18 Radicals Who Fought Against Workplace Atrocities and Cruel Treatment
18 Radicals Who Fought Against Workplace Atrocities and Cruel Treatment

18 Radicals Who Fought Against Workplace Atrocities and Cruel Treatment

Donna Patricia Ward - November 1, 2018

Radical women have long been seen as troublemakers. Men who support them were not considered to be any better. Over 100 years before the modern #MeToo movement, there were hundreds of highly-educated people that demanded reforms. A government by the people had to protect all people not just the wealthy. Instead of just demanding that local governments provide decent housing and livable wages, they professionalize the fields of social work and sociology. These men and women started settlement houses, ran for municipal office, and tirelessly fought for the rights of working women, children, and immigrants. Below are 18 famous radicals that fought for birth control, workers rights, juvenile court and so much more.

18 Radicals Who Fought Against Workplace Atrocities and Cruel Treatment
Ellen Gates Starr between 1915 and 1917. Library of Congress.

18. For the Love of Jane and Workers’ Rights: Ellen Gates Starr

Ellen Gates Starr was intellectual and passionate. Born in 1858 in New England, her family migrated to northern Illinois when she was young. Not wealthy but not poor, Ellen attended the Rockford Female Seminar where she expanded upon her passion for the arts, literature, and idealism. Ellen was vivacious and loved headed debates about politics and social issues. Topics that respectable women were to stay away from. Throughout her life she attempted to control her temper, but it was this very temper that led her Chicago’s near west side to become one of the founders of the field of social work.

Ms. Starr had to quit school for financial reasons. She moved to Chicago and became a school teacher. During the summer of 1888, Ellen toured Europe with her dear friend from college, Jane Addams. While in London the women visited Toynbee Hall, a new place devoted to helping the working poor. The women were gobsmacked and returned to American with vigor. They created a plan, found property, and opened their own settlement house in Chicago’s near west side neighborhood in September 1889. The women called their “social experiment” Hull-House.

Workers’ rights, eliminating child labor, and promoting the importance of education had long been passions of Ellen Gates Starr. She became a member of the Women’s Trade Union League and helped organize strikes f in 1896, 1910, and 1915. While walking a picket line during a 1914 restaurant workers’ strike, her impassioned behavior got her arrested. Her arrest made her more committed to the labor rights movement. In 1916, she joined the Socialist Party and ran for 19th Ward Alderman. She lost the election but had made headway in exposing the detrimental impacts of ward politics in Chicago’s immigrant and poor neighborhoods.

Ellen Gates Starr loved Jane Addams and for a time the women lived in what has been described as a “Boston Marriage.” No records exist of this relationship, it can only be gleaned from observers’ accounts. Sometime before 1920, Jane Addams ended her intimate relationship with Starr and she was devastated. She became a Roman Catholic and distanced herself from the settlement house that she co-founded. After spinal surgery in 1929 left her paralyzed from the waist down, Starr removed herself to a convent in New York where she died in 1940.

18 Radicals Who Fought Against Workplace Atrocities and Cruel Treatment
Mary Kenney O’Sullivan. Wikipedia.

17. A Working Woman Unionizes Other Working Women: Mary Kenney O’Sullivan

Mary Kenney was born to working-class Irish immigrants in Hannibal, Missouri in 1864. She attended school until the 4th grade, when she was forced to enter into a dressmaking apprenticeship. Mary hated the unpaid work and when her training concluded, she went into bookbinding, which she loved. In 1888 she and her mother moved to Chicago where Mary quickly learned that being a union member was the only way to ensure economic survival.

For years Mary had been disgusted with the working girls club that she belonged to. At each gathering the working women spoke only of pooling their money together to attend various entertainments. Mary believed that by advocating for better pay, the women would be able to venture out on their own. If women had better wages, she proclaimed, they would have a better quality of life.

Mary organized the first Book Binders’ Union for women in Chicago. In 1888, a letter arrived from Jane Addams asking Mary to have dinner at Hull-House as people from England wanted to talk to her about the labor movement. With reluctance, Mary knocked on the door at Hull-House. When it opened, Jane Addams was standing there welcoming the labor activist. Jane Addams asked the bookbinder if there was anything that she could do to assist Mary in her union activities. Soon thereafter, Mary was holding union meetings at the settlement house.

In 1891, Mary Kenney headed a boarding cooperative where single working women would pay a weekly tax of $3 that would provide them with food, a cook, and a guarantee that they would not be kicked out of their home when they went on strike. This boarding coop, named the Jane Club, became a model of salvation for union women. All too often laborers who went on strike when authorized by their unions faced starvation and homelessness in their quest for better working conditions, shorter work hours, and better pay.

In 1893 Mary Kenney moved to Boston to continue as a full-time union organizer for the American Federation of Labor. There she met a fellow union organizer Jack O’Sullivan. The couple married and moved into Denison House, a settlement house founded in 1892 in Boston. Mary Kenney O’Sullivan continued her union work and became the founding member of the National Women’s Trade Union League under the umbrella of the American Federation of Labor (AFL).

