Florence Kelley

Florence Kelley

1859 – 1932

Florence Kelley. Courtesy of the Kelley family.

In a moment of weakness, I agreed to write something about my aunt Florence Kelley Worgan for the Historical Society’s project on Little Compton women. Somehow my brief expanded to include write-ups about my great-grandmother, the original Florence Kelley, aka ”Granny,” for whom Aunt Florie was named, and my grandmother, Augusta Maverick Kelley. I tried unsuccessfully to fob all of this onto others – either Lucy O’Connor or my sister Debby Kelley would have made a much better choice, but neither was available. Mike and Heather Steers did a fair amount of digging and composed an early draft, but they obviously couldn’t fill in a lot of the blanks without knowing the family stories. But I didn’t know an awful lot about these three women for purposes of this project. For example, I had found a suffragist medal in my grandmother’s things while cleaning out her house, but I had no idea she had been as active in the movement as she was. The more time I spent on the project, the more I realized how little I knew about them, even with the contributions of my sisters Debby and Susie, cousins Steve O’Connor and Lloyd Macdonald, and the Steerses. I regret so much not asking more questions when I had the chance.

A friend thought perhaps I should lead off with Aunt Florie as there are still many people in Little Compton who knew her.  But the chronological approach seemed best as Granny Florence and my grandmother had to have been important models for Florie in helping explain Florie’s remarkable career.  

One more introductory word. I understand this exhibition is presented in honor of the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment and focuses on women with Little Compton connections. For those keeping score at home, we believe Granny rarely visited Little Compton, but she was a leader in the national suffragist movement. Grandmother met her future husband in Little Compton and spent every summer of her life here after they married. As a suffragist she protested at the White House and was arrested several times! Aunt Florie grew up spending summers in Little Compton and commuted here from New York almost every summer weekend for decades until she and her husband retired here. She wasn’t a suffragist as far as we can tell. When the 19th Amendment became law in 1920, Florie was only 8 years old.

Almost everything I know about Granny Florence I’ve gotten off the Internet or from skimming a couple of unexciting books about her written in dense, academic prose. (Unfortunately for this note, I only just discovered Granny wrote an autobiography as well as several books concerning issues she cared about.) I don’t remember my grandparents or her grandchildren – my father, Nicholas Kelley, Jr., my uncle, Augustus Maverick Kelley, or Aunt Florie – saying much about her.

This was unfortunate because she was famous in her time as an activist and social reformer. Her issues were banning child labor; improving conditions for factory workers, especially women, by ending sweatshops, establishing a minimum wage and eight-hour workdays; winning the right to vote for women; and combatting racial discrimination. She did all this for many years as a single parent with three young children and few resources with prototypical work/family balance issues so familiar today.

She was born in Philadelphia into a family that cared about politics and social issues and pushed her to become involved in the issues to which she eventually devoted her life. Her parents were both abolitionists. Her mother Caroline’s family were Quakers and descendants of the American botanist and explorer, John Bartram. Florence’s maternal grandmother believed strongly in women’s equality. Her father, William Darrah Kelley, of Protestant English descent whose family had settled in the Delaware Valley in the 1660s, had had to make it on his own, landing his first job at age 10 to help his young, widowed mother and siblings. He became a lawyer, judge, a founder of the Republican Party in Pennsylvania and US congressman for 30 years where he was a staunch supporter of President Lincoln and served as chairman of Ways and Means. Her father, known as “Pig Iron” Kelley for his representation of the steel makers and workers in his district, took Florence with him when he visited the local factories and foundries so she could see what conditions were like.

Florence entered Cornell at 16 but missed graduating on time because of illness. Foreshadowing her life’s work, her senior paper was titled “The Child and the Law.” Upon graduation, she wanted to become a lawyer but her application to Penn’s law school was denied because she was a woman. She went to Europe instead and would return to the US four years later as a wife, a mother and a socialist.

