• IdentificationMSKell77
  • TitleFlorence Kelley collection MSKell77
  • PublisherSpecial Collections
  • LanguageEnglish
  • RepositorySpecial Collections
  • Physical Description0.5 Linear feet
  • Date1894-1981
  • AbstractFlorence Kelley (1859-1932) was a social worker, reformer, lawyer, suffragist, and confirmed socialist. In 1891, she left her husband and moved to Chicago with her three children to become a resident of Hull-House. In 1892, Kelley was appointed by Governer Atgeld as the state's first chief factory inspector. In 1899, Kelley helped to establish the National Consumer's League (NCL) and was its director from 1899-1932. The goal of the NCL was to secure protective labor legislation including a minimum wage and a limitation on the working hours of women and children. It strove for industrial reform through consumer activity. In 1905, Kelley was co-founder of the Intercollegiate Socialist Society along with Upton Sinclair and Jack London. Kelley was also an active supporter of African-American civil rights. She helped to establish the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1909. During World War I, Kelley was a commited pacifist. She opposed U.S. involvement in the war and was a member of the Women's Peace Party (WPP) and the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF). Kelley was also the author of several books including Some Ethical Gains Through Legislation (1905), Modern Industry in Relation to the Family (1914), The Supreme Court and Minimum Wage Legislation (1925) and Autobiography (1927).
  • OriginationKelley, Florence, 1859-1932

Old Resource ID was FKelley

Florence Kelley was born on September 12, 1859 to William Darrah Kelley and Caroline Bartram (Bonsall) Kelley in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Kelley's ancestors were Quaker and Unitarian by confession and well established in the political and cultural life of her state. Her father, William Kelley, was a sitting U.S. Congressman from 1860 to 1890, a founding member of the Republican Party, a Radical Reconstructionist, and an Abolitionist. Kelley's mother, Caroline Bartram (Bonsall) Kelley, was descended from John Bartram, the Quaker Botanist. Florence Kelley prepared herself for college by reading her father's extensive library and through visits with her mother's aunt, Sarah Pugh, who had strong ties to many American and British social reformers.

Kelley studied history and social science at Cornell University graduating in 1882. She spent her senior year in Washington, D.C., with her father and her essay, "On Some Changes in the Legal Status of the Child since Blackstone," was published in the International Review. Her application for graduate study at the University of Pennsylvania was rejected because of her gender. Kelley then immersed herself in work for the New Century Working Women's Guild, a group that provided aid for self-supporting women.

When her older brother was told to visit Europe as part of a cure for temporary blindness, Florence Kelley accompanied him and became a student at the University of Zurich. She studied law and government from 1883 to 1886 and married Lazare Wischnewetzky, a Russian Jewish medical student interested in socialism. Kelley joined the outlawed German Social Democratic Party while in Zurich and became acquainted with the party leadership. She translated The Conditions of the Working Class in England by Friedrich Engels into English and remained close to its author until his death in 1895. Kelley's own research and reform interests tended to focus on the problems of women and children. She believed that women could make unique contributions to sociology arguing that male scholarship drew upon the intellectual and ethical resources of only part of human consciousness.

Florence Kelley then tried to establish a life for herself and her young family in New York in 1886. She had given birth to her first son, Nicholas, in Zurich in 1885. She would later have two other children: Margaret born in 1886 and John born in 1888. Kelley's political ambitions were thwarted within the Socialist Labor Party as her devotion to Marx and Engels led to her expulsion in 1887. Her husband, Lazare Wischnewetsky, was unable to establish a viable medical practice in the city and became abusive toward Florence.

Fearing for her safety, Florence Kelley fled with her children to Chicago in 1891 first seeking refuge at the Woman's Temple headquarters of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union. She was able to publish a pamphlet, Our Toiling Children, in 1889 that criticized the economic exploitation of children in unsafe working conditions. Kelley was then directed to Hull-House. Jane Addams was reported to have been impressed with Kelley's abilities and the latter woman was soon accepted as a close collaborator by the circle of activists close to Addams such as Alice Hamilton, Julia Lathrop, and Mary Rozet Smith.

Florence Kelley completed the law degree she had begun at Zurich at Northwestern University Law School in 1895. Short of funds, Kelley placed her children in the home of Henry Demarest Lloyd and Jessie Bross Lloyd in Winnetka while she studied. Appointed special agent of the Illinois Bureau of Statistics, Florence Kelley's strong performance caught the attention of Carroll Wright, head of the U.S. Dept. of Labor, who hired her to manage a social data collection project for the 19th Ward of Chicago. Kelley used the information to create maps showing demographic information such as income and nationality for area residents. Published in Hull-House Maps and Papers, this work was a pioneering effort in sociology as well as cultural geography.

