Meet Florence Kelley: Labor Reformer, Abolitionist and Co-founder of the NAACP

By: Jesslyn Shields  | 
Florence Kelley
Florence Kelley, seen here in an undated photo, was a tireless champion for the rights of women, children and, especially, for the rights of workers. LIbrary of Congress

In the 21st century Americans enjoy a society where women can vote and earn wages comparable to those earned by men, children can't be forced to work and people can't be purchased, sold or owned by another person. When you pause to consider this wasn't the case for much of the country's history, it's pretty mind blowing.

Political activists made the Land of the Free much freer than it was in the beginning, and names like Abraham Lincoln, Harriet Tubman and Mother Jones come to mind. One American social reformer you might not have heard of is Florence Kelley, but she, along with her father congressman William Darrah Kelley, were some of the most influential and heaviest-hitting social crusaders of the Progressive Era.


The late 1800s and early 1900s was a time when social activism was hot in America, as there were a lot of problems to rectify: political corruption, corporate monopolies, abysmal race relations, women's suffrage and inhumane working conditions for adults and children. Florence Kelley was a powerful and effective community organizer who worked on issues ranging from women's suffrage to child labor, Social Security and the eight-hour workday. If you're grateful that U.S. law ensures that its citizens have decent working conditions and that children go to school instead of working in mines, you can add Kelley to your list of thank-you notes.

Who Was Florence Kelley?

Florence Kelley was born in 1859 Philadelphia to a wealthy Quaker family — her father, William Darrah "Pig Iron" Kelley, was a judge, a founder of the Republican Party, longtime member of the House of Representatives, a staunch abolitionist and a friend of Abraham Lincoln. He was raised in poverty — his widowed mother ran a boarding house in Philadelphia — and he was taken out of school and sent to work at a very young age to help his family make ends meet. His interest in child labor issues stemmed from working long hours as a child — child laborers in those days spent their shifts chewing green tea leaves to stay awake.

William Darrah "Pig Iron" Kelley
William Darrah "Pig Iron" Kelley, so named because he represented the iron and steel districts of Pennsylvania in Congress.
Wikimedia Commons

William's daughter, on the other hand, was born into wealth and privilege, but that doesn't mean he spared her the gory details of his childhood drudgery. From her father, Florence — called "Florie" by her family — learned about child labor issues and women's suffrage and the importance of emancipation and the abolition of slavery in the U.S., as well as Black voting rights. She watched as her father worked in his capacity as a congressman to ban slavery with the 13th Amendment and as he participated in writing the 15th Amendment, which granted African American men the right to vote. During her childhood, he was physically attacked on several occasions — once he was stabbed in a fancy hotel by a fellow congressman who didn't like his outspoken anti-slavery stance. Another time, as he was giving a speech about Reconstruction in Mobile, Alabama, members of the Ku Klux Klan opened fire at the stage, missing Kelley, but killing two and wounding dozens of others.


Florence loved her father's principles and fiery spirit, and in the midst of excruciating family tragedy — all five of her sisters died before the age of six — he educated her in his worldview. He began teaching her about inhumane child labor practices and, by the age of 7, she had become an insatiable connoisseur of history and statistics, had toured steel mills and glass factories and attended political rallies.

"Florence Kelley had everything going for her, including an elite family background deeply embedded in radical social movements," says Kathryn Kish Sklar, author of "Florence Kelley and the Nation's Work" and co-editor of "The Selected Letters of Florence Kelley, 1869-1932."

"Her father's 30 years in the U.S. House of Representatives gave her an insider's understanding of how political structures worked. She caught the women's movement rising with its third generation — women's movements had been cycling every 30 years since 1800. She was a socialist, which gave her a clear understanding of the way exploitation worked with wage-earners: They were paid less than the value they created, which enriched employers and impoverished wage-earners."


Kelley's Formal Education and Real-life Experience

In 1882, Florence was one of the first women to graduate from Cornell University, and during the early 1880s she often accompanied her father to Washington and helped him write his speeches. She was turned down from Pennsylvania and Oxford University because of her gender, but she eventually received a law degree from Northwestern University and was admitted to the bar before 1900 — an almost unheard-of accomplishment.

Florence Kelley
Florence Kelley, Chief State Factory Inspector of Illinois from 1893 to 1897 is seen here, third from left, with her fellow factory inspectors. Kelley and other factory inspectors were responsible for shedding light on how people were living and working in the tenements and sweatshops of the day.
Library of Congress

As she grew older, her progressive political beliefs outstripped even her father's. In 1884 she moved to Europe to attend the University of Zurich and married a socialist Polish-Russian medical student named Lazare Wischnewetzky and had three children. She wrote to father about her newfound interest in Marxism and the problem with the way elected officials manipulated American democracy to their own benefit. William and Florence quarreled but reconciled in his last days as he succumbed to cancer in 1890.


After the death of her father, Kelley moved back to the U.S. and obtained a highly publicized and publicly contested divorce from her abusive and spendthrift husband. She received full custody of her children, moved to Chicago and changed her surname back to "Kelley," which she kept for the rest of her life.


Kelley Takes Up Labor Reform

Kelley made a name for herself at the dawn of the Progressive Era. She dove head-first into labor reform, tackling it from all angles. She traveled endlessly, speaking about working conditions in American factories, and pushed to pass laws requiring inspections in factories using child workers, and limiting the number of hours women and children could work each day. As the head of the National Consumers League (NCL), she organized the buying power of shoppers to create incentives for industries to improve their labor practices. She led Illinois legislators on tours of sweatshops and in 1893 pushed them to institute the nation's first factory law which limited a workday for women to eight hours and prohibited children under the age of 14 from working at all. This Illinois law is widely considered to mark the beginning of the Progressive Era.

Kelley's efforts weren't strictly limited to labor concerns. In 1909 she was a founding member of the NAACP, protested White-led race riots and worked to pass anti-lynching and educational-equality laws. She helped reduce infant mortality nationwide by helping establish the United States Children's Bureau and working to pass the Sheppard-Towner Act at the federal level. Without these two pieces of legislation, the U.S. Social Security Administration would not exist.


"Kelley's era, like ours, was full of conflict and crisis, but she used hope as her chief leverage," says Sklar.