Europe hadn’t been her decision. Before leaving for Europe Granny had been organizing evening classes for working women and a place where women could meet, discuss common issues in Philadelphia, initiatives she was excited about. But her brother Will fell ill, and she accompanied him to the south of France where his doctors hoped he might recover. Will did get better, and the rest of the family met them in London; Florence and her father toured industrial sites in England and Wales where they observed men, women and children living and working in dangerous and unhealthy conditions.

Florence decided to stay on and study law and government at the University of Zurich. When exactly she became a socialist is unclear, but it happened in Europe. While there, she had become interested in German social and economic theory and discussed these issues in regular correspondence with activists and intellectuals in America and Europe, including the German socialist and philosopher Friedrich Engels, whose classic work, “Condition of the Working Class in England,” she translated into English. Engels worked closely with Karl Marx and provided him with financial support while Marx wrote “Das Kapital.” Interestingly, Engels’ father owned large textile mills in England and Germany. Before any readers get too excited about Granny’s socialism, it seems to have been more akin to the Progressives’ political agenda in the period dating from the 1890s to the 1910s, she saw unions helping workers lives improve as productivity and profits increased.

Her switch to socialism did not sit well with her family. They were even less thrilled when Granny married Lazare Wischnewetsky, a politically like-minded medical student at Heidelberg, in a civil ceremony in Switzerland. The New York Times’ obituaries for Granny and her son Nicholas Kelley would later describe Wischnewetsky as a “Polish nobleman,” but he was at least part Russian, from Odessa, and Jewish (this last was something Florence’s family reportedly never mentioned).  The couple’s son Nikolai (subsequently renamed Nicholas) was born in Zurich in 1885.

Florence returned to the US with her family in 1886, arriving in New York. Although they hadn’t expected to stay in the US permanently, the family was expanding – Margaret was born in 1886 and John in 1888 and Granny felt there was lots of opportunity there for reform work. So they lived in the City where she advocated for more factory inspectors, among other things. Her efforts paid off when Albany passed legislation creating many more state inspector positions.

But her marriage was unraveling. Wischnewetsky was physically abusive and contributed little, if anything, to the family income while incurring many debts. Florence determined to leave Wischnewetsky and take their three children to Chicago. She wanted custody of the children and felt Illinois would be a more favorable jurisdiction for her divorce and custody claims than New York. (She was right; an Illinois court granted her claims after Wischnewetsky followed her to Chicago to contest matters.) But she also chose Chicago because of Jane Addams and the work she was doing at Hull House, a settlement house in a poor section of the city (Addams believed that in order to understand the issues affecting the poor it was necessary to live among them).

Meeting Jane Addams was a positive, life-changing event for Granny and her children in several ways. Addams provided a model for activism and effecting social reform and Hull House a safe haven for her own work. She considered Addams her best friend, and they worked closely together on many issues affecting the poor and working classes.

Through Addams she met the wealthy socialist and muckraking journalist-author Henry Demarest Lloyd who spent summers in Little Compton. In the beginning Florence and her children lived at Hull House but the Lloyds invited them to stay with them which the children did, off and on, for a few years. It wasn’t long before the Lloyds began inviting young Nikolai to spend summers with them in Little Compton, only young Nikolai was then Nicholas Kelley. When Granny left Wischnewetsky she took back her maiden name, changed the children’s surname to Kelley and Nikolai’s first name to Nicholas. The only vestige of his original name that survived was the nickname “Ko,” the only name I heard Grandmother (his wife Augusta Maverick Kelley) use with him. (According again to a family story, the Lloyds gave Nicholas his first real suit before he left for his freshman year at Harvard College.)

I wasn’t able to find anything out about whether Granny, or Margaret or John, accompanied Nicholas on his early visits to Little Compton. Granny seemed to be busy all the time during the Chicago years and frequently left the children for long stretches in care of a nursemaid at the Lloyds’ in Winnetka. As she worked practically non-stop her entire life and was so serious and dogged about pursuing her agenda, I have wondered what kind of mother and person she was. I think she really cared about her children; she wrote some touching letters to friends about not seeing her children and missing them terribly, and Nicholas, aka Granddad, was quoted in his obituary in the Times as owing everything to her, but that’s all I could find quickly for this note. She was considered a charismatic and powerful speaker with a sense of humor, and she was clearly able to work with lots of different people like Addams on all kinds of issues, but I don’t know how much fun she was or whether she ever let her hair down, figuratively or literally – I can’t remember any photographs of her without her hair up.