18 Radicals Who Fought Against Workplace Atrocities and Cruel Treatment
Lucy Flower from a publication, October 1903. Wikipedia.

16. Giving Boys and Girls Vocational Training instead of Factory Work: Lucy Flower

Lucy Louisa Coues, born in 1837 New England, was influenced by her mother’s temperance and abolitionist work. After completing her schooling, Lucy moved to Washington, DC where she worked in the United States Patent Office. By 1862, Lucy had moved to Madison, Wisconsin where she was a teacher and ran a private school. She met a young lawyer, James M. Flower, and the couple soon married. They had three children with the youngest one graduating from Harvard in 1893.

Most of the advocacy Lucy did was on behalf of children. By 1880, numerous children suffered from neglect and were considered to be delinquents. Locked out of their homes for safety reasons, the garbage-filled alleys and congested streets became their playgrounds. When children committed petty crimes, such as stealing candy from a newspaper stand, they were arrested and treated in the same manner as adult criminals. It was not uncommon for children to wait in a jail cell with a man accused of murder.

With assistance from other reformers, Lucy Flower was able to establish the world’s first juvenile court. The Cook County Juvenile Court opened in July 1899 and instead of sentencing children to jail time, it focussed on prohibition and rehabilitation. Children were offered a chance to walk the straight and narrow instead of entering into the prison system. With the inception of the Juvenile Court, hundreds of children were removed from the criminal justice system and even more had an opportunity to never enter into the system once their probation was completed.

Lucy Flower advocated for technical training for boys and girls. By providing children educational opportunities to develop technical skills they could end the cycle of factory work that was often the only form of income for their immigrant parents. In 1911, Lucy opened an all girls technical and vocational school. Enrollment in the school was open to anyone. As each year passed, more and more young women attended Lucy Tech. It was the only school in the city that was fully racially integrated, run by females, and for only girls. Lucy died in 1921 in Coronado, California. Today both juvenile courts and technical colleges exist because of Lucy Flower’s advocacy.

18 Radicals Who Fought Against Workplace Atrocities and Cruel Treatment
Edith Abbott, date unknown. Wikipedia.

15. She was The First Female Dean of a University: Edith Abbott

The daughter of a abolitionist, suffragette, and Lt. Governor, Edith Abbott was born in Grand Island, Nebraska in 1876. Throughout her life, Edith advocated for immigrants and the humane implementation of social welfare reform. She earned her first degree at the University of Nebraska in 1901. After teaching for two years she went on to attend the University of Chicago having received a fellowship. There she earned a Ph.D. in political economy in 1905. A stellar academic, she was awarded a Carnegie Fellowship and studied at the University College London and the London School of Economics.

While in London, Edith lived at a local settlement house and actively worked to repeal British poor laws that for centuries had criminalized the poverty stricken. With activist experience and academic work guiding her, Edith joined the “social experiment” at Hull-House in 1908. A settlement house with ties to the University of Chicago, Hull-House provided Edith with the opportunity to further statistical teachings and how data could be applied in ways to help the working poor immigrants.

The foundation of Edith Abbott’s work was to use her research to implement social welfare programs that were humane and would actually help the working poor instead of criminalizing them. From her research she co-authored several studies between 1910 and 1917 that centered on working women’s compensation, the link between family life, juvenile delinquency and the court system, the adverse conditions of the Cook County jailing system, and how refusal of municipal and state governments to enforce child labor laws ultimately led child to become wards of the state.

In 1924, Edith Abbott became the dean of the University of Chicago’s school of social work. She designed a curriculum that professionalized social work by dealing with the root cause of social problems, historically, legally, economically, and politically. In doing so, Edith chartered a course that would humanize social welfare programs. After the death of her sister, Grace, in 1939, Edith retreated from her public and academic life. She died in 1957 in Nebraska and was remembered as a leader who made “enduring contributions” to education and the professionalization of social reform.

18 Radicals Who Fought Against Workplace Atrocities and Cruel Treatment
Mary Rozet Smith (left) with Jane Addams circa 1923. Wikipedia.

14. Trumping Cultural Norms: Mary Rozet Smith

Mary Rozet Smith could afford to be a radical. Unlike most of the women at settlement houses throughout the nation in the late-19th century, Mary Smith never went to college or university. The daughter of the president of Bradner-Smith Paper Company, Mary grew up in the lap of luxury and was groomed by her parents and high society to be a woman of the world. She made numerous tours to Europe and joined charitable clubs that provided handouts to the downtrodden.

