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Get a Rich Slice of Chicago History

Lecture about how Florence Kelley shaped social history of Illinois

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April 13, 2010 | by Hilary Hurd Anyaso

CHICAGO --- Social activist Florence Kelley worked tirelessly to improve working conditions and eradicate child labor around the turn of the 20th century.

But Kelley's work in Chicago, where she lived in the legendary Hull House, with Jane Addams, one of the nation's most famous social activists, and the fact she became the first woman factory inspector in Illinois and the United States, are relatively unknown. 

That's why Northwestern University's Leigh Bienen and her colleagues created a Web site (http://florencekelley.northwestern.edu) devoted to the life and work of Kelley.

Bienen, a senior lecturer at Northwestern University School of Law, will talk about "Florence Kelley and the Illinois Supreme Court" at 5 p.m., Thursday, April 15, at Northwestern Law, 357 E. Chicago Ave., Lincoln Hall, Room 104, within Levy Mayer Hall. Sponsored by the Illinois Supreme Court Historic Preservation Commission and the Chicago Bar Association, the lecture is free and open to the public

Bienen also is in the process of writing a book about Kelley and her time in Chicago. Kelley's place in history was noted by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, who referred, in a book foreword, to Kelley's influence in "shaping the social history of the United States during the first 30 years of this century."

Kelley received her undergraduate degree from Cornell University and a law degree from Northwestern in 1895, at a time when college graduate education was restricted to the few and highly uncommon for women. Her appointment by Ill. Gov. John Peter Altgeld in 1893 as the first chief inspector in Illinois made her the first woman in the country to hold such an important state office and the first such investigator entrusted with the statewide administration of a factory law.

Kelley was known for combining fiery stylized prose with well-researched findings in her advocacy and investigations.

The spine of the Northwestern Web site devoted to Florence Kelley is a timeline of the litigation involving the challenge to Kelley's authority and the factory inspection law that she championed. Highly controversial at the time, the law was adopted by the Illinois legislature in 1893. Basically, the law limited women's working hours to eight per day, regulated tenement sweatshops and prohibited child labor. By 1895, the Illinois Association of Manufacturers was successful in persuading the Supreme Court of Illinois to declare the hours provision of the law as applied to women unconstitutional.

Kelley also led and participated in a variety of projects including a wage and ethnicity census of the slums and tenements in Chicago; the reporting of cases and contagion in the smallpox epidemic of 1893; the enforcement of the universal primary education laws, and, most importantly, improving living conditions for the poor by enforcing the provisions of the Illinois Factory Inspections Law of 1893.