Getting back to Little Compton, the only visit there’s any evidence she made here was the summer she took care of her young grandchildren while their parents, Ko and Augusta, were traveling abroad. Her grandson, my father Nicholas, Jr., told my sister Debby that Granny found them all so badly behaved she left, and someone had to be found to fill in on short notice.

While it doesn’t appear Granny visited Little Compton much, she spent summers at a house she owned in Brooklin, Maine, overlooking Egemoggin Reach. How she came to own this house – she seems to have made very little money from her work and lived at settlement houses in Chicago and, later, New York, is a mystery. I know Granddad, his brother John, and my father and his brother Gus sailed at least once from Sakonnet to visit her in Maine, and that Granddad sold the house after Granny died. Both Granny’s and her father’s remains were buried in Brooklin.

Granny brought her interest in protecting children and women to Hull House where its labor bureau was already investigating working and living conditions in Chicago. She became the leader of Hull House’s anti-sweatshop efforts which led to her appointment as special agent for the Illinois Bureau of Labor Statistics. Her initial assignment was to research and write a 2-part report on working women in Chicago and the sweatshop system in Chicago. Her research entailed visiting hundreds of shops and tenements and filling out reports, or “schedules,” for each; it was piecework – she received 50 cents for each schedule. This led in turn to her appointment by joint commissions of the Illinois State senate and house on sweatshops as one of their two investigators. In 1893 Illinois‘ progressive governor Peter Altgeld made her the first female chief factory inspector in state history. She and her staff inspected businesses and prosecuted them for violations of labor laws, many of them new, such as the Illinois law establishing an 8-hour workday. The defendant businesses did not roll over, a number of them challenged the constitutionality of the new laws, so the litigation was not only important, but it was interesting. As she wanted to become personally involved in this aspect of the work, she entered law school the same year, 1893, at Northwestern, graduating and passing the bar a year or two later. It appears she thoroughly enjoyed developing legal arguments, plotting out her team’s appellate briefs.

In 1899, with Addams and several others, Granny founded the National Consumers League which is still active today. The original idea behind the League’s formation was to organize consumers to use their purchasing power to encourage fair labor practices by employers. The League’s “white label” program identified law-abiding employers consumers should do business with.

Granny was very happy in Chicago but soon after the League was formed, she was asked to become its first general secretary which required that she return to New York. She ran the League until the year she died, 1932, living for years at the Henry Street settlement house. According to her obituary in the Times, she lived later on in a house on East 15th Street, the next street over from where I’m guessing her son Nicholas was living by then on East 16th. If they did overlap, I wonder how often they visited each other.

Under her leadership, the League also focused on passing state and federal legislation that defined those fair labor practices it hoped to encourage, including measures to end sweatshops and child labor, to establish a minimum wage and to limit working hours. It also lent its support to defending legislation that had been enacted along these lines from constitutional challenges.  

As an example of this last, the League’s research director, Josephine Clara Goldmark, who was also Louis Brandeis’s sister-in-law, supplied the scientific data Brandeis used in the brief he submitted to the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of Muller v. Oregon. This was the famous, at least for lawyers, “Brandeis brief”- of its 113 pages, 98 pages consisted of Goldmark’s data. (Goldmark also wrote a biography of Granny.)

In Muller v. Oregon the plaintiff had challenged Oregon’s new law limiting the workday for women to 10 hours as discriminating unlawfully against men since their workday had not been so limited. Oregon’s rationale had been to protect women on the grounds that they were physically weaker and thus less able to work as many hours as men. Its supporters including the League had based their arguments on this rationale which was at odds with the notion men and women should be treated equally that formed the basis for the expansion of women’s rights. In any event, the Court upheld Oregon’s law limiting work hours for women.

