Florence Kelley worked for laws to improve working conditions in the United States and for civil rights. She was important in the fight to get children out of factories and into schools, and the fight for safe working conditions for factory workers.
Kelley was a fighter. She was one of the first factory inspectors, becoming the Chief Factory Inspector for the state of Illinois in 1893, and she was known to be very tough when she found children working in factories, or people working in dangerous conditions. At that time, factory workers — including children — often worked for 12 or 14 hours a day in dangerous conditions for very little money. Workers might be locked into a room, as were the people who died in the Triangle Factory Fire, or working with dangerous machines, or with too little air or light for their health and safety.
Kelley was instrumental in passing laws that protected workers, but the laws were not very effective. There weren’t many factory inspectors, and workers who complained might lose their jobs, so the laws were not always enforced. Some of the laws were even repealed when factory owners complained that they couldn’t afford the new rules.
So Florence Kelley took another approach. She spoke to women’s groups about the terrible working conditions in the factories, and helped make sure that special tags were added to clothes that were made under safe and decent conditions. She persuaded the women, who bought most of the clothing, to buy only clothes with the labels showing they had been made under safe conditions. These women couldn’t vote for changes in laws, but they could “vote with their pocketbooks” by choosing where to spend their money. Gradually, factory owners were forced to make changes because their customers insisted.
Kelley didn’t give up on making changes in laws, though. She worked for equal funding for schools in poor neighborhoods and for all children. She worked for laws allowing women to vote. She fought for minimum wage laws and an eight hour workday.
She did this in spite of personal tragedies. All her sisters died as children, and Florence Kelley herself was often ill. She was divorced at a time when this was very uncommon, and was a single mother. One of her children died young. There were threats against her life, and many people disagreed with her. She didn’t have TV or the internet to spread the word about her causes, and she couldn’t even vote. She began her crusade when she was 12 years old and kept it up till she died at the age of 74.
Florence Kelley was one of the first people to use scientific data to persuade people to make social changes. She gathered information about the effects of poor working conditions and these facts were presented to the Supreme Court. This was the first time this kind of information was considered by the court. Later, when the Supreme Court considered segregation in schools, they looked as this kind of evidence again.
Florence Kelley was also one of the first to organize consumer boycotts. Kelley graduated from Cornell University and received a law degree from Northwestern University, and she spent many years working for legal changes. However, she also organized people and shared information which allowed ordinary people to make a difference. Kelley was one of the organizers of the NAACP and also of several organizations supporting women and children.
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