Florence Kelley

Florence Kelley was the first woman factory inspector in the United States, appointed in Illinois by Governor John Peter Altgeld in 1893. A resident of Hull House, and a reformer – who refused to be associated with any political party – Florence Kelley lived in Chicago from 1891 until 1899, leading and participating in a variety of projects. These included: a wage and ethnicity census of the slums and tenements in Chicago; the reporting of cases and contagion in the smallpox epidemic of 1893; the enforcement of the universal primary education laws, and, most importantly, enforcing the provisions of the Illinois Factory Inspection Law of 1893.

While living at Hull House she was employed by the Illinois legislature, the United States Department of Labor, and served as a consultant and advisor to other national and international organizations. A prolific translator and writer of books, journal articles, and pamphlets, her best known work today is Hull House Maps and Papers, published in 1895, and still a classic of sociology and ethnography, and includes spectacular wage and ethnicity maps. The Florence Kelley web site will incorporate and build upon the documents, records and historical background of the Chicago historical homicide project web site.

A life long advocate for the education for women, for improving working conditions for women and against the exploitation of child workers, Florence Kelley was the daughter of a well known Pennsylvania Congressman and judge, William Darrah Kelley. She grew up in a family of Philadelphia Quakers with long standing commitments to the abolition of slavery, universal suffrage and the education and literacy of women. A persuasive speaker and a powerful writer throughout her life, Florence Kelley taught literacy and law, supported herself and her children by working as a translator and a journalist, and published widely throughout her life. She graduated in one of the first classes to include women at Cornell University in 1882, and received 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 1880’s. Florence Kelley left Chicago for New York in 1899 to become the first Secretary of the National Consumers’ League. She continued to advocate for improved conditions for working women and children until her death in 1932.

The Illinois Factory Inspection Law passed in 1893 limited the hours of working women to eight and prohibited the employment of children under 14. It was enacted on a tide of anti-sweatshop sentiment growing out of a series of Congressional and local hearings and investigations into the shocking living and working conditions in the tenements and sweatshops in Chicago and other big city slums in the 1880’s and 1890’s. The constitutionality of the Illinois Factory Inspection statute was immediately challenged after its enactment by the Illinois Manufacturers' Association, a trade organization founded by Levy Mayer and a group of businessmen to challenge the position of factory inspector itself, the hours limitation for women factory workers, and limits on the employment of children in factories. The Illinois Supreme Court in People v. Ritchie held the hours provision for women unconstitutional in 1895.

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