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Florence Kelley (1859–1932)

Portrait of Florence Kelley. Gelatin silver print, c1920-1930. Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute.

Florence Kelley was a social reformer and political activist who championed government regulation to protect working women and children.

Kelley was born into a Pennsylvania Quaker and Unitarian family with a strong commitment to abolitionist and women's rights activism. After reading through her father's library and graduating from Cornell, Kelley studied law and government at the University of Zurich, joined the German Social Democratic party, and translated Friedrich Engels's The Condition of the Working Class in England into English. In 1884 Kelley married a socialist Russian medical student and the couple had three children. After returning to the US, she divorced in 1891 and joined Jane Addams and other reformers at Hull-House, the Chicago social settlement. In 1892 the Illinois Bureau of Labor Statistics hired her to investigate the "sweating" system in the garment industry, and the federal commissioner of labor, Carroll Wright, asked her to survey Chicago's 19th ward, her findings appearing in Hull-House Maps and Papers. She was soon appointed chief factory inspector by Illinois Governor John Peter. Kelley earned her law degree from Northwestern University in 1895.

In 1899 Kelley became head of the National Consumer's League (NCL), a position she held for over 30 years, and she moved to Lillian Wald's Henry Street Settlement in New York City. Working for the NCL, Kelley organized local leagues and lobbied for better working conditions and minimum-wage and shorter-working-hours legislation. She helped Josephine Goldmark, director of research at NCL, to prepare the successful "Brandeis brief" defense of 10-hour workday legislation for women in the 1908 US Supreme Court decision Muller v. Oregon. The following year the NCL launched a minimum-wage campaign, which eventually succeeded in obtaining the passage of 14 state laws for women. Kelley later helped extend such state legislation to male workers.

In 1909 Kelley also helped organize the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. She was a founder of the National Child Labor Committee, and her efforts contributed greatly to the creation in 1912 of the US Children's Bureau, the only government agency run by women, and the 1921 passage of the Sheppard-Towner Maternity and Infancy Protection Act that allocated federal funds to health-care programs administered by the Bureau.

In 1919 Kelley was a founding member of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and for several years she served as vice president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association. Kelley spent her final decade defending herself from attacks during the "red scare" of the 1920s and stressing the concrete gains of gender-specific labor legislation to those committed only to laws applying to both sexes. Many of Kelley's ideas were later incorporated into New Deal programs.

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