with Josephine Goldmark to make "Brandeis brief" to demonstrate the harmful effects of overtime on women's health.[4] This action helped win Muller vs. Oregon in 1908.

Kelley also helped lobby Congress to pass the Keating-Owen Child Labor Act of 1916, which banned the sale of products created from factories that employed children aged thirteen and under. In addition to this act, she also lobbied for the Sheppard-Towner Act that created the nation's first social welfare program to fight against maternal and infant mortality by funding health care clinics specialized in those areas.

In 1912, she formed the U.S. Children's Bureau, a federal agency to oversee children's welfare.


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.[12]


The responsibility of the consumer. New York City: National Child Labor Committee, 1908.[23]

Kelly argues that it is the responsibility of the consumer to use their buying power to discourage moral ills regarding work conditions, such as child labor. Succinctly put, she argues for the modern phrase, “vote with your dollar.” Further, in order to judge labor conditions, she argues that citizens must demand adequate statistics about such conditions from their state and federal governments.

The Present Status of Minimum Wage Legislation. New York City: National Consumers' League, 1913.[24]

Provides a brief history of the beginnings of minimum wage legislation in England and the United States. Kelley cautions the states against drawing up too quickly a hastily and poorly written law such that a court may strike it down thereby setting a precedent for similar laws. Finally, Kelly briefly explores how society ultimately bears the cost for not paying a sufficient minimum wage, through caring for the poor and through the maintenance of prisons.

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.

Notes of Sixty Years: The Autobiography of Florence Kelley. Chicago: C.H. Kerr Pub. Co., 1986.[25] 

The Need of Theoretical Preparation for Philanthropic Work. 1887.[25]

Kelly emphasizes the need for a theoretical background prior to engaging in philanthropic work. Without such background, she argues, the type of philanthropic work chosen will most likely reproduce the current capitalist socioeconomic system that leads to the need for philanthropic work in the first place. In essence, one needs theoretical preparation in order to treat the causes rather than the symptoms.

She argues for this by distinguishing between two types of philanthropy: bourgeois philanthropy and philanthropy of the working class. Bourgeois philanthropy “aims to give back to the workers a little bit of what our social system robs them of, propping up the system longer,” (92) thus it is fundamentally palliative, preserving the current system in place. Philanthropy of the working class, on the other hand, aims to weaken the capitalist system through goals such as shortening the work day and limiting the working of children. These measures result in a lower amount of surplus value produced which is antithetical to the capitalist system.

After such a theoretical preparation, Kelley concludes that real philanthropic work consists in elevating class consciousness.


  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. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n Josephine Goldmark, Impatient Crusader: Florence Kelley's Life Story (1953); Dorothy Blumberg, Florence Kelley and the Making of a Social Pioneer (1966).
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q Dreier, Peter (2012). "Florence Kelley". New Labor Reform. 1: 71–76. 
  5. ^ Kelley, F. 1986. The Autobiography of Florence Kelley, Notes of Sixty Years. Chicago: Charles Kerr. p. 9.
  6. ^ Anne H. Wharton (January–December 1892). "Business Training and Opportunities for Women". Arthur's Home Magazine. 62. Philadelphia: T.S. Arthur & Sons. p. 113. 
  7. ^ a b Timming, Andrew R. (2004). "Florence Kelley: A Recognition of Her Contributions to Sociology". Journal of Classical Sociology4: 289–309 – via JSTOR.
  8. ^ a b c Sklar, Kathryn Kish (1985). "Hull House in the 1890s: A Community of Women Reformers"Signs10: 658–677 – via JSTOR.
  9. ^ a b Perkins, Frances (1954). "My Recollections of Florence Kelley"Social Service Review28: 12–19 – via JSTOR.
  10. ^ a b c d Woloch, Nancy (2015). A Class by Herself. Princeton University Press. p. 6.
  11. ^ Athey, Louis L. (1971). "Florence Kelley and the Quest for Negro Equality"The Journal of Negro History56: 249–261 – via JSTOR.
  12. ^ a b "The My Hero Project - Florence Kelley". myhero.com. 
  13. ^ a b c d e f g Athey, Louis L. (1971). "Florence Kelley and the Quest for Negro Equality". The Journal of Negro History. 56 (4): 249–261. 
  14. ^ a b Kelley, Florence (1859-1932). (2009). In J. Sreenivasan, Poverty and the government in America: a historical encyclopedia. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO. Retrieved from http://0- search.credoreference.com.dewey2.library.denison.edu/content/entry/abcpga/kelley_florence_1859_1932/0 
  15. ^ Davis, Allen F. "Stevens, Alzina Parsons" Notable American Women Vol. 3, 4th ed., The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1975
  16. ^ James Weber Linn, Jane Addams: A Biography, University of Illinois Press, 2000, p. 138
  17. ^ Sklar, p. 464
  18. ^  Fee, E., & Brown, T. M. (2005). Florence kelley: A factory inspector campaigns against sweatshop labor. American Journal of Public Health, 95(1), 50-50. doi:10.2105/AJPH.2004.052977
  19. ^ Sklar, pp. 465
  20. ^ Sklar, p. 463
  21. ^ "Center for the Historical Study of Women and Gender". binghamton.edu. 
  22. ^ Sklar, pp. 465-466
  23. ^ Kelley, Florence (1908). "The Responsibility of the Consumer". The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. 32: 108–112. 
  24. ^ Kelley, Florence (1913). "The Present Status of Minimum Wage Legislation" (PDF). Proceedings of the National Conference of Charities and Correction. National Consumers' League. 
  25. ^ a b Kish., Sklar, Kathryn; Congress), Paul Avrich Collection (Library of (1986-01-01). Notes of sixty years : the autobiography of Florence Kelley ; with an early essay by the author on the need of theoretical preparation for philathropic work. Published for the Illinois Labor History Society by the C.H. Kerr Pub. Co. pp. 91–104. ISBN 0882860933. OCLC 13818491. 

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.
  • Sklar, Kathryn. Notes of Sixty Years: The Autobiography of Florence Kelley, Charles H. Kerr Publishing Company. 1986.


  • 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]

External links[edit]