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Florence Kelley: A Forgotten American Hero

New book on the activist provides a lens into her life and work in 1890s Chicago

CHICAGO --- A new book by a Northwestern University School of Law scholar aims to fill in the gaps in all that has been written about Florence Kelley -- focusing particularly on the somewhat neglected decade the late 19th-century advocate for women and children spent in Chicago.

Though Kelley is the subject of three biographies and an autobiography, author Leigh Bienen, a senior lecturer at the School of Law, concluded during her extensive research on the legal and social activist that too little had been written about her efforts to improve working conditions in Chicago, where starving women and children labored long hours in unsafe conditions.

To be released this month, Bienen’s book is titled “Florence Kelley, Factory Inspector in 1890s Chicago, and the Children” (Open Books, 2014).

In an interesting twist, Bienen parallels her own life in Chicago with Kelley’s in the new book. She braids together three narratives, the story of Kelley’s life as a mother and reformer in the tumult of 1890s Chicago, the story of her (Bienen’s) own arrival in Chicago a century later and her life and work here, as well as a narrative of the extraordinary events leading to the abolition of capital punishment in Illinois.

Tireless in her efforts to improve working conditions and eradicate child labor, Kelley was fleeing an abusive husband when she came to Chicago from New York in the 1890s and took up residence with her children at Hull-House, the legendary settlement house co-founded by Jane Addams. Although strapped for funds, Kelley did the work she set out to do, held several government jobs, and, along with others, persuaded the public that this was the time to do something about the conditions in the tenements.

Living in close proximity to the tenements and factories whose miserable conditions were the focus of her work, Kelley was able to make a real difference in Chicago.

She was named the first chief factory inspector for the state of Illinois. Gov. Peter Altgeld’s 1893 appointment of a woman to such an important position was nearly unprecedented.   

Kelley implemented a factory inspection law adopted by the Illinois legislature in 1893, limiting women’s working hours to eight per day, prohibiting child labor and regulating conditions in tenement sweatshops. Women and children were a large proportion of that labor. 

The new book grew out of an interactive website based on Bienen’s research on Kelley that was launched in 2008.

“I am interested in her life, her family life, her children and how she managed to be both a public figure and a mother,” Bienen said.

“None of the biographies adequately deal with her decade in Chicago, perhaps because they were written by Easterners,” Bienen said. “None, in my opinion, conveyed the richness of the historical context of the effort to reform conditions in city sweatshops and tenements and the actions and personalities of public figures such as Florence Kelley and Jane Addams.”

Also of particular interest to Bienen, Kelley earned a law degree from Northwestern in 1895 -- during a time when college graduate education was highly uncommon for women. Kelley was also known for combining fiery stylized prose with well-researched findings in her advocacy and investigations. And she was a mesmerizing public speaker.

“I was so struck by her writing and astonished with how much she achieved at a time when women couldn’t even vote,” said Bienen when she launched the Kelley website. “I keep asking myself, how in the world did she do all that?”

Extensive litigation challenging Kelley’s work and the new factory inspection law resulted in the Illinois Supreme Court declaring parts of the law unconstitutional in 1895. However, Kelley and her colleagues triumphed years later when the U.S. Supreme Court, at the urging of Louis Brandeis, upheld such statutes. Kelley and her colleague Josephine Goldmark invented the Brandeis Brief for that case. 

“She and John Peter Altgeld and the many supporters of factory reform really did implement pathbreaking legislation,” Bienen said. “And just like today, it required a tremendous effort and some good fortune. They were political and social reformers addressing the big questions, which remain today.”  

Bienen is a writer, advocate and teacher whose areas of expertise include capital punishment, sex crimes and legal reform. In addition to many legal articles, previous books include “The Left-Handed Marriage” (Ontario Review Press, 2001); “Crimes of the Century,” with Gil Geis (Northeastern University Press, 1998) and “Murder and Its Consequences: Essays on Capital Punishment” (Northwestern University Press, 2010).

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