Born in 1868, Mary Smith grew up in an ever-modernizing Chicago. Thousands of immigrants moved to Chicago to work in factories in the rapidly industrializing town. When Hull-House opened its doors in 1889, Mary quickly became a financial supporter of the “social experiment.” Over the years Mary, her parents, and other of Chicago’s elite donated a lot of money to Hull-House for programs, capital improvements, and educational pursuits. The financial support form Mary Smith grew the settlement house into a 13-building complex that included a designated music building. Neighborhood children and adults learned how to play a variety of musical instruments, as well as music theory.

As with many men and women associated with the nation-wide settlement house movement was the Juvenile Protective Association (JPA). Its chapter in Chicago worked toward establishing the protections of children from abuse and neglect through education during a time when wide-spread programs simply did not exist. Mary Smith became one of the women that led the charge for the creation of the Juvenile Court. Mary Rozet Smith was not just known for her work and financial support of Hull-House.

When the Gay Rights Movement gained national steam in 1969, Mary Rozet Smith became somewhat of a celebrity. Dead since 1934, feminist activists noted how for over 30 years Mary was at the side of Jane Addams. The two women had identified themselves as being married to each other. They shared living quarters, a home, and traveled the world as companions. But any type of gay activism on Mary Smith’s part was not intentional. Speculation abounds regarding the sex life of Mary and Jane, but nothing remains either from their correspondence to each other or in observances from those that knew them best. The two women lived simply in what has been classified as a “Boston Marriage.”

18 Radicals Who Fought Against Workplace Atrocities and Cruel Treatment
Robert Hunter. VCU Library.

13. The “Social Wreckage” of Poverty on Cities from a Socialist: Robert Hunter

Poverty was, and is, perplexing. How is it that a small group of people get richer while a vast many people fall into economic despair? This conundrum challenged the men and women within the settlement house movement. Unlike charitable organizations that simply handed out food and clothing to the poor, settlement house workers wanted to understand the root causes of why some people were in a perpetual state of being poor. Robert Hunter was the father of poverty studies.

Born into a well-to-do family in 1874, Robert attended the University of Indiana and was critical of the free-market economy and its impact on the poor. In 1896, most people believed that the poor were simply lazy and had zero motivation. Newly arrived immigrants, the idea went, were simply too stupid to be motivated workers and save their money. In reality, factories paid such low wages that it was nearly impossible for people who worked 14 hour days to move into higher income brackets. Robert Hunter made it a priority to define the link between wealth and poverty.

Arriving in Chicago in 1896, Robert moved to Hull-House where he chaired the Investigating Committee for the City Homes Association as it conducted surveys of working-class housing. He wanted to know why people who were working 14 hour days still living in dilapidated housing with very little money for food? In 1902, Robert moved on to the University Settlement in New York City’s Lower East Side where he researched the impacts of child labor on children and families. From his research efforts in Chicago and New York, Hunter published Poverty in 1904. He stated that one of his main objectives of the book was to “define poverty” and its “social wreckage” on cities, “the unskilled, underpaid, underfed, and poorly housed workers.”

For the first time a book had outlined the link between wages and poverty. He decried that being poor was criminalized while factory owners were free to pay whatever wage they wanted in the name of a free-market economy. Yet, despite the type of starvation, drunkenness, abuse, and vagrancy that the working poor endured, in his observations, they still seemed to be “more contented than any other class” that he knew. Poverty is still used as a seminal work in the study of sociology and much of Hunters findings till hold true today, 114 years later.

18 Radicals Who Fought Against Workplace Atrocities and Cruel Treatment
Eleanore Roosevelt, the First Lady of the United States, 1932. Wikipedia.

12. The Most Controversial First Lady: Eleanore Roosevelt

The niece of Theodore Roosevelt, Eleanor was born into an aristocratic New York family in 1884. After an unhappy childhood she married Franklin Delano Roosevelt. When she found out about Roosevelt’s affair, Eleanore led her own life. In 1921, when polio struck her husband and made it impossible for him to walk unassisted, she convinced him to continue with his political ambitions. In public she would be his devoted wife, in private she lived elsewhere.

Eleanor worked toward labor rights. She held fundraisers for the Women’s Trade Union League which had goals to eliminate child labor, a 48-hour work week, and a minimum wage. With her husband in poor health, Eleanor became influential in the Democratic Party and shaped its platform. Along with three other activist friends, Eleanor established a type of cooperative for local farm families where they could make furniture to help supplement their farm income.

Upon assuming the role of First Lady she held regular press conferences, contributed to a monthly magazine, and hosted a weekly radio show. Eleanore Roosevelt was not going to be the nation’s hostess and remain in the background. In opposition of her husband’s administration, Eleanore became an advocate for civil rights and the end of segregation. She believed that FDR’s New Deal programs ignored the needs of segregated African Americans in the South. She demanded that all Americans have access to the New Deal programs.

