Florence Kelley was the daughter of William D. Kelley, the United States congressman. She was born on September 12, 1859, and is considered to be one of the most notable social reformers in the world. There is no wonder that Florence tried to change society throughout her life, because her father, as a self-educated lawyer, shared his progressive ideas with his daughter throughout her childhood. The desire to ensure society with a better life was caused by Florence’s early family influences.
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All of her five siblings died before reaching the age of three; all of them were girls and some of them died right after they were born. In addition to this family drama, Florence watched other members of her family fighting injustice; for instance, her Aunt Sarah never used sugar and cotton, because those products were produced by slaves. (Grimm 168) This made Florence sensitive to social injustice, unfair labor conditions, and infant mortality; fighting with injustice became the major concern of her life.
Florence Kelley made a considerable contribution to society by her thesis “On Some Changes in the Legal Status of Children” which reinforced children’s rights, by her membership at the National Women’s Suffrage Association where she fought for women’s suffrage rights, and by her work at the Hull House where she became an initiator of the Illinois Factory Acts which protected the rights of women and children.
To begin with, Kelley’s thesis “On Some Changes in the Legal Status of Children” leads to increasing protections for children and making the state responsible for them. This work of hers diminished the degree of paternal authority. Kelley kept to an idea that children benefited from compulsory education and custody laws that made the child more important than the father.
She believed that “in the process, the child had come to be regarded, in the eyes of the law, as “an individual with a distinctive legal status” and not merely “an appendage” of the “absolute ownership of the father.” (Piott 112) The significance of this thesis lies in Kelley’s examining the law from a new perspective because she contrasted the interests of children with the tradition of patriarchal authority. Moreover, due to Kelley’s other studies, Illinois State Legislature passed the law which prohibited the factories to employ children younger than 14.
This happened after Kelley and other fighters for children’s rights including Jane Addams found out that children as young as three worked in Chicago tenements (manufacturing garments at home). Florence also tried to increase government funding for child health services and improve the conditions of children in society. She succeeded in this after establishing the United States Children’s Bureau in 1912 together with Lillian Wald, Julia Lathrop, and Edward Devine. Thus, Kelley’s contribution to protecting children’s rights and improving their lives, in general, is hard to overestimate.
What’s more, Kelley’s being the vice president of the National Women’s Suffrage Association allowed her to fight for women’s suffrage rights. Back then, such a concept as “feminism” did not yet exist this is why Kelley simply belonged to a unified group of women who fought for their rights and organized movements to reach their goals. (Boris 84) Kelley together with other female reformers did not deny the difference between men and women; their main purpose was to prove that men and women were equal in their rights and freedoms.
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Kelley’s work focused on women’s experiences which stemmed from their becoming mothers and improving the conditions in which they were giving birth to children and bringing them up. Regardless of the opposition on the part of the men’s groups, such organizations continued carrying out their activities and by 1918 some of them started functioning on the national and international levels. Therefore, Kelley’s activities united women worldwide and with time resulted in making them equal with men in their rights and freedoms.
Finally, Kelley’s work at the Hull House resulted in the adoption of the Illinois Factory Acts of 1893 aimed at the protection of women’s and children’s rights. Before the passage of this legislation, Kelley conducted investigations at Chicago’s sweatshops and registered serious violations of women’s rights, as well as abuses of child labor there. The Illinois Factory Acts resulted in reducing working hours for women and making the usage of child labor illegal. (Keller, Ruether, and Cantlon 861)
After this, Kelley was assigned as a chief factory inspector. In 1897 together with Ellen Henrotin, she created an Illinois Consumer’s League which was aimed at increasing the purchasing power of middle-class women and using it to improve the working conditions of the factory employees. (Arnesen 738) Later, in 1898 she suggested creating a white label and marking with it the goods which were manufactured only under fair working conditions. Kelley created local leagues and took part in assessments that allowed the factories to produce the goods with white labels; numerous campaigns urged the population to buy only these goods. This helped to protect women’s working rights and eliminated the abuse of child labor.
In sum, Florence Kelley has largely contributed to the welfare of women and children through her fighting with social injustice. Owing to her work in the social sphere children obtained certain rights and were inward of the government; women were united in the fight for their rights and succeeded in becoming equal with men, and factories stopped abusing child labor and offered fair working conditions to women. Kelley’s activities and the results of her work will always be remembered by women and children who obtained their rights due to the ardent fight of this woman against social injustice.
Arnese, Eric. Encyclopedia of U.S. Labor and Working-class History. New York: CRC Press, 2006.
Boris, Eileen. Home to Work: Motherhood and the Politics of Industrial Homework in the United States. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
Grimm, Robert t. Notable American Philanthropists: Biographies Of Giving And Volunteering. New York: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2002.
Keller, Rosemary S., Ruether, Rosmary R., and Cantlon, Marie. Encyclopedia of Women and Religion in North America. New York: University Press, 2006.
Piott, Steven S. American Reformers, 1870-1920: Progressives in Word and Deed. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2006.