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.