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Monochrome portrait of Kelley, facing camera
Portrait of Florence Kelley, circa 1910. Miller NAWSA Suffrage Scrapbooks, Scrapbook 8, NAWSA Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress.

Florence Kelley and the Feminist Opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1920s

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This is a guest post by Katie Rose Quandt, a freelance journalist, M.A. student in biography and memoir at The City University of New York Graduate Center, and 2023 Library of Congress National Woman’s Party Research Fellow.

It was October 1921, and Florence Kelley was frustrated. This was not unusual; the labor activist and General Secretary of the National Consumers’ League (NCL) was known for her determination, temper, and refusal to back down from a fight. While reading through Kelley’s letters, I am often struck by her strong, direct language, whether the recipient is a peer or a governor. But while she often aimed her sharp pen and indignation at powerful industrialists, in 1921, she was facing off against her own friends and allies. “It is indeed painful to me ever to be obliged to oppose you,” Kelley wrote to Maud Younger, National Legislative Chairman of the National Woman’s Party (NWP), “Your present activities, however, run counter to my continuous efforts of more than five and thirty years, and I cannot stand idly by.”

Kelley’s letter was one of many flying back and forth between female political leaders in 1921. Following the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920, many suffrage leaders disagreed on where next to focus their efforts. To Kelley, the answer was obvious: Women should use their newfound political influence to fight social injustices and labor abuses. The 62-year-old socialist had spent, as she noted, more than 35 years lobbying and litigating for state and federal workplace protections. After spending a formative eight years as a resident at Jane Addams’s Hull House settlement house in Chicago, Kelley had moved to New York, where she ran the NCL for decades and helped pass child labor laws around the country. Supreme Court Justice (and Kelley’s frequent collaborator) Felix Frankfurter would later credit her with “probably the largest single share in shaping the social history of the United States during the first thirty years of this century.”

Typewritten letter on National Consumers' League stationery
Florence Kelley to Maud Younger, October 19, 1921. National Woman’s Party Records, Group II, Box II:15 (Reel II:10), Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

I am researching Florence Kelley as part of a group biography of several lesser-known Hull House friends and collaborators, whose immense contributions to American politics and society have often gone underacknowledged. At a time when they were excluded from official channels of power, female reformers in the Progressive Era worked together in settlement houses and women’s clubs, leveraging their collective voices to carve out alternate channels of power and achieve their goals. My research as a 2023 Library of Congress National Woman’s Party Research Fellow helped me reveal a nuanced picture of how female suffragists and reformers collaborated for common goals—yet at times encountered insurmountable ideological differences.

In the 1920s, Kelley’s lifelong commitment to women’s workplace protections led her to oppose staunchly any state or federal amendment granting equal rights on the basis of sex. One of Kelley’s frequent tactics was to lobby for legislation that exclusively protected women, such as limiting working hours, banning night work, and requiring rest breaks for female workers. Kelley and her allies had discovered that courts were more amenable to these laws than to broader restrictions applying to all workers. In Kelley’s eyes, a so-called “blanket amendment” declaring the sexes equal would put these hard-earned protections in danger of being overturned by the courts.

Kelley’s stance put her head-to-head against former allies in the National Woman’s Party, a group of mostly younger, more militant suffragists who had used direct action and publicity stunts to advocate for the vote. Kelley had joined the NWP during the suffrage fight, supported their fresh tactics, and enthused that younger suffragists had “galvanized into action from slumbersome life-long efforts the old-line ‘suffs.’” But after the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified, just as Kelley was doubling down on her work for protective labor legislation, the NWP set out on an opposing course. In early 1921, NWP leaders announced their intent to secure an equality amendment.

Nearly every other women’s group came out in opposition to the amendment. As each side strategized and sought a possible compromise, there were a flurry of letters back and forth. During my week in the Library of Congress Manuscript Reading Room, I read many of these letters in the NWP Records, which I accessed digitally within the ProQuest History Vault database, and well as in the National Consumers’ League Records and Felix Frankfurter Papers, both of which I accessed on microfilm.

Several Florence Kelley letters in the NWP Records are addressed to Alice Paul, cofounder and Chairman of the NWP, who drafted the amendment with Crystal Eastman. “My dear Miss Paul,” Kelley opened one of these letters, before stating her opposition to a blanket amendment, and concluding, “Under existing conditions I must, therefore, ask to have my name removed from the list of members of the Advisory Committee of the National Woman’s Party.”

Typewritten letter on National Consumers' League stationery
Florence Kelley to Alice Paul, October 14, 1921. National Woman’s Party Records, Group II, Box II: 15 (Reel II:10), Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

Paul seems to have taken special note of another letter from Kelley. On October 5, 1921, Kelley wrote that the NCL was “opposed to the attempt to deal with political equality and other aspects of equality in any single measure, either state or federal.” Within the NWP Records, this line is marked with the word “quote.” In subsequent letters to others, Paul quoted the line, emphasizing Kelley’s stance as “typical of the attitude of the welfare workers,” and an indication of the hopelessness of winning over social feminists.

Kelley wasn’t alone in her fears. Many leading attorneys agreed that a blanket amendment would open the door to overturning all gender-based protective legislation. Kelley strategized with attorneys like Felix Frankfurter, then a Harvard Law School professor, to whom she wrote of “Alice Paul’s pestiferous proposed blanket amendment to the federal Constitution.” The Supreme Court at the time was hostile to workplace regulations in general, under the premise of protecting workers’ rights to negotiate their own contracts and labor conditions. This era of the Court is remembered today as the Lochner Era, named after Lochner v. New York, a landmark 1905 case in which the Court overturned a law capping working hours.

