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Florence Kelley (1859–1932)

Title page from Facts About Immigration, by the National Civic Federation (1906). Contributors include Florence Kelley as Secretary of the National Consumers League.
Facts About Immigration, by the National
Civic Federation (1906). Contributors include
Florence Kelley as Secretary of the National
Consumers League.

Florence Kelley was a social reformer and political activist who championed greater government regulation and private social services in order to improve working conditions and educational opportunities for immigrants and women.

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 Russian medical student and the couple had three children. After returning to the US, she divorced in 1891 before joining Jane Addams and other reformers at Hull-House, the Chicago social settlement. Her work in Hull-House, which would eventually become the most famous settlement house in the United States, allowed Kelley to adopt a leadership role in the growing settlement-house movement, which strove to alleviate poverty in the immigrant working class by providing social services and education through settlement houses.

In 1892, the Illinois Bureau of Labor Statistics hired Kelley to investigate the "sweating" system in the garment industry, and 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. She earned her law degree from Northwestern University in 1895.

In 1899 she became head of the National Consumers League (NCL), a position she held for over 30 years, and 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, a minimum wage, and shorter working hours for women, immigrant, and working-class laborers.

In 1909, Kelley also helped organize the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and in 1912 she helped to found the National Child Labor Committee. 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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