The League also backed legislation protecting the general public such as the Meat Inspection Act of 1906 and the Pure Food and Drugs Act of 1906.

Granny worked tirelessly supporting the League’s initiatives, traveling, meeting, lobbying, writing books and articles and speaking frequently to groups large and small This work included her active involvement in like-minded organizations and efforts. One of the most interesting, I think, was the National Child Labor Committee, originally a private non-profit that was chartered by an act of Congress in 1904. Congress appointed Granny and Addams, among others, to NCLC’s original board of directors. NCLC’s mission was to protect children in relation to work which soon developed into supporting banning the use of child labor altogether and establishing compulsory free education for all children. According to the census of 1900, approximately 1 in every 6 American children between the ages of 5 and 10 was engaged in “gainful occupation.”

NCLC began by investigating conditions in individual states and pressing for the states to pass their own laws banning child labor. (I remember someone in the family telling me Granny had travelled all over the country with Felix Frankfurter investigating working conditions of women and children and wonder if this happened under the auspices of NCLC.) There was a lot of pushback from the states, especially in the South, however, and NCLC shifted its approach to seeking federal legislation to ban child labor. Despite NCLC’s considerable efforts, Congress did not ban child labor until 1938 with the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act, six years after Granny’s death.

At the same time she was busy with League matters, Granny continued to fight for the franchise for women. She was a suffragist from early on. Her mother’s aunt Sarah Pugh believed in a woman’s right to work and live an independent life if she chose and was a powerful influence on Granny growing up. Both her great aunt and her parents knew Susan B. Anthony well – her father‘s affectionate nickname for Anthony was “The Major” – and Granny met her when she was a young woman. In addition to these early influences, I have read that Granny’s promotion of women’s rights, including the right to vote, also had much to do with the fact none of her five sisters survived childhood. She spoke and advocated often for women’s rights and universal suffrage and served as vice-president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association for many years until the enactment of the 19th Amendment in 1920. The NAWSA survives today as the League of Women Voters.

In 1909, Granny joined with several others to found the NAACP. As bad as things were for the white workers whose working and living conditions she investigated, they were worse everywhere for black people. She worked closely with W.E.B. DuBois on a wide range of issues and served on several NAACP committees but she seems to have focused on anti-lynching legislation and fighting for the equal distribution of federal funds to black and white communities, especially where the funding related to education. She also participated in early protest marches opposing violence against blacks and other forms of racial discrimination.

Granny continued to press for her causes for the rest of her life. This included starting more new organizations, like the Intercollegiate Socialist Society she founded with Upton Sinclair and Jack London, among many others. I remember reading that Walter Lippmann had invited Granny to speak at Harvard in his capacity as undergraduate president of the Harvard Socialist Club, which had been chartered by the ISS. (The ISS later changed its mission and became the League for Industrial Democracy.)

There were plenty of highs along the way but also some lows. The worst low had to have been losing her daughter Margaret while she was away at Smith College. Margaret collapsed and died during a test to prove her heart issues wouldn’t prevent her from participating in athletics.

Granny’s identification as a socialist also caused problems. According to her Times obituary, critics accused her of believing in communism. During World War I she was forced to leave her place with the federal Board of Control of Labor Standards after certain statements alleged to have been made by her were interpreted to show she opposed the selective service system. As the Times put it, Granny had “long been known as a radical and enemy of what she termed  ‘American imperialism.’” I haven’t seen anything suggesting she was in fact a communist or anything close to it. She worked to improve the system – by her lights unregulated laissez-faire capitalism wasn’t working – not to overthrow it. This was, after all, the same person who was a mentor and friend to Frances Perkins, the first woman to serve in the US Cabinet, as FDR’s Secretary of Labor.

Florence Kelley. Courtesy of the Kelley family.

Nick Kelley, Great-grandson

April 2020

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