Eleanore Roosevelt was committed to social reform and this made her “the most controversial First Lady in United States history.” Refusing to conform to the cultural norms for women of her class and political standing, she reshaped how wives could stand on their own no matter who they were married to. When Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941, she spoke out against the “great hysteria” aimed minority groups. Her outspoken support of Japanese-Americans caused the Los Angeles Times to demand her resignation as First Lady. Instead, Eleanore worked toward liberating Jewish families from the Nazis.

Decades after the death of her husband, Eleanore Roosevelt continued with her activism and speaking out for the poor, working classes, and minorities. In 1960, she was hit by a car which led to further underlying health issues. She died in her home in New York City in November 1962. President John Kennedy ordered the flags to half staff to honor the first activist First Lady.

18 Radicals Who Fought Against Workplace Atrocities and Cruel Treatment
Sophonisba Breckinridge before 1923. Wikipedia.

11. A “Brilliant Woman in the South”: Sophonisba Breckinridge

Born into an elite Kentucky family in 1866, Sophonisba Breckinridge became a well-known social reformer. Like many of her contemporaries, she graduate from Wellesley College in 1888 and went on to become a teacher of mathematics in Washington, DC. After the death of her mother, she returned to Kentucky and became the first woman admitted to the Kentucky bar in 1895. Unable to obtain a clientele because she was a woman, Ms. Breckinridge went to work at the University of Chicago, where she ultimately earned a PhD in political science and economics. In 1904 she became the first woman to graduate from the University of Chicago Law School.

Three years after earning her law degree, Sophonisba joined Hull-House and continued to focus her energies on vocational training, housing, truancy, and juvenile delinquency. As she became involved with the creation and professionalization of the field of social work, Ms. Breckinridge researched and wrote her first book, The Delinquent Child and the Home, published in 1912. She would go on to write many more books that focused on the on the challenges faced by immigrants as they assimilated to American culture and social norms. Additionally, she focused her research on the challenges that women faced as low-wage earners outside of the home and devalued laborers inside the home.

Breckinridge framed her arguments as an analysis on how social norms impact household economies. She was an advocate for equality and a founding member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) as well as a member of the National Urban League, Woman’s Peace Party, League of Women Voters, and Women’s Trade Union League.

After leaving Hull-House she collaborated with other reformers to establish the Wendell Phillips Settlement House on Chicago’s west side. This settlement house was a place to train African-American social workers. The Wendell Phillips house had a day nursery, supported several Boy Scout troops, and had programs specifically for women and girls. She retired as a full-time faculty member at the University of Chicago, but continued teaching part time until 1942. She died in 1948 at age 82. The Breckinridge House is named in her honor housing undergraduate students at the University of Chicago.

18 Radicals Who Fought Against Workplace Atrocities and Cruel Treatment
Julia Lathrop as Commissioner of the United States Children’s Bureau. Wikipedia.

10. “America’s First Official Mother”: Julia Lathrop

Born in Rockford, Illinois, Julia Lathrop’s father was a personal friend of Illinois Representative Abraham Lincoln. Born in 1858, Julia came of age during the devastation of the American Civil War. She went on to earn a degree at Vassar College and in 1890 she arrived at Chicago’s Hull-House to put her education to work. Immersing herself in community research, she interviewed mothers in the neighborhood to see what services they wanted to make their lives better. Through her interactions with poor immigrant laborers, she saw first hand the problems that excessively long hours working in factories for low wages did to these families.

Lathrop was appointed to the Illinois State Board of Charities in 1893. In this role she advocated for the standardized training of social workers. Working to improved the lives of the poor laborers required more than simply offering them food and clothing. The public perception of the American worker had to be changed so that scientific ways could be enacted to prevent infant mortality, childhood deaths, maternal morbidity, neglect, and juvenile delinquency. In 1912, President William Taft appointed Julia to the newly created Children’s Bureau.

Under her leadership, the Children’s Bureau advocated for the needs of mothers. Working 14-16 hours per day in a factory limited the time that mothers could care for their children. The Children’s Bureau advocated for a federally funded insurance plan that would provide monetary assistance to working pregnant women, a maternity leave, and support for the care of their children when they returned to work.

When Julia Lathrop became the head of a federal agency in 1912, she was not permitted to vote simply because she was a woman. Throughout her life she advocated for the rights of women to decided their own fates instead of being forced into marriages to ensure financial stability. She was also a staunch supporter of removing juveniles from the current judicial system proclaiming that a child that committed a crime of theft should not be imprisoned with a man convicted of murder.

Lathrop retired in 1922 from the Children’s Bureau. She continued to advocate for reforms for children and mothers and became active in the Illinois chapter of the League of Women Voters. She died in April 1932 and is buried in Rockford, Illinois. The Julia C. Lathrop public housing complex in Chicago was named in her honor when it was built in 1938.

18 Radicals Who Fought Against Workplace Atrocities and Cruel Treatment
Frances Perkins, Secretary of Labor, Time Magazine 14 Aug 1933. Wikipedia.

