Florence Kelley is a woman who shaped American life in ways that most people today cannot imagine. A committed pacifist and Quaker, her lasting legacy is her work on creating laws regulating child labor. Most of her work in that area occurred in Chicago at the famous Hull House that was ran by Jane Addams. As a little girl she toured a factory in Pennsylvania with her father, William Kelley, and remembered the sight of kids as young as three doing factory work. As an adult she became a lobbyist on the local, state, and federal level to advocate for these reforms. Her method of persuading legislators was to conduct statistical analysis detailing factory conditions. Child labor was only one part of her legacy that she has left for this country.
Being the child of a senator she was not surprisingly part of the upper class, but she believed it was a duty for the rich to help the least amongst us. She is quoted as saying “We that are strong, let us bear the infirmities of the weak.” Her activist spirit was instilled in her by family members who were abolitionist, which influenced her to help organize the NAACP in 1909. Beyond children and black people, she sought to help out workers, especially women. In an effort to make a better society she took part in organizations such as the Illinois Consumers’ League, New York Child Labor Committee, and the National Woman Suffrage Association.
Her activism was not welcomed with open arms. As a regulator who inspected factories, her presence was met with hostility and indifference. She noticed factory owners flagrantly breaking laws and noticed that there was little governmental effort to get them to comply with the law. Another role she helped to pioneer is consumer advocacy. She helped to inform consumers on which businesses used child labor or disobeyed laws to make their product; she suggested that using a white label would indicate if the clothing was ethically made.
Florence Kelley’s legacy included getting the state of Illinois to limit women to an eight-hour day and made it illegal to hire kids under 14. Probably the biggest impact she made in law was compiling statistical data in the case of Muller v. Oregon; the result of this case resulted in many states adopting a minimum wage law for women. This was one of the earliest examples of the Supreme Court basing a decision on statistics instead of the text of the law.
Making It to The Finish Line hopes to inspire the kinds of courage and mindset that Florence Kelley embodied in her work. It was her passion that allowed her to believe that she could make lasting change in society. If you are interested in finding out more about Florence Kelley and other influential women, check out the source below.
Dreier, P. (2012). The 100 greatest Americans of the 20th century: A social justice hall of fame. New York: Nation Books.