Florence Kelley: Labor and Consumer Advocate

National Consumers' League Head

Florence Kelley, Jane Addams, Julia Lathrop. Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

Florence Kelley (September 12, 1859 - February 17, 1932), a lawyer and social worker, is remembered for her work for protective labor legislation for women, her activism working for child labor protections, and for heading National Consumers' League for 34 years.


Florence Kelley's father, William Darrah, was a Quaker and North American 19th-century anti-enslavement activist who helped to found the Republican Party. He served as a U.S. Congressman from Philadelphia. Her great-aunt, Sarah Pugh, was also a Quaker and an anti-enslavement activist, who was present when the hall in which the Anti-Slavery Convention of American Women was meeting was set on fire by a pro-enslavement mob; after the women safely left the burning building in pairs, White and Black, they reconvened in Sarah Pugh's school.

Education and Early Activism

Florence Kelley completed Cornell University in 1882 as a Phi Beta Kappa, spending six years in earning her degree due to health issues. She then went to study at the University of Zurich, where she became attracted to socialism. Her translation of Friedrich Engels' Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844, published in 1887, is still in use.

In Zurich in 1884, Florence Kelley married a Polish-Russian socialist, at that time still in medical school, Lazare Wishnieweski. They had one child when they moved to New York City two years later and had two more children in New York. In 1891, Florence Kelley moved to Chicago, taking her children with her, and divorced her husband. While she took back her birth name, Kelley, with the divorce, she continued to use the title "Mrs."

In 1893, she also successfully lobbied the Illinois state legislature to pass a law establishing an eight-hour workday for women. In 1894, she was awarded her law degree from Northwestern, and she was admitted to the Illinois bar.


In Chicago, Florence Kelley became a resident at Hull-House -- "resident" meaning that she worked as well as lived there, in a community of mostly women who were involved in neighborhood and general social reform. Her work was part of the research documented in Hull-House Maps and Papers (1895). While studying law at Northwestern University, Florence Kelley studied child labor in sweatshops and issued a report on that topic for the Illinois State Bureau of Labor, and then was appointed in 1893 by Gov. John P. Altgeld as the first factory inspector for the state of Illinois.

National Consumers League

Josephine Shaw Lowell had founded the National Consumers League, and, in 1899, Florence Kelley became its national secretary (essentially, its director) for the next 34 years, moving to New York where she was a resident at the Henry Street settlement house. The National Consumers League (NCL) worked primarily for rights for working women and children. In 1905 she published Some Ethical Gains Through Legislation. She worked with Lillian D. Wald to establish the United States Children's Bureau.

Protective Legislation and the Brandeis Brief

In 1908, Kelley's friend and long-time companion, Josephine Goldmark, worked with Kelley to compile statistics and prepare legal arguments for a brief defending legislation to establish limits on working hours for women, part of an effort to establish protective labor legislation. The brief, written by Goldmark, was presented to the U.S. Supreme Court in the case Muller v. Oregon, by Louis D. Brandeis, who was married to Goldmark's older sister, Alice, and who would later himself sit on the Supreme Court. This "Brandeis Brief" established a precedent of the Supreme Court considering sociological evidence alongside (or even as superior to) legal precedent.

By 1909, Florence Kelley was working to win a minimum wage law and also worked for womens' suffrage. She joined Jane Addams during World War I in supporting peace. She published Modern Industry in Relation to the Family, Health, Education, Morality in 1914.

Kelley herself considered her greatest accomplishment the 1921 Sheppard-Towner Maternity and Infancy Protection Act, winning health care funds. In 1925, she compiled The Supreme Court and Minimum Wage Legislation.


Kelley died in 1932, in a world that, facing the Great Depression, was finally recognizing some of the ideas she'd fought for. After her death, the U.S. Supreme Court finally decided that states could regulate women's working conditions and child labor.

Her companion Josephine Goldmark, with the assistance of Goldmark's niece, Elizabeth Brandeis Rauschenbush, wrote a biography of Kelley, published in 1953: Impatient Crusader: Florence Kelley's Life Story.


Florence Kelley. Ethical Gains through Legislation (1905).

Florence Kelley. Modern Industry (1914).

Josephine Goldmark. Impatient Crusader: Florence Kelley's Life Story (1953).

Blumberg, Dorothy. Florence Kelley, the Making of a Social Pioneer (1966).

Kathyrn Kish Sklar. Florence Kelley and Women's Political Culture: Doing the Nation's Work, 1820-1940 (1992).

Also by Florence Kelley:

  • Shall Women Be Equal Before the Law? Elsie Hill and Florence Kelley wrote this 1922 article for The Nation, only two years after the winning of women's vote. They document on behalf of the National Woman's Party the status of women under the law at that time in various states, and propose, also on behalf of the National Woman's Party, a detailed Constitutional Amendment which they believed would remedy the inequalities while preserving appropriate protections for women under the law.

Background, Family

  • Father: William Darrah Kelley
  • Mother: Caroline Bartram Bonsall
  • Siblings: two brothers, five sisters (the sisters all died in childhood)


  • Cornell University, bachelor of arts, 1882; Phi Beta Kappa
  • University of Zurich
  • Northwestern University, law degree, 1894

Marriage, Children:

  • husband: Lazare Wishnieweski or Wischnewetzky (married 1884, divorced 1891; Polish physician)
  • three children: Margaret, Nicholas, and John Bartram

Also known as Florence Kelly, Florence Kelley Wischnewetzky, Florence Kelley Wishnieweski, Florence Molthrop Kelley

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Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Florence Kelley: Labor and Consumer Advocate." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/florence-kelley-biography-3530828. Lewis, Jone Johnson. (2023, April 5). Florence Kelley: Labor and Consumer Advocate. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/florence-kelley-biography-3530828 Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Florence Kelley: Labor and Consumer Advocate." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/florence-kelley-biography-3530828 (accessed June 3, 2023).