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

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