Women's Intellectual Contributions to the Study of Mind and Society

Students, as part of an advanced seminar, examined and wrote about the lives of these women, their intellectual contributions, and the unique impact and special problems that being female had on their careers.

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Florence Kelley: A Commitment to Social Work

Florence Kelley is considered one of the great contributors to the Chicago Women's School of Sociology, a school of thought comprised of women, and responsible for the improvement of many social conditions during the turn of the twentieth century and following. Kelley was a well-educated and successful woman, a combination almost unheard of for a woman during this time period, due to social norms that dictated otherwise for the majority of women. In looking at her life, we understand the profound impact this determined and resolute woman made in elevating the quality of life for countless individuals.


In her childhood, Kelley had the fortune to be surrounded by many progressive and supportive family members. Her father, William Kelley, was a great influence upon her. William was an Irish-Protestant, self-educated lawyer and judge, who was deeply concerned with politics. In his young adulthood as an artisan in the family jewelry business, William aligned himself with the Jacksonian Democrats, and fought strongly for worker's rights. However, due to his bitter opposition to slavery, his political sentiments shifted to the Republican Party in the 1850s (James, 1971).

Kelley's Aunt Sarah, Sarah Pugh, attended the World Anti-Slavery Convention, which was a convention of American and British abolitionists. She was one of seven women, all American, to attend the conference. Also included in this select group of women was Pugh's best friend, famed suffragette, Lucretia Mott. She was also a Member of the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society, which became the first abolitionist organization to include both white and black women. Kelley's parents, William and Caroline, frequently attended Mott's parlor gatherings, which included people from many different parts of the political spectrum, so that debates on political issues of the day could be easily facilitated (Sklar, 1995).


Kelley grew up on "The Elms", an estate located in Philadelphia, an establishment described as: "an isolated estate four miles as the crow flies west of Independence Hall; the Elms was so secluded during her early years that no one passed by between Thanksgiving and Easter" (Sklar, 1995, 27). Florence was the third of eight children. Beginning when Kelley was a baby, the family experienced many personal losses. The outline below provides a timeline of the deaths of all Florence's sisters throughout her childhood:

When Florence is...

a baby: Two-year old Elizabeth dies in 1859

4 yrs: 11 month-old Marian dies in 1863

6 yrs: 7 month-old Josephine dies in 1865, two months after Lincoln's assassination.

9 yrs: 4 month-old Caroline Lincoln Kennedy dies in 1869.

12 yrs: Anna (Josephine's twin), age six, dies.

(Sklar, 1995)

It is postulated that Florence felt the need, and pressure from the family, to successfully execute the role of dutiful daughter. After her sister Anna's death, Florence was the only girl child left in the family. Moreover, Anna was said to be the darling of the Kelley family, a loss that effected the family profoundly. Kelley says that the event: "robbed the sunshine of its glory and created a shadow lasting to this present day" (Sklar, 1995, 29). Biographies of Kelley assert that the probable cause of the first three Kelley children's deaths were the result of summer diarrhea, a common cause of death for children in the mid-19th century. During the summer, young children were particularly susceptible to infection from contaminated food, milk, and water. No social class was exempt from this malady: "In 1870, 1/3 of all children in Philadelphia died before the age of ten" (Sklar, 1995, 27).


Florence suffered from chronic eyestrain through childhood and well into college, in addition to enduring a bout with scarlet fever in childhood. Due to these conditions, she was schooled mainly at home, where she studied subjects like music, dance, and drawing. It is through these long stays at home that Florence begins a deep interest in the act of reading and takes it upon herself to read all the books in her father's library. It is a task that she ultimately finishes later in life. In addition to her home schooling, Kelley also attended Miss Longreth's School, a well reputed Quaker institution in Philadelphia, that focused on honing investigative, comparative, and research skills. From Quaker teachings, Kelley was introduced to the value of mystical experience and social reform (Sklar, 1995).

Kelley attended Cornell University at age 17, at the encouragement of her father. Cornell let women into the university in 1873, four years after its founding. Ezra Cornell, its founder, wrote in his correspondence about the university that: "...I want to have girls educated in the university, as well as boys, so that they may have the same opportunity to become wise and useful to society that the boys have" (Sklar, 1995, 52). In addition, Cornell attracted students from the lower class as well as the elite classes of women, which provided a diverse body of students for Kelley to interact with. In her second year, she helped found the social science club, and soon broke out of her somber shell that enclosed her personality at the Elms. But after a winter holiday spent at home, she returns to Cornell with a diphtheria infection. She is unable to return to school for three years due to inadequate care. Of the education system in Kelley's day, it is observed that:

"After 1880 education became even more crucial for middle-class men and women concerned about the course of social change, for lacking control of an economy dominated by industrial capitalists, unable to master urban growth, and frustrated by a policy dominated by party machines, their ability to influence public policy depended on their ability to process new forms of information, create new modes of communication, and devise new answers to social problems." (Sklar, 1995, 51)

Certainly the education of women was essential if they wanted to accomplish goals at the professional level. But highly educated women at the undergraduate and graduate level were in the minority in the late-1800's, both in numbers and in favor. In 1873, Edward H. Clarke, a former professor at Harvard, writes Sex in Education which states that girls were unfit for coeducation, because the academic rigor designed for boys deprived girls of the energy needed for functions like menstruation and other female physiological processes. The validity of the study was questionable, as it was based on a mere seven cases, one of which was a 14 year old girl from Vassar (Sklar, 1995). It is proposed that ideas like these, at the forefront of society's consciousness during Kelley's school years, that influenced her decision to stay an extended time at home, due to her illness. Despite this, upon her return to school, Kelley receives her bachelor's degree in 1882 and completes her thesis "On Some Changes in The Legal Status of the Child since Blackstone".

