The Life of Florence Kelley

She reformed to help the children

The Life in Chicago

Florence Kelley was the first woman factory inspector in the United States, appointed in Illinois by Governor John Peter Altgeld in 1893. Florence Kelley lived in Chicago from 1891 until 1899, leading and participating in a variety of projects. These included: a wage and ethnicity census of the slums and tenements in Chicago; the reporting of cases and contagion in the smallpox epidemic of 1893; the enforcement of the universal primary education laws, and, most importantly, enforcing the provisions of the Illinois Factory Inspection Law of 1893. While living at Hull House she was employed by the Illinois legislature, the United States Department of Labor, and served as a consultant and advisor to other national and international organizations. A prolific translator and writer of books, journal articles, and pamphlets, her best known work today is Hull House Maps and Papers, published in 1895, and still a classic of sociology and ethnography, and includes spectacular wage and ethnicity maps. The Florence Kelley web site will incorporate and build upon the documents, records and historical background of the Chicago historical homicide project web site.

Her life has a productive worker

A life long advocate for the education for women, for improving working conditions for women and against the exploitation of child workers, Florence Kelley was the daughter of a well known Pennsylvania Congressman and judge, William Darrah Kelley. She grew up in a family of Philadelphia Quakers with long standing commitments to the abolition of slavery, universal suffrage and the education and literacy of women. A persuasive speaker and a powerful writer throughout her life, Florence Kelley taught literacy and law, supported herself and her children by working as a translator and a journalist, and published widely throughout her life. She graduated in one of the first classes to include women at Cornell University in 1882, and received a law degree from Northwestern University School of Law in 1895, after graduate study in law, politics and economics at the University of Zurich in the 1880's. Florence Kelley left Chicago for New York in 1899 to become the first Secretary of the National Consumers’ League. She continued to advocate for improved conditions for working women and children until her death in 1932.

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The Illinois Factory Inspection Law passed in 1893 limited the hours of working women to eight and prohibited the employment of children under 14. It was enacted on a tide of anti-sweatshop sentiment growing out of a series of Congressional and local hearings and investigations into the shocking living and working conditions in the tenements and sweatshops in Chicago and other big city slums in the 1880’s and 1890’s. The constitutionality of the Illinois Factory Inspection statute was immediately challenged after its enactment by the Illinois Manufacturers' Association, a trade organization founded by Levy Mayer and a group of businessmen to challenge the position of factory inspector itself, the hours limitation for women factory workers, and limits on the employment of children in factories. The Illinois Supreme Court in People v. Ritchie held the hours provision for women unconstitutional in 1895.

Summer 1892, Getting Ready to be a Factory Inspector

When Florence Kelley was settled at Hull House, after the habeas corpus hearings in March of 1892, when custody of her children had been awarded to her by the court and the children were settled temporarily in Winnetka, she needed to find paid employment. Dues were not high at Hull House, ($20 per month for room and board) but there was a charge, and Florence Kelley was determined to pay her own way.

Initially Jane Addams suggested that Florence Kelley start an employment office within Hull House for young women. That enterprise soon folded for lack of interest and the unavailability of jobs, although it did get her a tiny office within Hull House. What Florence Kelley did prior to being appointed Factory Inspector was stitch together a series of part time jobs, all of which, were related to her lifelong interest in ameliorating conditions for working children and women. All of these jobs were also excellent preparation for becoming the first Factory Inspector in Illinois in July of 1893.

Multiple Choice Question

Who was she trying to help?

1. Men

2. Women

3. Children

4. Slaves