9. The First Woman Appointed to the Cabinet: Frances Perkins

Born in 1880 in Boston, Massachusetts, Frances Perkins went on to be the longest serving U.S. Secretary of Labor and the first woman appointed to the U.S. Cabinet. Classically educated, Frances went on to earn degrees at Mount Holyoke College, Columbia University, and the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. After earning her first degree in chemistry and physics in 1902, Frances became involved in the settlement house movement in Chicago, advocating for workers’ rights and safe working conditions, which would be her life’s work.

As the head of the New York Consumers League in 1910, Frances Perkins advocating for better working conditions. On March 25, 1911, she witness young women jumping to their deaths to escape the fire engulfing the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. Frances’s life was forever altered. No worker should ever be locked in simply because an employer wants to increase productivity. Frances became the executive secretary for the Committee on Safety of the City of New York that promoted the passing of laws to improve working conditions.

While she was fighting for the rights of workers, Frances fell in love and married a New York economist, Paul Wilson in 1913. Frances insisted on keeping her surname instead of taking on the name of her husband. Due to antiquated laws and social norms, women simply did not keep their names after they married. Frances sued for her right to do so in court. Victorious, she would never be known as Mrs. Paul Wilson! Frances gave birth to a baby girl, who suffered, along with Paul, from what is known today as bipolar disorder. As her husband and daughter spent time in and out of mental institutions, Frances was their sole support.

Through her work in New York, she became friends with Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He appointed her as the first Commissioner of the New York State Department of Labor where she was able to expand factory investigations into working conditions, limited a woman’s workweek to 48 hours down from over 80, and fought for a minimum wage and unemployment insurance. When FDR became president, he appointed her to the cabinet position of Secretary of Labor which headed the Department of Labor. This was the first time that a woman had been appointed to such a high-ranking governmental position. Frances Perkins went on to be the longest-tenured Secretary of Labor.

18 Radicals Who Fought Against Workplace Atrocities and Cruel Treatment
Mary McDowell, University of Chicago Settlement, Stock Yards District, circa 1900-1916. Wikipedia.

8. An Educator for the Poor: Mary McDowell

Mary McDowell was born in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1854. After the American Civil War, Mary moved with her family to Chicago. When Mary was 13, in 1871, she witnessed the Great Chicago Fire that left thousands homeless, jobless, and penniless. With her father, Mary helped transport the homeless into temporary housing before the usual October cold set in. This event profoundly influenced Mary and led her to become dedicated to helping individuals that found their lives dictated by events that were beyond their control.

Influenced by her religious upbringing, Mary worked with a joined the Women’s Christian Temperance Movement, advocating for he abolition of liquor because of its adverse impact upon children and the poor. She taught religious classes as well as classes on the evils of alcohol. Her work in this capacity caught the attention of Jane Addams, who invited Mary to join Hull-House as a teacher in the settlement houses’s newly organized kindergarten.

Mary’s work at the Hull-House kindergarten garnered notice for the University of Chicago. Seeking to start their own settlement house, they asked Mary McDowell to be in charge of the endeavor. On January 1, 1894, in the middle fo the Back-of-the-Yards neighborhood that surrounded the enormous Union Stock Yards and meat-packing plants, the University Settlement House opened. As with Hull-House, Mary McDowell’s mission was to provide enrichment services for residents of the neighborhood.

Education was the primary goal of the Back of the Yards settlement. She hired teachers to instruct any neighborhood resident interested in civics, politics, or art. A kindergarten provided the youngest residents of the neighborhood with early exposure to formalized education while giving working women an option for their children instead of working in the factories. Vocational classes and collective civic engagement happened at Back of the Yards. Mary McDowell remained at the University Settlement for most of her life. She lobbied for the United States government to establish the Women’s Bureau specifically to study the living and working conditions of mothers and their children. She died in 1936 at 80 years old.

18 Radicals Who Fought Against Workplace Atrocities and Cruel Treatment
Hull-House Children Playing, photo by Wallace Kirkland. The University of Illinois at Chicago.

7. A Picture Says 1,000 Words: Wallace Kirkland

In 1923 Wallace Kirkland had just earned a college degree in social work. Soon he received an invitation from Jane Addams to come to Hull-House to become director of the boys’ and men’s clubs. He rented an apartment at the ever-expanding Hull-House complex and moved his family in. The Eastman Kodak store in Chicago donated cameras for Kirkland to use with the boys to cultivate an interest in photography. After all how can someone find interest in photography if they do not have a camera?

Not familiar with photography, Wallace was soon hooked. His enthusiasm spread to the boys and young men that took photography classes at the clubs. He encouraged each participant to photograph what was of interest to them. This was a big change from the constant directions bombarded at the boys in the poor, immigrant, working-class neighborhood. The boys could take control of their own work and as such were eager to learn. Wallace constructed a darkroom in a closet of the boys’ clubs building where young photographers developed their artwork.

