Florence Kelley was born on September 12, 1859, in a family of William Kelley, a United States Congressman. She grew up on “The Elms”, an estate located in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Florence was the third of eight children, five of which died before reaching the age of seven. Florence suffered from chronic eyestrain and was very feeble as a child. As a result, she was educated at home and eventually took up independent reading.
When she was twelve, her father took her to a glass factory in Pennsylvania, so she could see the wonders of America. Instead, what she saw were all the small children working in unsafe conditions and transporting hazardous materials and acids. This experience angered her and she would eventually become one of the key players in work safety and anti child labor movements.
At the age of 17, Florence Kelley attended Cornell University. There, she became part of a diverse environment, studying with men and women from a wide span of income and interests. She received her bachelor’s degree in 1882, despite numerous illnesses that kept her from studying for several years, and completed her thesis “On Some Changes in the Legal Status of the Child Since Blackstone”.
Later, she enrolled at the University of Zurich, Switzerland, the first university in Europe to accept women. There, she became one of the students who embraced the teachings of socialism. Through these ideas, she formulated her own concepts concerning the poor working class.
In 1887, she translated and published “The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844” and then later translated and published one of Karl Marx’s speeches, “Free Trade”.
Then, Kelley moved to New York City, where she married Lazare Wischnewetsky on June of 1884, a Polish-Russian physician and a member of the Socialist Labor Party. They lived together for five years and had three children. Unfortunately, the marriage was not successful, and in December of 1891 she left him and moved to Chicago, where she eventually joined the Hull House.
In 1892, Florence Kelley was hired by the Illinois Bureau of Labor Statistics to investigate the sweat-shop system in the garment industry. She successfully held this position until 1897, when Governor John Peter Altgeld appointed her as the chief factory inspector. She was given $12,000 budget for the project and with the money hired a staff of twelve, which included her Hull House colleague, Alzina Stevens. In 1897, the governor’s successor dismissed her from the position.
Kelley remained at Hull House until 1899, where she gave lectures and wrote essays on socialism and industrial problems. Meanwhile, she worked at John Crear Library in Chicago.
In 1891, Kelley became the general secretary of the New Consumers’ League, an organization that sought to make consumers aware to the unfavorable working conditions and promote protesting of such conditions. Upon accepting this position, she returned to live in Henry Street Settlement in New York City, a settlement house that was shared ideas with the Hull House. While being involved with the Consumers’ League, she traveled a lot to give speeches to other organizations, such as women’s clubs, colleges, and labor unions, and was involved in two international conferences.
Thanks in part to Kelley, by 1913, nine states had adopted some form of minimum wage legislation. Inspired by her progress, Kelley organized the New York Child Labor Committee and was an active member of the board for many years.
In 1905, Kelley joined with Upton Sinclair and Jack London to form the Intercollegiate Socialist Society. Kelley also wrote a book “Some Ethical Gains Through Legislation”, where she addressed the need for a federal children’s commission. As a result, Congress created the Children’s Bureau in 1912.
In 1909, Kelley helped organize the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People. The organization fought for the rights of African American people.
During World War I, Kelley became a founding member of the Woman’s Peace Party and Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom and became an opponent of American imperialism.
Kelley also served as a Vice President of the National Woman Suffrage Association, and voiced her strong opinion on discrimination in the Equal Rights Amendment.
During her lifetime, Florence Kelley wrote several books, including:
Florence Kelley died in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on 17th February, 1932.