The Father-Daughter Team Who Reformed America
Meet the duo who helped achieve the most important labor and civil rights victories of their age
Around 150 years ago, a father and daughter held hands in the fierce glare of a Pennsylvania steel mill: a grizzled older man and his dark-eyed daughter, their faces lit by smoldering ore. Few knew what the pair were doing there, but 12-year-old Florence Kelley understood. Her papa, Congressman William Darrah “Pig Iron” Kelley, was instructing her in the family business. Together, they would fight for working people, including the laborers doing this dangerous job. It would be a long-term project, he explained: His generation would “build up great industries in America,” and hers would fight to “see that their product is distributed justly.”
American history has plenty of political father-son duos—the Adamses and Bushes come to mind—but the Kelleys are something rarer. From the 1830s to the 1930s, Will and Florie crusaded and campaigned for abolition and women’s suffrage, against lynching and child labor, for social security and the eight-hour workday. They made friends with Abraham Lincoln and Eleanor Roosevelt, but also with steelworkers, seamstresses and sharecroppers. In an age of crisis, the Kelleys wrought an empire of reform, even when they exasperated each other. For the last century and half, we’ve been living in the country that the Kelleys forged. And as we grapple with many of the problems they confronted themselves—income inequality, racial hatred, heightened partisanship—there’s much to learn from this father-daughter duo.
Will Kelley was born poor, in North Philadelphia, in 1814. A childhood of hard labor left him with an abiding outrage at employers’ treatment of the working people. So as a young man in the 1830s, he began climbing soapboxes at labor rallies, thundering out attacks on inequality to audiences of journeymen and apprentices. Unlike many demagogues who pit different groups against each other, Will made a point of speaking to the entire working class: white and Black, native-born and immigrant, male and female, adult and child. He also stood out for his height (6-foot-3), his lean frame, his shabby clothing and his deep, rumbling voice, which made his speeches sound, the Chicago Tribune said, “like an eloquent graveyard.”
Will’s focus on working people led him to a ferocious denunciation of slavery—in his mind, the ultimate violation of the dignity of labor. In Philadelphia, he battled streetcar segregation and found jobs for Black friends he’d grown up with. After winning a seat in Congress representing West Philadelphia in 1860, Will helped organize companies of Black soldiers during the Civil War, was one of the early advocates for Black voting rights, helped pass the 13th Amendment banning slavery and helped write the text of the 15th Amendment, forbidding voting discrimination based on race.
In an age of partisan violence, Will knowingly made himself a target. One pro-slavery congressman attacked him in Washington’s opulent Willard Hotel, slashing his arm to the bone with a knife. In 1867, as he delivered a speech in defense of Reconstruction in Mobile, Alabama, Ku Klux Klan members opened fire at the stage. Will ducked just in time; a bullet crashed into the skull of the man standing directly behind him. The fusillade killed two, wounded dozens and left 65 bullet holes on the plaster wall behind Kelley. He didn’t stop making speeches, though for a time he carried a billy club for self-defense.
In those same years, Will the fighter also became a father. When his wife, Carrie, gave birth to their second daughter, Will saw something special in “Little Florie’s” dark, demanding eyes. A girl born in 1859 could not expect to vote or hold office, but Will envisioned her future in politics nonetheless. Florie’s apprenticeship began in the walnut-paneled library of the Kelleys’ West Philadelphia home. One day, when Florie was 7 years old and sitting in the sun-drenched library, her father handed her a “terrible little book” about child labor in England. He showed her the illustrations of small children bent under heavy loads of bricks and explained to her about slavery and child labor. Her mother argued that the book was inappropriate for a 7-year-old, but Will Kelley was not raising a decorous, Victorian daughter; he was training a little girl who would grow into America’s chief crusader against child labor.
As Florie matured, father and daughter nurtured a bond based on their shared belief, radical at the time, that government should actively improve the lives of struggling people. When Congressman Kelley was in Washington, D.C., he sent Florie letters about the amendments he was writing. When he was in Philadelphia, she followed him from room to room, talking constantly about the books she was reading. Will brought Florie to steel mills and Chinatowns to show her the men and women from all over the world who were building America. At 16, she visited the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, which Will helped organize, and protested when the bow-tied exhibitors refused to answer her questions. She went off to Cornell for college, and when Will went to Louisiana to defend Black voting rights in the contested 1876 presidential election, a proud Florie read his letters aloud in the college cafeteria.