Kelley believed that gender-based legislation not only helped female workers, but also acted as a wedge, setting precedents that could later be used to argue for universal protections. This strategy sometimes worked: In Bunting v. Oregon (1917), the Supreme Court ruled that a 10-hour daily work limit was constitutional, citing the precedent set by Muller v. Oregon (1908), an earlier case that allowed for limits on women’s working hours.

Maud Younger at wheel of open automobile with dog in passengers seat, building in background
Portrait of Maud Younger, NWP National Legislative Chairman of the NWP, with her dog, Sandy, December 16, 1920. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

At the conclusion of her October 1921 letter to Maud Younger, Kelley called the NWP’s efforts “a sad waste of energy” that would be better used “getting measures passed on which thinking women agree.” She closed: “I begrudge, for instance, every hour of the thousands that I shall have to spend in adverse criticism of these measures. There is so much constructive work waiting to be done, to which those hours could be given!”

Kelley’s prediction was correct. She did, in fact, spend years fighting the constitutional amendment, including after it was first introduced in Congress in 1923 as the Lucretia Mott Amendment. This early interfeminist fight over the amendment foreshadowed the fierce opposition the Equal Rights Amendment would face in the 1970s, this time from the political right, and its continued failure to be ratified 100 years later.

The Library of Congress Manuscript Division holds a treasure trove of records outlining this 1920s disagreement over an Equal Rights Amendment. In addition to reading many letters, pamphlets, and other records pertaining to this specific debate, I was also able to use my time in the Manuscript Reading Room to access a number of paper records that inform other aspects of my group biography project, including the papers of NCL board member Pauline Goldmark and Progressive-Era Judge Ben B. Lindsey, as well as fascinating Chicago neighborhood “walking tours” and reports found in the U.S. Work Projects Administration Records.

Florence Kelley’s letters about the proposed amendment are the writings of a passionate, determined individual, engaged in what she saw as a crucial fight. To Kelley, the blanket amendment wasn’t just concerning—it was “pestiferous,” “terrifying,” and an act of “insanity.” The records available in the Manuscript Reading Room help bring to life the urgency and intensity of this debate that played out a century ago.

 

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“…her strong, direct language…” For instance, in 1901, when incoming Illinois Gov. Richard Yates offered Kelley the position of Assistant Chief Factory Inspector, a demotion from her job as Chief Factory Inspector under the outgoing Gov. John Peter Altgeld, she responded: “To one who has faithfully performed the duties of Chief Factory Inspector of the State of Illinois, the offer of the position of Assistant Chief Inspector cannot be presented otherwise than as an affront. Yours very truly, Florence Kelley.” Florence Kelley to Richard Yates, July 26, 1901, Florence Kelley Papers, Series I: IA, Box 1, New York Public Library.

“Kelley wrote to Maud Younger…” Florence Kelley to Maud Younger, October 19, 1921, National Woman’s Party Records, Group II, Box II:15 (Reel II:10), Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

“To Kelley, the answer was obvious…” Florence Kelley, Woman Suffrage: Its Relation to Working Women and Children (National American Woman Suffrage Association, circa 1913-1915), Ann Lewis Women’s Suffrage Collection.

“probably the largest single share…” Felix Frankfurter, “Foreword,” in Josephine Goldmark, Impatient Crusader: Florence Kelley’s Life Story (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1953), v.

“galvanized into action…” Florence Kelley to Millie R. Trumbull, October 26, 1921, National Consumers’ League Records, Box C4, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

“In early 1921…” J. Stanley Lemons, The Woman Citizen: Social Feminism is the 1920s (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1973), 184.

“Nearly every other women’s group…” Kathryn Kish Sklar, “Why Were Most Politically Active Women Opposed to the ERA in the 1920s?” in Rights of Passage: The Past and Future of the ERA, Joan Hoff-Wilson, ed. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986), 31-32.

“My dear Miss Paul…” Florence Kelley to Alice Paul, October 14, 1921, National Woman’s Party Records, Group II, Box II:15, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

“opposed to the attempt…” Florence Kelley to Alice Paul, October 5, 1921, National Woman’s Party Records, Group II, Box II:15, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

“typical of the attitude…” Alice Paul to Albert Levitt, October 16, 1921, National Woman’s Party Records, Group II, Box II:15, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

“Alice Paul’s pestiferous…” Florence Kelley to Felix Frankfurter, November 28, 1921, Felix Frankfurter Papers, Box 157, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

“This strategy sometimes worked…” Sklar, “Why Were Most Politically Active Women,” 28.

“October 1921 letter…” Florence Kelley to Maud Younger, October 19, 1921, National Woman’s Party Records, Group II, Box II:15, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

“She did, in fact, spend years…” Goldmark, Impatient Crusader, 187.

“pestiferous, terrifying…” Florence Kelley to Felix Frankfurter, October 10, 1921. Felix Frankfurter Papers, Box 157 (Reel 100), Manuscript Division, Library of Congress; Florence Kelley to Roscoe Pound, June 3, 1921. National Consumers’ League Records, Box C4 (Reel 51), Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

Comments

  1. My undergraduate thesis was on sex-based protective legislation in the 1920s. Much such legislation, according to my economic analysis, had the effect of “protecting” women out of jobs as men returned from the war. It included not only hours limitations but also weight limitations (typically less than the weight of a healthy toddler) and restrictions on hiring women for particular professions deemed unseemly. The issue resurfaced in the 1970s as women were forced out of jobs where they were exposed to potentially teratogenic chemicals (which also, of course, can affect sperm) – changing the employees instead of making a safer workplace.

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