Wallace Kirkland walked into all parts of the neighborhoods surrounding Hull-House. This could only happen because boys from all gangs respected him. Because of Wallace’s kindness and empathy for other people and his work with some of the toughest boys in the city, he was never harassed as he walked from building to building and street to street taking photos of everyday life in Chicago’s Near West Side. Eventually Wallace left Hull-House and opened his own photography studio.

Eventually he became a photojournalist for Life magazine. According to his son, Wallace Kirkland was assigned to go to India to photography Mohandas Gandhi, whom he idolized. Reportedly Gandhi stated that he did not want to contribute to a capitalistic magazine like Life and wanted nothing to do with Wallace or the magazine. When Wallace Kirkland informed Gandhi that he worked with Jane Addams at Hull-House Gandhi replied with, “Well, spend some time with me.”

Some of the most iconic images of the settlement house movement and Hull-House are photographs taken by Wallace Kirkland. There is a photo of a young Benny Goodman taking clarinet lessons, an old woman spinning yarn, theater and dance classes, citizenship classes, as well as numerous images of the surrounding neighborhood. Throughout his career Kirkland photographed Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the YMCA, and people just being people.

18 Radicals Who Fought Against Workplace Atrocities and Cruel Treatment
Grace Abbott in 1929. Wikipedia.

6. A Voice for Immigrants: Grace Abbott

Grace Abbott was born in 1878 and was the younger sister of Edith Abbott. From an early age Grace advocated for social reform and insisted that research support reasons for change. She grew to become an advocate for immigrants after she moved into Hull-House in 1908. One evening, Grace returned from visiting a dying Russian-Jewish girl in the old Ghetto. She listened to the girl’s final words on how she spent her days sewing “men’s pants all day” in a crowded and noisy tailor shop that was too cold in winter and too hot in summer. In her final hours, the girl spoke of herself as being a failure because she would never be able to send for her family. The girl continued to state that she would die never being able to send for her family.

Touched by the young girl, Grace began to uncover the exploitation of immigrant labor. Private employment agencies told Greek, Italian, Bohemian, and Russian immigrants that they would give them a good-paying job for a small fee. After money was exchanged, the immigrants were loaded onto trains and taken to remote areas where jobs awaited. Often, there was no job or the job only lasted a few days. The immigrants were simply left stranded far away from urban centers and left to find their own way back home without money.

Grace wrote weekly articles that were published in the Chicago Evening Post. For a year her “Within the City’s Gates” informed the public of the plight of immigrant laborers and the exploitation that adversely impacted them. As part of her advocacy work for immigrants, she also stressed the importance of eliminating child labor. She was crucial in promoting the passage of the Keating-Owen Child Labor Act of 1916 that prohibited goods made with child labor to be transported across state lines. Grace died of cancer in 1939. The school of social work is named in her honor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

18 Radicals Who Fought Against Workplace Atrocities and Cruel Treatment
Alzina Parsons Stevens. Wikipedia.

5. A Lost Finger Led to Fighting for Labor Rights: Alzina Parsons Stevens

By the time that Alzina Parsons was 13, she had lost her right index finger in an accident at the cotton factory in which she worked. Born in 1849 in Maine, Alzina married young. By the time that she had arrived in Chicago in 1867, she was divorced but kept her husband’s surname of Stevens. To support herself, as she did as a child, she entered into the printing trade as an editor, typesetter, proof-reader, correspondent, and compositor. When fire broke out in Chicago in October 1871, Stevens likely reported on the disaster.

The Knights of Labor formed in 1869 and became one of the most important national trade unions. Low-skilled laborers, railroad workers, steel workers, and immigrants were all welcome to join as long as they were not lawyers, bankers, liquor dealers, land speculators, or gamblers. Working in the printing trade and a victim of a work injury, Alzina Stevens joined the Knights of Labor and organized the Working Woman’s Union, NO. 1 of Chicago in 1877. Alzina moved from Chicago to Toledo, Ohio where she continued organizing women laborers and becoming a representative of the Knights of Labor attending its general assemblies at annual conferences in Atlanta, Denver, Indianapolis, and Toledo.

In 1892, Alzina returned to Chicago and became a resident at Hull-House. Most of the people involved in the settlement house movement at the time were from wealthy backgrounds. Alzina was working class and provided a different perspective to her sometimes naive counterparts at Hull-House. Demanding change in child labor laws she began working with Florence Kelley who had recently been appointed as a factory inspector in Illinois and advocating for a law that would limit the hours that children could work to a maximum of eight. The law was repealed in 1895, but would be repurposed in the early decades of the 20th century.

Alzina believed that children forced to work in factories because their parents earned such meager pay was slavery. She was critical of the role that the state played in the factory system that forced children to work instead of having a developmentally appropriate childhood where they could learn skills that would make them productive adults instead of factory drones. Early life, she professed, required the “best growth of body, mind and ability,” which could not be obtained working in a dimly lit factory.

