On May 1, 1899, Florence Kelley began her work for the National Consumers’ League. Not only was the Consumers League a critical organization in the fight against child labor, but Kelley established herself and middle-class women more broadly as key allies in the struggle for dignified labor in the United States and made labor feminism a major part of the broader women’s movement.
Kelley was born in 1859 in Philadelphia to an abolitionist family. Her father William Kelley was a founder of the Republican Party and he served in Congress from 1861 until his death in 1890. Growing up in the waning reform movements of the Gilded Age, Florence spent her childhood being read books about child labor by her father. She entered Cornell at the age of 16 and wrote her thesis on impoverished children. She dedicated her life to this issue. She read Marx, studied in Zurich, and advocated for socialism. In 1891, she joined Jane Addams at Hull House in Chicago. There, she took on child labor with aplomb, expanding the already activist nature of that institution. Her 1892 investigation of the labor conditions in Chicago’s garment sweatshops led the Illinois Bureau of Labor Statistics to hire her. She became the state’s Chief Factory Inspector in 1893 and fought for Illinois to pass the nation’s first 8-hour day law for women and prohibit the employment of children under the age of 14, which happened the same year.
In 1899, she moved to New York to head the newly founded National Consumers’ League. Addams and Josephine Lowell chartered the organization to use the power of women’s activism to press for women’s issues on the job. Lowell had founded the Consumers League of the City of New York in 1891 to help consumers understand which products were produced ethically. In 1899, they decided to take this nationwide. Addams hated to lose Kelley from Hull House, but she was the best person for the job. Living at the Henry Street Settlement House from that point until 1926, she continued the fight with her indefatigable energy. She made the Consumers’ League the top opponent to the sweatshops that dotted New York City, employing thousands of low-paid and easily exploitable immigrants, especially young women. Between 1903 and 1905, it focused primarily on child labor laws, but then expanded its mission significantly. It produced a series of publications setting out both the conditions of labor and publicizing what was happening in the states. For instance, in 1906, it published “Handbook of Child Labor Legislation.” Written by Josephine Goldmark, another critically important labor feminist of the era, it laid out the different laws in the states around the issue. It established the Code of Standards to lobby consumer efforts in service of decent labor standards. Using a consumer campaign called the White Label Campaign, Kelley sought to let consumers know which factories were making clothing in safe, healthy working conditions that did not horribly exploit workers or hire children. To make this effective, it had to inform consumers that they must demand manufacturers agree to it in order to pressure them. This was probably the first organized consumer campaign in favor of labor rights in American history.
It urged consumers to boycott clothing that did not have this label and was effective enough to get many companies to comply. Of course, many did not. Among those were the Triangle Shirt Waist Company, where 146 workers would die in 1911. It was precisely this type of company the Consumers League targeted, as it initially focused on women’s underwear manufacturers. It then focused on waitresses, as well as artificial flower and canning companies, both major exploiters of female and child labor.
In 1907, Kelley played a critical role in creating the arguments that would lead to Muller v. Oregon, the pioneering case to allow work hours limitations on women. She and the League contributed heavily to Louis Brandeis’ famous brief that explained the real conditions of women workers to the Supreme Court. While Kelley was primarily concerned by the conditions faced by women and children, she hoped that such a decision and the laws that she fought to pass would be a chink in the armor of the contract doctrine that defined the Lochner decision. Unfortunately, Kelley’s labor feminism would be opposed by other sides of the feminist movement, most notably by Alice Paul and the National Women’s Party, who first claimed that laws that protected women also oppressed women by making them different than men but then simply opposed all labor laws as the New Deal developed. The Consumers League wrote minimum wage laws for states to pass. It supported the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906. It also won the creation of the Children’s Bureau at the federal level in 1912, where for years it was run almost entirely by women, many of whom had worked directly for Kelley and the Consumers League. She was a mentor to Frances Perkins, who would be the first woman to serve in the Cabinet, when she served as Secretary to Labor from 1933-1945. Among the other women to work for Kelley was Eleanor Roosevelt, who started work there in 1903 and became a major player in the White Label Campaign.
Kelley continued with the Consumers League until her death in 1932. She kept up the fight, pursuing justice in the Bunting v. Oregon case, where in 1917, the Supreme Court upheld a ten-hour day law for both men and women. She and the Consumers League also played a critical role in the passage of the Keating-Owen Act of 1918, which banned child labor nationally for workers under the age of 14. She also worked for the passage of the Sheppard-Towner Act that created the first national program to fight childbirth mortality, funding health care clinics around childbirth in poor parts of the nation. In addition, Kelley strongly believed in racial justice. She was a co-founder of the NAACP and became friends with W.E.B. DuBois.
In 1943, the Consumers League moved its offices from New York to Cleveland, where it lobbied for such issues as rights for farm workers who were excluded from New Deal labor legislation, equal pay for equal work for women, better workers compensation laws, and the expansion of Social Security to cover disability. Beginning in the 1960s, the League began shifting its emphasis slightly away from labor and toward protecting consumers from the many unregulated problems in American products. The Consumers League remains around today, although it is not a major player in labor issues, even as it still has quite a bit of support from unions. It is presently headed by Sally Greenberg and it works primarily around consumer safety issues, although still with some emphasis on issues such as child labor.
This is the 218th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.