Florence Kelley (1859-1932) was an important social activist, settlement house worker, and labor reformer whose work intersected with Theodore Roosevelt’s legislative agenda. She was born on September 12, 1859, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to Caroline Bartram Bonsall Kelley and William D. Kelley. The Kelleys were friends with renowned Quaker abolitionist Lucretia Mott. William Kelley was a judge, a congressman, and a founder of the Republican Party who exerted an important influence on his daughter. When Florence was young, her father took her to observe children laboring in factories. His commitment to abolitionism, workers’ rights, and Republican politics found an echo in her career as a social reformer.
Schooled by Quakers in her girlhood, Kelley graduated from Cornell University in 1882. While attending the University of Zurich, she befriended many European socialists, including Friedrich Engels. In 1887 Kelley translated his book, The Condition of the Working Class in England, into English. In Zurich she also met and married socialist Lazare Wischnewetzky. The couple settled in New York and had three children before their marriage ended in divorce in 1891. Kelley and her children moved to Chicago, where she lived and worked in Chicago’s Hull House, the settlement house begun by Jane Addams. There, her lifelong concern for the rights of children and workers blossomed. In 1892, Illinois governor John Altgeld appointed Kelley the first chief factory inspector of Illinois. In this position, she rooted out inhumane sweat-shop conditions. She organized consumer boycotts to influence factory owners to comply with better labor practices. With Altgeld’s help, in 1894 Kelley persuaded the Illinois state legislature to pass a law stipulating that children could not work more than eight hours per day. This law, however, was soon repealed. Frustrated, Kelley earned her law degree at Northwestern University and was admitted to the Illinois bar.
She continued her work in labor reform when, in 1899, she became the first general secretary (executive director) of the National Consumers’ League (NCL), a position she held until her death. That year, she moved to the Henry Street Settlement in New York City, which became the base for her NCL work. The NCL educated consumers about the importance of purchasing goods from stores and factories that treated workers well. It also coordinated some programs of the state-level consumers’ leagues, and advocated legislation to assist workers. Kelley placed the resources of the NCL behind the promotion of the Meat Inspection Act of 1904 and the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, both of which President Theodore Roosevelt wished to see become law. Kelley helped Roosevelt understand that the reforms they both favored could only become reality if women could vote.
With fellow attorney Louis Brandeis, Kelley researched and wrote the “Brandeis Brief” heard by the Supreme Court in the famous 1908 Muller v. Oregon protective legislation case. Kelley worked her whole life on causes such as the minimum wage, child labor restrictions, and women’s rights in the workplace. In 1909 she was one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. She wrote pamphlets to bring attention to society’s inequities. In 1914 she wrote Modern Industry in Relation to the Family, Health, Education, Morality, based upon a series of lectures she gave at Cornell University. In 1912, Kelley provided presidential candidate Theodore Roosevelt with facts and figures to substantiate his call for a minimum wage, pensions, and health insurance, as she became part of his “Female Brain Trust” and a significant supporter of the Progressive Party.
Roosevelt and Kelley parted ways during World War I, when Kelley, a pacifist, helped to create the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom and led the Intercollegiate Socialist Society (from 1913 until 1920). An icon of labor reform, Florence Kelley died on February 17, 1932, of natural causes in Germantown, Pennsylvania.