18 Radicals Who Fought Against Workplace Atrocities and Cruel Treatment
Rachelle Slobodinsky Yarros, date unknown. The University of Illinois at Chicago, Special Collections.

4. “Get Your Diaphragms!” Birth Control for All: Dr. Rachelle Yarros

At the onset of the 20th century, little information existed regarding sex education and birth control. During the First World War the Untied States spent millions of dollars on campaigns to help stop the spread of venereal disease among soldiers in Europe. For people stateside, it remained illegal to use the United States Postal Service to transport any objects or information about birth control or sex. In direct defiance of cultural norms, Dr. Rachelle Yarros demanded that all Americans—wealthy and poor alike—have access to sex education classes, birth control, and venereal diseases. She stood up to the City of Chicago and in 1922, opened the nations second brith control clinic.

Rachelle Slobodinsky, born in 1869, radicalized in her youth. She grew up in the Russian Empire to wealthy parents. When she was 18 she was forced to flee Russia. She permitted her father to pay her fare to New York. In New York she obtained a job sewing in a garment factory. Like the other immigrant women around her, she worked long hours for low wages. Rachelle went on to earn a medical degree in obstetrics and gynecology in 1893 and went on to intern at the at the New England Hospital for Women and Children where she met Dr. Alice Hamilton.

Victor Yarros married Dr. Slobodinsky in New York. A year later, in 1895, the couple moved to Chicago where she began her medical practice. Impacted by a former patient that committed suicide when she found out she was pregnant, Dr. Yarros was an advocate for democratized sex education and birth control. Unplanned pregnancies often had negative outcomes for working women, primarily forcing them to quit their jobs. From 1907 to 1927 Dr. Yarros and her husband provided sex education classes and a free clinic at the Hull-House complex. She distributed diaphragms to married women against the wishes of the Chicago health commissioner who called Dr. Yarros all sorts of names in the press.

The name calling did not stop Dr. Yarros and she went on to assist Margaret Sanger in organizing the Illinois Birth Control League, which was the precursor to the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. There is no way of knowing how many women Dr. Yarros helped move out of poverty simply by providing them with tools that permitted them to begin a family when they were ready instead of having a family thrusted upon them.

18 Radicals Who Fought Against Workplace Atrocities and Cruel Treatment
Florence Kelley. Wikipedia.

3. A Divorced, Single Mom Forces Change: Florence Kelley

Florence Kelley was a radical in the settlement house movement. The daughter of a Philadelphia judge and congressman, Florence was born in 1858. She had four sisters, all of whom died before they were six years old. At just 16 she attended Cornell University with dreams of going on to law school. When the University of Pennsylvania denied her application based solely on her sex, she moved to Switzerland to attend the University of Zurich. While there she met a medical student and became a socialist.

Lazare Wischnewetzky married Florence Kelley in 1884. Their marriage produced three children, debt, and abuse. In 1891 the couple divorced and Kelley returned to the United States. She was asked to join the social experiment happening in Chicago. With her children in tow, Kelley arrived at Hull-House on a snowy morning after Christmas day. The first face that Kelley and her children saw was that of Jane Addams when she opened the door and welcomed them inside. Florence Kelley radicalized Hull-House and the settlement house movement in a way that no one else did.

Unlike many of her counterparts, Kelley was not deeply religious and refused to seek solutions to the plight of the working and immigrant classes through prayer, priests, and scripture. Instead, she demanded that the men and women of the settlement house movement act on the behalf of those men, women, and children who were living in overcrowded tenements and working 14 hours per day at factories six days per week for the fraction required to move into the middle class. Florence Kelley almost single-handedly turned settlement houses, particularly Hull-House, into sociological and economic research centers.

Florence Kelley’s life-long concern for the plight of working women and children led her to advocate for the improvement of the garment industry in Chicago. Already experienced in starting up guilds to assist working women with labor and living conditions, Kelley established the Bureau of Women’s Labor as an offshoot of the Chicago’s Women’s Club. Through this bureau, Kelley convinced the Illinois Bureau of Labor Statistic to hire her and she embarked on a study of labor conditions in Chicago’s garment industry. For the rest of her live, Florence Kelley advocated for the working classes and fought for labor rights and equality. She died in 1932.

18 Radicals Who Fought Against Workplace Atrocities and Cruel Treatment
Dr. Alice Hamilton, date unknown. Wikipedia.

2. “Get the Lead Out!” Pioneer in Industrial Medicine: Dr. Alice Hamilton

Born in New York, Alice Hamilton grew up in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Throughout her life education was important and her family’s wealth allowed Alice to attended medical school in an era when most women were forced to marry to retain a level of economic comfort. Initially she attended medical school to become a medical missionary. When she determined that she would not be good as a missionary, she settled for being able to “care for the sick.” After graduating fro the University of Michigan Medical School she interned at two hospitals for women and children.

