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Florence Kelley - A Woman of Fierce Fidelity

National Consumers' League



It's Time to Tell Herstory, Loud and Clear

Daph and Becky met with Bernadine Dohrn at Northwestern U to learn about the Fabulous Florence Kelley
Daph and Becky met with Bernadine Dohrn at Northwestern U to learn about the Fabulous Florence Kelley

Florence Kelley is perhaps the most important woman in United States History who you've never heard of. But I bet you know some of the organizations she helped to start and the laws she's inspired: the NAACP, The National Consumers League, and the Minimum Wage.

These organizations have been instrumental in bringing about social change in America, but I hadn't known anything about the woman who created them before beginning my research for this dispatch. Of course, it's not really our fault that we don't know her name. A search on the web revealed only a few scattered references to her, and although she graduated from Chicago's Northwestern University Law School, there's not a single picture of her included among the hundreds of distinguished alumni portraits that line their walls.

Becky can't find Florence anywhere on NU's wall of distinguished women
Becky can't find Florence anywhere on NU's wall of distinguished women

This wouldn't be such a tragedy, I suppose, if it were a mere oversight, but hundreds of letters have been written to the school asking for Kelley's inclusion on these "walls of fame" over the past several years. The reply to these letters is always the same: "Thank you for your interest in this matter. Your request will be considered by the board soon." And then, again and again, the request is denied.

Women such as Florence Kelley should be celebrated as role models and held up as inspirations to people who want to affect change, not hidden away as a footnote to US History. Let's use this dispatch as a jumping-off point to educate ourselves about the inspirational changes Florence Kelley and the other amazing women of the Progressive Era instituted for children, women, minorities and immigrants in our Nation's history.


Florence Kelley fills the role of superwoman nicely. She graduated from the prestigious Cornell University with the first class of women ever to be admitted there. Kelley then moved to England with her husband and was introduced to the concept of Socialism by translating papers written by Frederich Engels. Empowered by Socialist ideals, Kelley divorced her abusive husband and went to live in Chicago at Jane Addams' Hull House. From then on, Kelley dedicated her life to improving the working and living conditions of the urban poor.

Florence Kelley spent seven years at Chicago's Hull House, fighting for women and childrens rights in the workplace
Florence Kelley spent seven years at Chicago's Hull House, fighting for women and childrens rights in the workplace

As the first chief factory inspector for the state of Illinois, Florence Kelley spent four years investigating Chicago's sweatshops and tenements to document the horrifying working conditions of the local women and children there. She published her findings in a collection called "Hull-House Maps and Papers." The situation she documented was grim. Throughout the neighborhood, thousands of newly arrived immigrants crowded into "low-ceiled, ill-lighted, unventilated rooms" to sew clothing, hats, coats or shoes. These sweatshops were "damp and cold in winter, hot and close in summer; foul at all times," and the perfect breeding ground for terrible, contagious diseases. Immigrants tolerated these conditions because they were too poor and felt too powerless to do anything else. Often, not only didn't they speak English, but they were also frequently cursed at by other (ignorant) Americans for being strange or stupid or taking jobs away by accepting such low wages.

Since they were paid by the piece, the more they completed the more income they earned. Much of the time, these residents were so poor that they took work home with them to finish. But it was still "a fact that no tenement house garment maker earn[ed] a sufficient living for a family." This unfortunate situation gave rise to the horrible condition of child labor. According to Bernadine Dohrn, "children as young as six toiled in Chicago's stockyards, sweatshops, candy and cigar factories, department stores and on the streets as bootblacks and peddlers." These children rarely attended school, since they were more helpful to their parents as wage-earners at home. Parents were desperate in these times, and so Kelley observed that as soon as children were big enough to sit in a highchair they were often put to work to add to the family's meager funds. In her daily inspections Kelley would observe "underfed raggedly clothed, unclean children [who] worked fourteen to sixteen hours a day in various tenement industries where death and deformity were common."

this young girl only escaped dangerous work on Chicago's southwest side by a few decades
this young girl only escaped dangerous work on Chicago's southwest side by a few decades

Although the rest of the country seemed content to ignore these atrocities (as long as it didn't affect them), Florence Kelley was not. Kelley believed that it would not be until "every child is known to be in school," that there would be "any security against the tenement-house labor of children in our great cities."

She went to Northwestern University in the evenings to earn a law degree so that she could fight intelligently for worker rights in court. Historian Harold Evans describes how, with her detailed research, she won "landmark reforms in Illinois," like the 1893 Factory Act that limited working hours for women, "only to have the U.S. Supreme Court say they offended the employers' private property rights."

After seven years at Hull House, Florence moved to New York City where she took up residence at the Henry Street Settlement. In New York, clothing was still being made by overworked women and children in horrible conditions and the legal system wasn't stopping it, so Kelley tried a new approach. Her motto was "Investigate. Educate. Agitate." Using these steps, she decided to hit the cruel business-owners where it would hurt the most: in their pocketbooks. Through the creation of the National Consumer League, Kelley organized the White Label Boycotts. This meant that any piece of clothing that was created in an employee-friendly manner would be given a white NCL label. Consumers now had the power to buy only the clothing that was made in accordance with the law, and boycott (or refuse to buy) the rest. Buyers could be sure that products with the white label "complied with state factory law, hired no children under 16, made all goods on the premises, and had no employees working overtime." Middle-class buyers joined this boycott of non-white label products because they were worried that garments without the label would have been made in sweatshops and could carry contagious diseases like smallpox or diphtheria. When they realized that consumers would only purchase products with the white label, they began to reform themselves, shaping up in order to earn a white label and bring their customers back.

Daphne debates adding
Daphne debates adding

Boycotts are still an important consumer tool for change today. When too many dolphins were being caught and killed in tuna nets, environmental groups began to pressure companies for a "dolphin safe" stamp on their cans of tuna. Tuna fisheries that used a "dophin safe" practice got the stamp of approval. If you didn't see that stamp, you simply wouldn't buy that brand of tuna. Depending on the amount of consumer education they've received, Americans have boycotted offensive companies like Shell Oil, Nike Shoes, and the Gap with differing results.

Although her boycotts were successful, they were not far-reaching enough. So as the world moved into the 20th century, Kelley moved her passion for justice right along with it. By 1907 she had helped to create the "Brandeis Brief" used in the Supreme Court case of Muller v. Oregon. This document used scientific, social data to expose the harmful effects of long working days on women's health. Facing such strong proof, the court had no choice but to establish a 10-hour work day limit for women.

Two years later she helped found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and then the US Children's Bureau in 1912. For the next decade she primarily worked to establish a legal minimum wage for women, since employers had until then been able to pay whatever they wanted. Her efforts helped to get a minimum wage established for the first time in the 1930s.

What a woman!

Florence Kelley and her colleagues created ideas, proposals and policy reforms whose effects are still felt 100 years later. The Hull House Foundation, the National Consumer League, and the NAACP remain prominent players in the fight against injustice in today's world. Their founder should get a statue! A parade! A national holiday!

But the fact that Kelley is neither recognized by most history books nor by her alma mater is simply scandalous. Although universities are usually eager to boast about their distinguished graduates, Northwestern, in this case, is not. According to Evans, Kelley's "near anonymity today" shows us how necessary it is to re-evaluate the way "we have shaped our history."

So let us begin re-shaping our history now. Northwestern, are you listening?


Please email me at: rebecca@ustrek.org


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