Domesticating America: Florence Kelley, The Crusade for Labor Reform, and the Changed American Woman at the Turn of the Twentieth Century
What it meant to be an American woman underwent a revolution at the turn of the twentieth century. The change not only united women, but divided them as well. Industrialization found women working in factories, retail shops, at home in tenements, and in sweat-shops. Other women, mostly upper-middle class, went to college and graduate schools for the first time. Many of these, like Florence Kelley and the Progressive women of the National Consumers’ League, understood their duty as educated bourgeois women to better the lives of their wage-earning sisters. Other women, like Alice Paul and the National Women’s Party, understood their duty as forward-thinking women to fight for a Constitutional amendment guaranteeing their right to vote; after achieving that, they fought for equal treatment under the law. No matter what their role, women had enlarged the domestic sphere to encompass almost every facet of the external world.
Kelley and the NCL worked tirelessly to achieve labor reform using their education and the new field of sociology to investigate labor problems, educate the public, enact social legislation using the police power of the state, and fight to uphold these laws in the nation’s courts with the help of advocates Louis D. Brandeis and Felix Frankfurter. Kelley and the NCL’s advocacy used novel methods, like factual information culled from international sources instead of legal precedent, and manipulated the paternalistic attitudes of male decision makers. Part and parcel, theirs was a woman’s crusade—by women and for the cause of protecting women and the family through methods and goals they believed especially suited to women—essentially using sociology to legislate morality.
However, not all women in the widened domestic sphere agreed on the future of American feminism and how to better womankind. The Progressive labor reformers were challenged the most not by men, but by women who believed in equal rights. This was because the Progressives and the equal rights women disagreed fundamentally in two ways. First, the Progressive women of the NCL essentially believed that the genders were different. Rather than seeing the feminine sphere disappear, they saw it color the larger world with womanly values. They believed their moral crusade was one special to women as the morality of women differed from that of men; and the crusade’s major tool--social science--was a special science for which women were especially suited. Second, for Kelley, the end goal was always labor reform; this motivated her in all things--her interest in the law, voting rights, women’s education, arguing for female judges, and overturning the prevailing judicial theory of the “liberty of contract.” Rather than viewing protective labor legislation as paternalistic or discriminatory, like the equal rights women did, they saw it as vital to combat the poor conditions of the working class, to reverse the detrimental effects on the family that had resulted from industrialization, and, perhaps, as an entry into protective labor legislation for all workers, regardless of gender.
For Alice Paul and the National Women’s Party, in contrast, men and women were the same, or at least they should have been legally; and to the end of equality under the law, they worked for the Nineteenth Amendment and the Equal Rights Amendment. For Paul and the NWP, legal equality would empower women to achieve social equality. They saw the labor reforms of the NCL as paternalistic and a step backwards in the fight for equality under the law. These views would align them with legal formalist judges, like Justice Sutherland, in a battle fought in the Supreme Court over the minimum wage law advocated by Felix Frankfurter and the NCL.
This paper describes how an educated bourgeois woman, Florence Kelley, led the Progressives to find women’s work through education, labor reform through protective labor legislation, and advocacy in the courts. This paper also describes how Kelley’s belief in the direness of the labor situation and the differences between the genders allowed her to promote essentially paternalistic and discriminatory measures without a sense of betrayal to her gender; and examines how she was ultimately challenged by a woman worker and an equal rights theorist who disagreed with Kelley on the future of American feminism.
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