Florence Kelley and women’s suffrage at the National Archives

Today the National Consumers League staff is visiting the exhibit at the National Archives entitled Rightfully Hers: American Women and the VoteAs many are aware, 2020 marks the 100th anniversary of women’s right to vote in the United States. In 1920, American democracy dramatically expanded when the newly ratified 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibited the states from denying the vote on the basis of sex.  

As the exhibit notes, “The U.S. Constitution as drafted in 1787 did not specify eligibility requirements for voting. It left that power to the states. Subsequent constitutional amendments and Federal laws have gradually restricted states’ power to decide who votes. But before 1920, the only constitutional restriction prohibited states from barring voters on the basis of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude. States’ power to determine voter eligibility made the struggle for women’s voting rights a piecemeal process.” So the 19th Amendment was critically important because we no longer had to rely on states to grant women the right to vote. It became mandatory.

The National Consumers League, led by the towering reformer Florence Kelley, was a leading voice for women’s suffrage long before ratification of the 19th Amendment. In February 1898, Kelley wrote a paper entitled “The Working Woman’s Need of the Ballot,” which was read at hearings on “the philosophy of the [women’s suffrage] movement.

As Kathryn Kish Sklar points out in her biography of Kelley – Florence Kelley and the Nation’s Workconducted by the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Women’s Suffrage: “No one needs all the powers of the fullest citizenship more urgently than the wage-earning woman …. Since she was “cut off from the protection awarded to her sisters abroad” but had no power “to defend her interests at the polls.” Kelley argued this impaired her standing in the community and lowered “her value as a human being and consequently as a worker.”

Florence Kelley and her fellow Progressive Era reformers led the fight for women’s suffrage in speeches, reports, and testimony before Congress. We thank them for their bravery and refusal to back down in the face of brutal opposition from many forces and we celebrate with them this 100th Anniversary of the 19th Amendment as we enjoy and take in all that this exhibit has to offer. Thanks to the National Archives and our dear friend Professor Robyn Muncy of the University of Maryland, who co-curated the exhibit with the Archives’ Corinne Porter.

80 years of the Fair Labor Standards Act and its unfinished business – National Consumers League

The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) of 1938 is celebrating its 80th Anniversary this year. The work of the National Consumers League (NCL), founded in 1899, and Florence Kelley, laid the groundwork for this landmark worker protection legislation. The FLSA set the first federal regulations for child labor, minimum wages, and maximum hours laws. It was signed into law by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, whose labor secretary, Frances Perkins, started her career with the NCL.

So 80 years later, NCL thought it would be useful to review the history and impact of the FLSA by inviting experts from across the country to speak. NCL and the American Constitution Society cosponsored our Unfinished Business: The Fair Labor Standards Act 80 Years Later” at Georgetown University Law Center March 28.

At the outset, it’s important to note that worker rights are under attack all the time: the trucking industry is trying to lower the age to allow teens as young as 18 to drive 80,000 pound rigs because there’s a manufactured labor shortage, thanks to threats to immigrant workers from ICE and the Trump Administration. Indeed, the state of New Hampshire is increasing the hours to 56 that teens can work each week when they aren’t in school.

That said, the conference attendees were able to cheer the recent victory—and how great advocacy prevented eroding restaurant workers’ salaries—when Congress included in the Omnibus bill signed by President Trump last week a prohibition on restaurant owners’ keeping workers’ tips. Saru Jayaraman, who spoke at the conference, and the Restaurant Opportunity Center, launched an all-out campaign to protect $5.8 billion in tips and, with the help of democrats in Congress, won these protections.

The conference included a panel on the history of the FLSA, testimony from three hourly workers talking about the sexual harassment and wage theft they experience daily on the job, a keynote by Obama-era DOL Wage and Hour Director David Weil – who brought with him many of his former DOL colleagues, and a rousing keynote from SEIU International President Mary Kay Henry. Panelists also talked about efforts to erode worker protections – like states preempting localities that want to raise their local minimum wage or making employees sign forced arbitration papers that prevent them from going to court if there’s discrimination or wage theft on the job. By the way, NCL wants forced arbitration banned in labor and consumer contracts, but that is a hard sell in a conservative Congress.

Gaps in the law and erosion of the FLSA were very much at the top of our conference agenda. Workers labor on farms sometimes up to 90 hours a week during the harvest with no protections. They should be making overtime pay.