Alice developed an interested in bacteriology, a subdivision of microbiology. She traveled to Berlin to study there, but was turned away for being a woman. Instead she studied in Frankfurt, Munich, and Leipzig before returning to the United States to complete a one-year residency at the Johns Hopkins University Medical School. In 1897 she accepted a position as a professor of pathology at the Women’s Medical School of Northwestern University in Chicago. After hearing Jane Addams speak about the work being done at Hull-House, Dr. Alice Hamilton moved in and became a full-time resident at the famous settlement house from 1897-1919.

Dr. Alice Hamilton spent her days at Northwestern and her evenings teaching English, art, and sports at Hull-House. During her stay at Hull-House she headed a baby wellness clinic and a visiting nurses program. Through both of these ventures, Alice visited with neighborhood residents that worked in nearby garment and steel factories 14 to 16 hours a day and lived in overcrowded and unsanitary tenements. Early on at Hull-House, Alice began researching on the causes of typhoid and tuberculosis, diseases that were common and devastating in the poor, working-class neighborhood surrounding Hull-House.

After her years at Hull-House, Dr. Hamilton became a pioneer in the field of occupational epidemiology and industrial hygiene. Examining the impacts of chemicals and elements on the lives of workers and their children made Hamilton a powerhouse in public health and occupational reforms. Her research and advocacy led to industrial companies to be accountable for the work environments of their laborers. As a special investigator for the uS Bureau of Labor Statistics in 1925, she advocated for the removal of lead and mercury from common products such as gasoline and paint. In 1978 the United States had made it illegal to use or produce paint that contained led.

18 Radicals Who Fought Against Workplace Atrocities and Cruel Treatment
Portrait of Jane Addams by George de Forest Brush, circa 1906. Wikipedia.

1. Kicking Gender Norms to the Curb: Jane Addams

She was known simply as Saint Jane. Born in 1860 just months before the outbreak of Civil War, Jane’s young life was touched by death. Her mother died when she was 2 and many families in Cedarville, Illinois, had sons that were killed in battle. Jane was astute in the complexities of human emotions. She understood the sadness of the mothers and fathers that lost children while at the same time she had a drive to affect change. An outcast due to a childhood illness that left her with a limp, she dreamed of becoming a doctor. Fate had other plans for Jane Addams.

In September 1889, Jane Addams and a college friend, Ellen Gates Starr, opened Hull-House. Located in a poor, immigrant community, Jane defied gender roles and stepped out of the over-protected world of lady-like femininity and into the world of sociological research and reform. Scholars have written a great deal about the activities and sociological studies that came out of Hull-House. And while Jane Addams was a key player in that, it is often overlooked that she was excellent at convincing people to support her “social experiment.”

Public speaking is difficult but Jane had a gift. She often entered the home of Chicago’s wealthiest families or went on speaking tours to various organizations and turned beautiful phrases that garnered her with massive financial support. When speaking engagements were not scheduled, she invited the press to report on the social gatherings, classes, and theater performances occurring at Hull-House. Not all of the reports were favorable, but Jane Addams knew in 1889 that all publicity was good.

Jane Addams was critical of the federal government and its failure to protect children and women from industrialists’ profits. She was no fan of a free market economy and her outspoken published works led to numerous raids on Hull-House. Undeterred, Jane Addams continued to fight for peace and equity for immigrants and the poor. In 1931 she became the first woman awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Jane Addams died on 21 May 1935. As her casket left Hull-House, the city of Chicago shut down to pay its last collective respect to the woman that made the working poor and immigrants visible.


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

Bryan, Mary Lynn McCree and Allen F. Davis, eds. 100 Years at Hull-House. Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1990.

Goldfield, David, Carl Abbot, Peter H. Argersinger, William L. Barney, Virginia DeJohn Anderson, Robert M. Weir, and Jo-Ann E. Argersinger. The American Journey: A History of the United States 4th ed. combined volume. Boston: Prentice-Hall, 2011.

Holli, Melvin G. And Peter d’A. Jones, eds. Ethnic Chicago: A Multicultural Portrait 4th ed. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995.

Knight, Louise W. Citizen: Jane Addams and the Struggle for Democracy. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2005.

Miller, Donald L. City of the Century: The Epic Of Chicago and the Making of America. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 1996.

Jane Addams Hull-House Museum

Settlement Movement – Wikipedia

Alice Hamilton – Wikipedia

Julia C. Lathrop Homes – Wikipedia

Sophonisba Breckinridge – Wikipedia

Hunter Robert – VCU Libraries

Frances Perkins – Wikipedia

Alzina Stevens – Wikipedia

Edith Abbott – Wikipedia

Grace Abbott – Wikipedia

Rachelle Slobodinsky Yarros – UIC

Mary Rozet Smith – Wikipedia