In the early 1880s, the two became a familiar sight in Washington. At galas, enamored newspapermen took note of this driven—and attractive—congressman’s daughter. As one reporter for the Boston Globe joked: “The young girls in society were just a little afraid of her; the young men were not entirely at ease in her presence, and old legislators were very careful about statistics.” When Congress was in session, Will could be seen speechifying on the floor, while 22-year-old Florie sat in the gallery, her eyebrows knit, her lips mouthing the words to speeches she had helped him write, looking as if she were about to interrupt “to call him to account for any lapses he might make,” one charmed reporter noted.
Indeed, as she aged, Florence Kelley began calling her father to account. By the mid-1880s, William Kelley was an elder statesman who had held the same seat for decades. Even as Gilded Age working conditions grew worse and worse, Kelley became obsessed with raising the country’s already-high tariffs, believing that such protections helped workers. To Florie, it looked as though her famous father was failing his constituents. She moved to Europe, drifted into socialism and befriended the German philosopher Friedrich Engels. Compared with Marxism’s promised revolution of the proletariat, adjusting tariff schedules looked like an awfully weak solution. In her letters to Engels, Florie denounced the way “ordinary, non-socialized workers let themselves be hoodwinked by...professional politicians.” The problem in America was not just capitalism, she wrote; it was the way leaders manipulated democracy—leaders like her famous father.
By the late 1880s, Will was starting to falter. His booming voice grew quieter, his famously mobile frame began to creak and his long crusade was coming to an end. Yet he never stopped supporting Florie, reading her letters about working conditions into the Congressional Record even while the two were feuding. In his final days, father and daughter reconciled. Soon after, in early January 1890, the man who had had a hand in every significant political movement since the 1830s died after a long struggle with cancer. As the nation mourned, the famed D.C. correspondent Frank Carpenter of the Cleveland Leader memorialized Will, taking time to prophesy big things for Florence, “a woman of extraordinary intellectual ability.”
Throughout the dawning Progressive Era, Florie made herself, in the words of one observer, the “toughest customer in the reform riot.” She lectured and campaigned, studied social science literature and working conditions in America’s tenements, all while raising three children and surviving an ugly divorce from an abusive husband. Soon her victories rivaled her father’s.
Though not an elected politician, she had major leverage as head of the National Consumers League (NCL), where she organized the buying power of thousands of working- and middle-class shoppers to punish abusive employers. From this perch, she helped set up a regime of child labor inspections in Illinois’ dangerous factories, established the United States Children’s Bureau to reduce infant mortality, and even helped pass the Sheppard-Towner Act, which provided congressional funding for maternity and childcare. These latter two efforts amounted to the federal government’s first venture into social security legislation through direct aid, and would lead to the formation of the Social Security Administration in 1935. The health and life expectancy of children rose more during the era of Florie’s campaigns—roughly 1890 to 1930—than at any other period in American history.
The next generation of reformers—President Teddy Roosevelt, Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People leader W.E.B. Du Bois—delighted in watching the imperious Florie work, lambasting “the stupids” (as she called them) who stood in her way.
Florie died in 1932, and the Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter later said she was the woman who had had “the largest single share in shaping the social history of the United States during the first 30 years of this century.” She had carried her father’s legacy all the way from the Jacksonian 1830s to the threshold of the New Deal.
Back in 1871, around the time father and daughter stood sweating in that Altoona steel mill, Will Kelley’s elite-born detractors had started to call him “Pig Iron” Kelley. They meant it as an insult, to mock him as lower-class, unsophisticated, too fixated on industry. But Will came to embrace his new nickname. By the end of his life, Will said the epithet no longer felt like “a term of reproach,” while Florie’s admirers agreed she had inherited what one St. Louis newspaper called “something of the strong pig-iron cast which distinguished her father.”