Florence Kelley

American activist (1859–1932)

Florence Moltrop Kelley (September 12, 1859 – February 17, 1932) was a social and political reformer and the pioneer of the term wage abolitionism. Her work against sweatshops and for the minimum wage, eight-hour workdays, and children's rights is widely regarded today. From its founding in 1899, Kelley served as the first general secretary of the National Consumers League. In 1909, Kelley helped to create the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Florence Kelley in 1925


  • We have, in this country, two million children under the age of sixteen years who are earning their bread. They vary in age from six and seven years (in the cotton mills of Georgia) and eight, nine and ten years (in the coal-breakers of Pennsylvania), to fourteen, fifteen and sixteen years in more enlightened states.
  • No other portion of the wage earning class increased so rapidly from decade to decade as the young girls from fourteen to twenty years...They are in commerce, in offices, in manufacturing.
  • Tonight while we sleep, several thousand little girls will be working in textile mills, all the night through, in the deafening noise of the spindles and the looms spinning and weaving cotton and wool, silks and ribbons for us to buy.
  • If the mothers and the teachers in Georgia could vote, would the Georgia Legislature have refused at every session for the last three years to stop the work in the mills of children under twelve years of age? Would the New Jersey Legislature have passed that shameful repeal bill enabling girls of fourteen years to work all night, if the mothers in New Jersey were enfranchised? Until the mothers in the great industrial states are enfranchised, we shall none of us be able to free our consciences from participation in this great evil. No one in this room tonight can feel free from such participation. The children make our shoes in the shoe factories; they knit our stockings, our knitted underwear in the knitting factories. They spin and weave our cotton underwear in the cotton mills. Children braid straw for our hats, they spin and weave the silk and velvet wherewith we trim our hats. They stamp buckles and metal ornaments of all kinds, as well as pins and hat-pins. Under the sweating system, tiny children make artificial flowers and neckwear for us to buy. They carry bundles of garments from the factories to the tenements, little beasts of burden, robbed of school life that they may work for us.
  • We do not wish this. We prefer to have our work done by men and women. But we are almost powerless. Not wholly powerless, however, are citizens who enjoy the right of petition. For myself, I shall use this power in every possible way until the right to the ballot is granted, and then I shall continue to use both.
  • What can we do to free our consciences? There is one line of action by which we can do much. We can enlist the workingmen on behalf of our enfranchisement just in proportion as we strive with them to free the children. No labor organization in this country ever fails to respond to an appeal for help in the freeing of the children.
  • For the sake of the children, for the Republic in which these children will vote after we are dead, and for the sake of our cause, we should enlist the workingmen voters, with us, in this task of freeing the children from toil!

Quotes about Florence Kelley

  • Although many social workers like Jane Addams, Florence Kelley, and Sophonisba P. Breckenridge, and socialists like Emma Goldman advocated the rights of immigrants and working women, in most instances during the 1890 to 1910 period their advocacy had little or no effect on the suffragist movement's attitude toward minority or working-class women
    • Martha P. Cotera, "Feminism: The Chicano and Anglo Versions-A Historical Analysis" (1980)
  • Florence Kelley's speech first opened my mind to the necessity for and the possibility of the work which became my vocation.
  • I want to speak of Florence Kelley, whom I knew in this period and who was one of the first American women Socialists who influenced me greatly. Florence Kelley made an important contribution to the literature of socialism in this country by her translation of Engels' Conditions of the Working Class in England in 1844, and her own writings. She was for many years secretary of the National Consumers' League of America and a leading member of the National Child Labor Committee. Her influence was great among working class women and her death in 1932 was a terrible loss. In those days the Intercollegiate Socialist Society was a vigorous organization. I remember one occasion when the I.S.S. was giving a dinner in New Haven at which Florence Kelley was the main speaker. The chairman, Graham Phelps Stokes, was called away at the last moment, and Upton Sinclair, one of the vice-presidents, was called upon to preside. In introducing Mrs. Kelley he explained the purposes of the I.S.S. and how people were drawn into the socialist movement through its activities, attracting even such nationally known persons as Mrs. Kelley. Mrs. Kelley got up and told him that she had been a Socialist before he was dry behind the ears.
  • irresistible has been the influence exercised by Mrs. Florence Kelley, now and for many years a member of the settlement family. She has long consecrated her energies to securing protective legislation throughout the country for children compelled to labor and, with the late Edgar Gardner Murphy, of Alabama, suggested the creation of the National Child Labor Committee. In its ten years' existence it has affected legislation in forty-seven states, which have enacted new or improved child labor laws. On this and on the New York State Committee Mrs. Kelley and I have served since their creation.
  • Florence Kelley's vibrant personality comes back to me clearly...I had a special interest in Florence Kelley because she had been the first chief factory inspector in Illinois, appointed by Governor Altgeld. With admiration I saw her war on child labor, sweatshops, and laws discriminating against women-often in the face of great obstacles, including whispering campaigns of slander set in motion by her enemies. I can see her now on the platform, answering a reactionary opponent who in a debate on a vital piece of legislation, claimed to be "open-minded." She replied that some people were so open-minded that ideas never stayed in their heads.
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