Florence Kelley

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Florence Kelley
(1859 – 1932)

Florence Kelley, A Woman of Fierce Fidelity
Florence Kelley is considered one of the great contributors to the social rights of workers, particularly women and children. She is best known as a prominent Progressive social reformer known for her role in helping to improve social conditions of the twentieth century. She has been described as a woman of fierce fidelity (Goldmark, 1953). Kelley was a leading voice in the labor, suffragette, children’s and civil rights movements. She was also a well-educated and successful woman, a rare combination during the turn of the twentieth century. Kelley was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on September 12, 1859 to Quaker parents, William Darrah Kelley and his second wife, Caroline Bartram. Her father was a self-educated man who left his business to become an abolitionist, a judge and an activist for a number of political and social reforms. Kelley had two brothers and five sisters; however, all five sisters died in childhood. The childhood memory of the deaths of her five sisters influenced Kelley’s lifelong fight for government funds for maternal and child health services. The political climate during the life of Kelley and the influences of her family, education, travels and friendships contributed to her commitment to social reform. It was these influences that led this determined woman to have a profound impact on the quality of life for many individuals during her life and thereafter. Let’s examine these influences in more detail for a better understanding of this remarkable woman and reformer. Kelley had the good fortune to grow up in a progressive, cultured and affluent family. It was a family actively devoted to social reform and this devotion influenced Kelley. She was educated at home for most of her childhood due to being sickly as a child. Her father taught her to read at age seven and made his extensive library available to her. Her father also influenced her social conscience by taking the young Florence with him as he toured factories where young boys worked to help manufacture steel and glass. Kelley begins her autobiography by describing her father as a "companionship which has enriched my whole life" and credited him with encouraging her interest in public life. (Kelley, 1926). It was on the factory tours with her father that Kelley first witnessed the horrendous conditions and danger that children were forced to work under. She often stated that through this experience, she developed her enthusiasm to advocate for child labor reform. While still a young woman, Kelley wrote, “We that are strong, let us bear the infirmities of the weak.” (Sklar, 2009). At the encouragement of her father, in September 1876, at the age of seventeen, Kelley entered Cornell University, College of Arts and Sciences. After completing her studies at Cornell, Kelley attended the University of Zurich the first European university open to women where she studied politics, economics and law. While in Europe, Kelley formed friendships with people that embraced the teachings of socialism. It was during this time that Kelley began translating the works of known socialists, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Her translation of Engels “The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844” was published by New York Socialists in 1887. In 1884, while attending the University of Zurich, Kelley met and married Lazare Wischnewetzky, a Russian medical student and member of the socialist party. Kelley and her husband moved to New York City in 1886. Her husband was abusive, and, in 1889 Kelley left her husband and moved to Chicago with her three young children. The marriage ended in divorce in 1891. It was in Chicago that Kelley turned to the study of social conditions taking a special interest in women and children. Florence boarded her three children while she became a resident of the Hull House with Jane Addams and other female social reformers....
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