A Tribute to Womanhood
Welcome to "I Am Woman"...a tribute to all those women who had the courage and perseverance to stand up and fight for their rights. Thanks to those who came before us we enjoy a freedom unknown to women not too long ago. But, sadly, in many parts of the world, women continue to be repressed. In fact, even in this country there are women living today under the threat of violence...completely controlled by a violent spouse. Some may make it; others won't. Hopefully, one day ALL women will be free. May that day come soon.
(Social reformer and activist who championed for government regulation to protect working women and children)
Florence Kelley was born into a Quaker and Unitarian family on September 12, 1859 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Her family had a strong commitment to abolitionist and women's rights, and Florence very early decided the path she wanted to follow. She had two brothers and five sisters, but all of her sisters died in childhood. She studied at Cornell University and later at the University of Zurich...and after she graduated, she worked in the Illinois Bureau of Labor Statistics investigating worker abuse...and eventually provided the numerical evidence which led to the state legislation mandating eight hour work days for women and children.
"In order to be rated as good as a man in the field of her earnings, she must show herself better than he. She must be more steady, or more trustworthy, or more skilled, or more cheap in order to have the same chance at employment."--Florence Kelley
In 1884, she married a Russian medical student, and the couple had three children. It was a bad marriage from the start. He was an abusive husband, and after seven years of it, Florence took refuge from him at the famed Hull House...and after divorcing him, she not only went back to using her maiden name, but went a step further and legally changed her children's names to Kelley.
"Tenement house manufacture is rapidly spreading in Chicago and entering a large variety of industries. Wherever the system enters, the trade becomes a sweated trade, carried on in the worst and most unwholesome premises, because it falls into the hands of the very poor.
Shops over sheds or stables, in basements, or on upper floors of tenement houses, are not fit working places for men, women, and children. Most of the places designated in this report as basements are low-ceiled, ill-lighted, unventilated rooms, below the street level; damp and cold in winter, hot and close in summer; foul at all times by reason of adjacent vaults or defective sewer connections. The term cellar would more accurately describe these shops. Their dampness entails rheumatism and their darkness injures the sight of the people who work in them. They never afford proper accomodations for the pressers, the fumes of whose gasoline stoves and charcoal heaters mingle with the mouldy smell of the walls and the stuffiness always found where a number of the very poor are crowded together."
--Florence Kelley, Factory Inspectors of Illinois Report (1895)
She and her children stayed at Hull House until 1899. Then, she moved to New York City where she lived at the Henry Street Settlement House...which, by the way is still standing and two blocks from where I work. While residing there, she helped found the radical pressure group, the National Consumer's League. The main object of the organization was to achieve a minimum wage and a limitation on the working hours of women and children. She soon became the leader of the NCL, a position she held for over 30 years. As the leader, she travelled across the country giving lectures on the working conditions in the United States.
Florence was deeply involved in improving labor conditions for women, and 1903 marked a turning point for labor reform for women. Florence was one of the founders of the National Woman's Trade Union. This new organization was instrumental in getting laws passed that regulated minimum wages and other issues relating to labor.
She was also a strong supporter of women's suffrage and African American civil rights and helped to establish the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People in 1909, and, a committed pacifist, she was one of the founding members of the Women's Peace Party. She was a founder of the National Child Labor Committee and her efforts contributed to the creation of the 1912 U.S Children's Bureau, the only government agency run by women. Juvenile Courts were brought about partially because of the work she did for that cause. and in 1919 helped to establish the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom. She considered her greatest accomplishment to be the 1921 Shepherd-Towner Maternity and Infant Protection Act.
After a life of contributing to the well-being of thousands, she died in Germantown, Pennsylvania on February 17,1932. Her role in the abolishment of child labor, the passage of protective legislation for women, the establishment of the minimum wage law, and the development of maternal and child health services are some of the accomplishments of this brave woman who devoted her life to improving the lives of those of us who followed her.