A Valentine to Florence Kelley – National Consumers League

By Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director

Friday’s Washington Post featured a story about the recession sending more women into the workplace, many returning to work after spending years at home with their kids. In 2008, the first year of the recession, employed wives contributed 45 percent of the household income, a high for the decade.

Experts think that the unemployment rate for men is higher at 10 percent because industries that are male-dominated, like construction and manufacturing, have been hit hardest in the economic downturn. Health care and education industries tend to be women-dominated, and in many cases they have actually added jobs, opening doors to women’s return to work. The women quoted in this article talk about how “hectic” life becomes once they go back to work, how getting home in the evening means daycare pickup, homework, dinner, and bedtime.

I find all of this really interesting when viewed through the lens of history. I’m currently reading the fascinating new publication, “The Selected Letters of Florence Kelley, 1869-19311” the National Consumers League’s first General Secretary. Kelley – who, from the very first day of NCL’s founding in 1899, fought valiantly for basic rights and protections of women that many of us take for granted today. Kelley worked for the right of women to earn minimum wage and not be forced to work more than 10 hours per day, six days a week (a protection upheld in the 1908 Supreme Court case of Muller v. Oregon).

When NCL was founded, millions of women in the United States went to work each day in factories, bakeries, mills, hospitals, or laundries in the near-dawn hours – or started work at night – and never knew when they would return home. Their employers controlled how long they worked and what they would get paid. And no one got paid overtime. To make matters worse, women often worked for pauper’s wages, while being exposed to dangerous working conditions, including exposure to chemicals, repetitive movements, poor ventilation, or dangerous machinery.

The worst thing the women quoted in Friday’s Washington Post article complain of are hectic nights now that they aren’t at home during the day with their children. Of course, many less fortunate women in this country still face sweatshop working conditions, low wages, and even “wage-theft” where they put in hours that their employers don’t pay them for. And NCL continues to support efforts to improve their lot.

But for millions of working women, conditions have improved enormously. On this Valentine’s Day, we owe a debt of thanks to Florence Kelley and the many women and men of the National Consumers League who fought in the courts, in the state legislatures, and in Congress to provide millions of women far better working conditions today