In 1883, Kelley took a tour of Europe with her brother. While traveling she meets M. Carey Thomas, a women debarred from her degree at the University of Leipzig, whom instead attended the University of Zurich, the first European university open to women. Kelley enrolls at the University of Zurich and becomes part of a community of students who embrace the teachings of socialism. These ideas help inform her ideas concerning the abuse of people in poor social conditions. Her translation of "The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844" is published by New York Socialists in 1887. The project keeps her in correspondence with Engels for roughly ten years. Kelley also translates and publishes Marx's "Free Trade", the text of a speech given in 1848 (Deegan, 1991).


Kelley meets Lazare Wischnewtchy, a Russian medical student and a socialist, at the University of Zurich. The couple marry in June of 1884. They have a son Nicolas in 1885, and then move to New York City in 1886, where they live for five years. Their daughter Margaret is born in 1886, and son John Bartram is born in 1888. All told, Kelley has three children in three years, when she is between the ages of 24 and 27. The Wischnewtchy's soon join the Socialist Labor Party in New York, which was primarily an organization rooted in a European perspective. But the couple is expelled from the party in 1887 due to the Party's mistrust of them, despite the fact that Florence devoted herself greatly to the Party's work while they resided in New York City (Sklar, 1995).

Of the Wischnewtchy's marriage, there is divergent thought on the cause of their eventual divorce. Some critics state that the couple was poor and "burdened by debt" (James, 1971). Kathryn Kish Sklar, a prominent biographer of Kelley's work, states that: "Kelley tried to preserve the marriage, but economic pressures, cultural differences, and her own unwillingness (or inability) to tolerate Lazare's abuse (physical and verbal) continued to erode their partnership" (Sklar, 1995, 167). Ultimately, they separate in 1891 after many years of estrangement. She changes her name back to 'Kelley', and assumes custody of the children, who also adopt her maiden name. Florence then moves to Illinois, where divorce is easy to attain under the state's laws (James, 1971).

In 1891, Kelley becomes a resident of Hull House, a settlement home in Chicago. During her previous residence in New York City, she becomes acquainted with the settlement movement through her visit to the College Settlement. She boards her children with Henry Demarest Lloyd, who lives in Winnetka, a wealthy suburb of Chicago. His house is dubbed "The Wayside" for its "social hospitality and commitment to social reform" (Stebner, 1997, 118). The following fall, the children and Kelley's mother are moved into an apartment near Hull House. Although it is not explicit, Kelley takes the responsibility of "The Family Claim", a popular practice which placed responsibility on the eldest daughter to care for aged parents, as well as any other siblings.


In 1892, Kelley is hired to the Illinois Bureau of Labor Statistics to investigate the sweat-shop system in the garment industry. She holds this position until 1897. Governor John Peter Altgeld appoints Kelley as the chief factor inspector. She hires a staff of twelve, which included Hull House colleague Alzina Stevens, and is given a $12, 000 budget for the project. She continues the position until Altgeld's successor dismisses her from the post in 1897 (Stebner, 1997).

Since Kelley experienced great difficulty seeing cases prosecuted against sweat-shops, she enrolls in evening classes at Northwestern University, earning her law degree in 1894. Shortly thereafter, she is admitted to the bar.

Kelley remains at Hull House until 1899, giving lectures, as well as writing essays on socialism and industrial problems. During this time, she supports her family by getting a job at John Crear Library in Chicago.

In May of 1891, Kelley takes a job as the general secretary of the New Consumers' League. This organization sought to motivate the consumer to see that the goods produced for them were done so under favorable working conditions. Upon accepting this position, Kelley moves herself and her children to the Henry Street Settlement in New York City. This settlement house was aligned with the goals of Hull House.

During her tenure with the Consumer's League, Kelley travels extensively, speaking to numerous organizations--women's clubs, labor unions, colleges, etc., and organizes 60 different leagues in 20 different states, plus two international conferences.

By 1913, nine states had adopted some form of minimum wage legislation.

Kelley organizes the New York Child Labor Committee, and is a member of the board for many years.

Kelley writes Some Ethical Gains Through Legislation in 1905. Her book addressed the need for a federal children's commission, which was also an extremely important issue for the members of the Henry Street Settlement.

In 1912, Congress creates the Children's Bureau.

In 1909, Kelley helps organize the NAACP.

Kelley becomes a founding member of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom in 1919. During WWI, she identifies herself as an opponent of American imperialism, and as a pacifist.

Kelley becomes president of the Intercollegiate Socialist Society from 1913-1920.

Kelley serves as Vice President of the National Woman Suffrage Association. In the 1920's, she is vocal about her opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment, stating that it would compromise the strides made to protect women workers.

Considering the contributions Kelley made in social reform, many scholars cite her work as providing the impetus for the programs of the New Deal, in the decade following her death.

From 1882-1932, Kelley published 2 books and 14 items. (James, 1971)




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