Florence Kelley: Advocate for Working Women & Children

Florence Kelley: Advocate for Working Women & Children

Florence Kelley, the first woman factory inspector in the United States, was born September 12, 1859 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to William Kelley, one of the founders of the Republican Party, judge and longtime U.S. Congressman and Caroline Bonsall. Her parents were both abolitionists who supported her early interest in education and women’s rights.

Her father taught her about child workers and several times took her to see young children working in steel and glass factories under dangerous conditions.

Lessons in reading began when she was seven by William Kelley in an illustrated book which showcased the existence of children at work in the brickyards of England. He combined the ABCs with social problems, shared stories of slave children sold from their parents. He talked about children in his own generation called "bound" boys and "bound" girls, who came from England under indenture to the people who brought them. They had to work to pay for the cost of their journey to America.

She learned about astronomers, chemists, physicists, the works of Shakespeare, Milton, Byron and Goldsmith and others.

At the age of 16, she entered Cornell University then moved to Europe to study at the University of Zurich at the suggestion of Susan B. Anthony, on the premise that they were granting PhDs to women.

While studying in Zurich, Kelley met and married Lazare Wischnewetzky, a Russian-Polish medical student, with whom she had three children.

In 1891, Kelley left her abusive husband in New York City and came to Chicago with her children, where she sought out Hull-House to continue the work she had begun in New York investigating child labor.

While working with Hull-House, founded by Jane Addams, Kelley was hired to investigate the labor industry in the city.

In 1899, Kelley moved to Lillian Wald’s Henry Street Settlement in New York City and became general secretary of the National Consumers League (NCL). The league was started by Jane Addams and Josephine Shaw Lowell as the Consumers’ League of New York and had the objective of encouraging consumers to buy products only from companies that met the NCL’s standards of minimum wage and working conditions. One important initiative of the NCL was the introduction of the White Label, awarded to employers who met the standard of the NCL by utilizing the labor law and keeping their safety standards.

At the NCL she worked to shorten work days and pay workers more money. Kelley’s work helped create 10-hour workdays and some state minimum wage laws.

She gave a series of public lectures in numerous American universities on improving the conditions of labor. During one of these lectures she met and befriended Frances Perkins, who became an important asset in the fight for her cause.

Kelley’s investigation into labor conditions made her aware of how different races were being treated differently in the workplace. She helped form the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909, becoming a friend and ally of W.E.B. Du Bois.

In 1911, she founded the National Labor Committee. She also joined the fight for women’s rights as the Vice President of the National American Woman Suffrage Association. She was a founding member of the Women’s International League for Peace.

Florence Kelley died on February 17, 1932. She did not live to see the ratification of the Child Labor Amendment, which was passed by Congress in 1924. At the time of her death in 1932, only six states had ratified. In the years to follow, a number of additional states took action, persuaded by the Depression and encouraged by Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal.

My earliest dated mental picture has to do with the death of President Lincoln. I was five years old, visiting my grandparents in Germantown, then a suburb of Philadelphia.

Like this post? Stop by and read Francis Perkins: The First Woman to Sit in the Cabinet of the United States." Frances Perkins was the secretary of labor under President Franklin Roosevelt, the first female cabinet secretary, the longest serving secretary of labor and one of the architects of Roosevelt’s New Deal economic policies.

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