Other agenda items:

  • Adding paid sick leave and vacation leave to federal law
  • Banning forced arbitration contracts for workers
  • Enforcing the FLSA for gig economy jobs like driving for Uber or Lyft
  • Resisting incentives to turn employees into independent contractors
  • Adding restaurant workers to be covered by the FLSA
  • Expanding overtime pay
  • Enforcing the law against persistent violators and double the penalties
  • Legalizing private class-action suits under the FLSA
  • Changing policy to make sure immigrants aren’t exploited and allow them to take the thousands of vacant jobs where there’s much demand

While the list of unfinished business is long, everyone agreed that the worker reforms brought by passage of the FLSA in 1938 provided desperately needed protections that helped workers in America improve their experience as workers, their incomes, and their quality of life. Setting the agenda is critically important because – like the victory on tipping – we have to be ready to move quickly to get provisions enacted when opportunities come up. The NCL is proud to be continuing our 118-year history of advocating for workers’ rights with this conference.

The Greatest American Heroine You’ve Never Heard of: Why Florence Kelley Should Be the Woman on the Next $10 Bill – National Consumers League

This post appeared on the Huffington Post on July 6, 2015

The Secretary of the U.S. Treasury, Jack Lew, recently announced that the newly re-designed $10 bill, slated for 2020, would feature the face of a woman to honor the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote. The announcement set the Internet ablaze with suggestions for which historical U.S. woman would adorn the new bill.

It’s about time! While this will not be the first time a woman has graced U.S. currency – Martha Washington was featured on the dollar bill in the 19th Century and Pocahontas was in a group photo that appeared on the $20 bill from 1865 to 1869 – it’s been way too long since we had an American heroine appear on paper money. Queen Elizabeth’s likeness is on bills in 15 Commonwealth countries. Frida Kahlo is featured on Mexico’s 500-peso note. Eva Peron has been celebrated on Argentina’s 100-peso note since 2012. Opera star Dame Nellie Melba appears on the Australian 100-dollar note.

Lew has said that he will be choosing a woman who “has played a major role in our history who represents the theme of democracy.” One of the National Consumers League’s founders, Florence Kelley, was a champion for equal rights and consumer protections who fought her whole life for democracy and would be an ideal candidate – a true unsung female American hero.

Though her actions are not as popularized as other women in U.S. history, she has indeed played a major role in the creation of modern America and worked tirelessly to raise awareness and influence public policy to fight the oppressive working conditions for women, children, and all workers. She may not be as well recognized in popular culture, but we all take for granted the 8-hour workday that she helped to establish and the other groundbreaking reforms in labor and consumer products for which she was responsible. Her work left a very visible mark on our nation’s history, and we now have a chance for her legacy in social justice to be acknowledged.

Here are the top ten reasons we should put #KelleyOn10.

1. Influence. Justice Felix Frankfurter said about Florence Kelley: she “had probably the largest single share in shaping the social history of the United States during the first 30 years of the 20th Century.”
2. Workers rights. The daughter of William D. Kelley, a co-founder of the Republican Party in 1859 and a U.S. Congressman from Philadelphia, 1860-1890, she was a charismatic speaker who convinced her contemporaries that women and children needed labor protections at a time when unions would not represent their interests.
3. Pioneer. After graduating from Cornell University in 1882, and obtaining a law degree from Northwestern University in 1893, she co-founded in 1898 a leading progressive era organization – the National Consumers League (NCL)– and headed the NCL until her death in 1932.
4. Progressive leadership. She fostered the creation of 64 local consumers’ leagues throughout the United States, and traveled extensively to orchestrate connections between local leagues and the national league, promoting a social justice agenda that was widely adopted by the women’s suffrage movement and other progressive movements nationwide. She inspired and mentored future Labor Secretary, Frances Perkins; Eleanor Roosevelt followed in Kelley’s footsteps.
5. Ending child labor. She was the leading champion of eradicating child labor in the United States from 1898-1932.
6. 40-hour work week. She promoted the enactment of state wage and hours laws for women, which created the foundation for the 40-hour week and minimum wage law incorporated within the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) of 1938.
7. Universal health care. She led the campaign for enactment of the first federal health care bill, the Welfare and Hygiene of Maternity and Infancy Act, more commonly known as the Sheppard-Towner Act of 1921
8. NAACP leadership. In 1909 she was one of the original organizers, with W.E.B. DuBois and others, of the NAACP and served on the association’s board for 20 years. Kelley fully supported racial equality, writing in a 1926 letter, “I think there should be a written pledge from every hotel that there will be no race discrimination. Certainly I should not dream of staying in any hotel which refused to my fellow members either bed or board.”
9. Women’s suffrage. She was a prominent leader in the battle for women’s suffrage, served a Vice President of the National American Woman Suffrage Association in 1902, and in 1920 co-founded the League of Women Voters.
10. Consumer safety. She advocated for the Pure Food and Drugs Act and Meat Inspection Act of 1906, pioneering consumer protection laws that laid the groundwork for the creation of the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service.