Directing her energy towards the anti-sweatshop campaign initiated in 1888 by the Illinois Woman's Alliance, Kelley worked closely with Corinne Brown. This broad-based effort linked women's groups, liberal church leaders, trade unions, and intellectuals to reduce hours, raise wages, and improve general working conditions. Florence Kelley drafted legislation that was passed by the Illinois legislature in 1893. Child labor below the age of fourteen was banned. The work of children between the ages of fourteen and sixteen was to be carefully regulated and no women or children could work more than eight hours per day. A state office of factory inspection was created and Governor Altgeld appointed Florence Kelley to serve as Chief Factory Inspector, an unprecedented post for a woman throughout the Western world. Some historians have argued that Florence Kelley's gender-specific legislation also benefited unskilled male laborers whose interests were not well protected by an American labor movement dominated by skilled workers. It proved impossible for employers in many trades to employ unskilled men for longer hours than unskilled women. Some of these gains were reversed by judicial nullification in 1895. Governor Altgeld's failed reelection bid in 1896 dramatically reduced Kelley's political support.

The next important phase of Kelley's career as a social activist began with her collaboration with Ellen Henrotin, wife of a powerful Chicago banker and the President of the General Federation of Women's Clubs (GFWC). The GFWC was an umbrella group that encompassed more than five hundred women's clubs and thus constituted the largest grassroots organization of American women in that period. Kelley worked with Henrotin to found an Illinois Consumer's League (NCL) to pursue social justice. Florence Kelley then assumed the post of secretary of the new League in 1899 and would hold it until her death in 1932. The new position offered financial security as well as an effective means for pursuing her political goals. One of the more successful campaigns of the NCL was the issue of their Consumer's White Label to companies that obeyed factory laws, did not use child labor (below the age of sixteen), did not demand overtime from employees, and produced goods only on their own premises. The NCL as a national organization also sponsored the formation of local consumers' leagues across the country that served as sources of personnel and revenue for the national NCL as well as a means of gathering information about local labor conditions. Florence Kelley vigorously pursued minimum wage laws throughout the United States. The minimum wage issue sometimes put Kelley and women's groups at odds with the male dominated American Association for Labor Legislation and other labor groups that often served the interests of skilled workers.

Kelley's efforts produced some tangible results, but not without reverses or the resistance of powerful opponents. Massachusetts passed the first minimum wage law for women in 1912. Fourteen other States and the District of Columbia would follow, but the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Adkins v. Children's Hospital struck down the minimum wage law in the District of Columbia as unconstitutional in 1923. The Sheppard-Towner Maternity and Infancy Protection Act passed in 1921 was the first federal legislation in American history to provide federal funds for healthcare. Kelley sought an early version of a national healthcare program, but Congress refused to allocate funds for the act in 1926. The changing political climate of the 1920s including the Red Scare weakened the NCL. Many right-wing opponents of Kelley derided her as a "Bolshevist-Feminist" and her stance on peace and disarmament did little to impress those who favored a military expansion of American capability after World War I. Kelley continued to support the work of Jane Addams in the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom despite threats and criticism. Many of Kelley's progressive ideas would ultimately become federal law (except a national healthcare system), but not until President Franklin Roosevelt and other reformers assumed power in the 1930s. A protege of Florence Kelley, Frances Perkins, would serve as President Roosevelt's Secretary of Labor, the first woman in American history to serve as a cabinet member.

The Florence Kelley Collection includes published reports and articles by Florence Kelley, a printed program for a memorial in her honor, and a few scholarly articles about her work.

Schultz, Rima Lunin and Adele Hast, eds. Women Building Chicago, 1790-1990: A Biographical Dictionary. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001.


Sklar, Kathryn Kish. "Florence Kelley: Resources and Achievements." Paper presented for the Fifth Berkshire Conference on the History of Women, June, 1981

Florence Kelley collection, Special Collections and University Archives, University of Illinois at Chicago

  • Names
    • Hull-House (Chicago, Ill.).
    • Kelley, Florence, 1859-1932 -- Archives
  • Subject
    • Chicago Political and Civic Life.
    • Child labor--Law and legislation.
    • Labor laws and legislation.
    • Midwest Women's History.
    • Women in the labor movement.
    • Women political activists.
    • Women's rights.
  • Geographic Coverage
    • Illinois--Chicago.
    • Illinois.