Florence Kelley: Guardian of the Children

Florence Kelley:
Guardian of the Children

In early America, during the 17th and first half of the 18th century, most children led rather predictable and routine lives. They lived at home in rural homesteads and farms, working with their families in self-sufficient units. They raised gardens and crops and livestock, and made their living from their land. Every child grew up with family chores and responsibilities.

Between the Revolution and the Civil War, however, the old subsistence world died and a new, more-commercial nation was born when Americans integrated the technologies of the Industrial Revolution into a new commercial economy. Steam power, the technology that moved steamboats and railroads, fueled the rise of American industry by powering mills and coal mines. A “market revolution” remade the nation.

Like ripples across a pond, the revolution brought change across the country. More and more farmers grew crops for profit instead of self-sufficiency. Vast factories and cities arose in the North. Enormous fortunes were created, and a new middle class emerged and grew. With all of the good these changes produced, the costs of this revolution were weighty. As northern textile factories boomed, the demand for southern cotton swelled, and American slavery accelerated. Northern subsistence farmers became laborers, bound to the whims of markets and bosses.
The market revolution also created a growing lower class of property-less workers and a series of devastating depressions, called “panics.” Massive northern textile mills turned southern cotton into cheap cloth. And although northern states washed their hands of slavery, their factories fueled the demand for slave-grown southern cotton and their banks provided the financing that ensured the profitability and continued existence of the American slave system. And so, as the economy advanced, the market revolution wrenched the United States into new and unbalanced paradoxes. It became a nation of free labor and slavery, of wealth and inequality, and of endless promise coupled with unmeasured hopelessness.

By the 1850s, following the Civil War, greater numbers of immigrants began to arrive by ship in our nation's eastern seaboard towns, overwhelming cities unprepared for their arrival. The poor worked for low wages and became trapped in endless cycles of poverty. Immigrant women, for example, worked thirteen hours a day, six days a week. Families werre destitute, and began hiring out their children, as young as three and four, to work in factories and mines, to labor the same hours as adults, tying threads, greasing machines, and hauling buckets of coal. Five-year-old boys scrambled up the interiors of chimneys to scrape the soot, which gave them lung diseases. Poor nutrition, deplorable working conditions, and child abuse resulted in high death rates. Orphans had little to no protection from exploitation.
Into this era, in 1859, Florence Kelley was born to a well-known Pennsylvania Quaker Congressman and judge, William Darrah Kelley and his wife, Caroline Bartran Bonsall in Philadelphia. Her father was a founder of the Republican Party and a long-time member of the US House of Representatives. For decades, her multi-generational family had stood for the right for every person to vote, the education and literacy of women and children, and fought intensely against slavery. As a teen, Florence sat by her father in his study, learning about justice, reading law books, and researching the conditions of factories and warehouses and the women and children who labored there. At night, he would take his young daughter to see the children at their work. She was deeply moved.
As a young adult, Florence became a powerful speaker and writer, supporting herself as a journalist and by translating literature. She was published widely throughout her life. She graduated in one of the first classes to include women at Cornell University in 1882, and earned 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 late 1880s.
Florence Kelley came to Chicago in the brutal winter of 1892, the year 100,000 homeless immigrant men slept in the streets and on the marble floors of the courthouse, city hall, and in police stations which, at that time, served as homeless shelters for sleeping only. She was hired to investigate the labor industry in the city. After an exhaustive survey of the people who lived in tenement housing and slums, her findings led to changes in working conditions for laborers, especially children, and the reduction of the length of the workday. She is credited with supplying the information that brought about the 1893 Factory Act, the US's first state law prohibiting the employment of children under age 14.
Because of her intense labor and precise knowledge of the poor, Illinois Governor John Peter Altgeld appointed Florence, in 1893, to become the first woman factory inspector in the United States. As a resident of Hull House and friend of the famed Jane Addams, she was one of six female social reformers living there. Florence spent almost seven years in this role, overseeing the passage of several labor laws to improve working conditions at the state and national levels.
Florence left Chicago for New York in 1899 to become the first Secretary of the National Consumers' League, and spent the rest of her life advocating for education for women, laboring to improve working conditions, and against the exploitation of child workers. Her time with the NCL led to the creation of the "white label," which was given to stores that treated employees fairly. Citizens were asked to support worker’s rights by only shopping at businesses that had the “white label.” This proved to be very successful.
Perhaps her crowning work was the creation of the Children's Bureau, formally established in 1912 when President William Howard Taft signed into law a bill creating the new federal government organization. The stated purpose of the new Bureau was to investigate and report "upon all matters pertaining to the welfare of children and child life among all classes of our people." The signing of this law culminated a grass-roots process, also supported by Theodore Roosevelt, that began in 1903 by Lillian Wald and Florence Kelley, both of whom were then residents of New York's famed Henry Street Settlement House. Florence wrote the Children's Bureau founding documents there.
In the span of her career, Florence contributed to or led a variety of social organizations, including National Child Labor Committee, National Conference of Social Workers, American Sociological Association, National American Woman Suffrage Association (women's right to vote), Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). She was a close friend of W.E.B Du Bois, the well-known spokesperson for African American freedom and equality.

When Florence Kelley died at age 72 in the Germantown section of Philadelphia on 17 February 1932, the nation mourned her passing as one of the most influential women America had ever known. Her devout faith motivated her actions on behalf of those with neither power nor voice.

Her ceaseless work in passing laws to protect children and women and tireless efforts toward enabling the disenfranchised, especially African Americans, were legendary. For a woman in that day to accomplish so much is a testament both to God's hand upon her life and the vision of spiritually-minded parents, who taught her well. It is for these reasons that we celebrate the life of Florence Kelley, the Guardian, who protected, defended, and cared so much for so many.

-Karen O'Dell Bullock
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