Florence Kelley In Women And Power In American History By Kathryn Kish Sklar

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Women and Power in American History by Kathryn Kish Sklar discusses the controversy surrounding support to the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1920s. The ERA was highly opposed when it was first brought to light; many suffrage supporters and politically active women continued to oppose it until the 1970s, although their initial issues with it had diminished long before then. Sklar covers the controversy around the Equal Rights Amendment from several different angles – asking the main questions surrounding the lack of support, the need for programs to stop unnecessary maternal and infant deaths, Florence Kelley and the impact she had during this time, and the influence women had on politics in the 1900s.

Fear played the biggest factor in opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment. Many women reformers expected that the proposed amendment would invalidate labor and health legislation for American women that were poor or working that they had developed over the last thirty years. On another end of the spectrum, some that opposed just preferred it to be approached in a more traditional way; they thought gradual changes would be the best way to get what they wanted. Others thought the Amendment would nullify special legislation and annuity laws. The Amendment was destined to fail from the very beginning – receiving very little public support. The few that did support it were a small minority of activists, willing to make personal sacrifices in order to secure protection for women who were mothers or working. In the 1920s the majority of opposition against the ERA was from the political left, although that shifted to the political right in the 1980s. Wisconsin attempted to pass a version of the ERA, but they excused all legislature intended to protect women. It wasn’t until 1941 that the Supreme Court finally approved minimum wages for all workers producing goods. The ERA was special in its own way – with organizations run by women offering legislation to benefit women and men. This ended up only being applied to hours legislation, not wages.

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High rates of maternal and infant mortality prompted the need for federal funding to support health education and lower the risk. In 1921 the Shepard-Towner Maternity and Infancy Protection Act was passed for this very reason. It had a four-stage action plan: investigate, educate, legislate, and enforce. Investigation into this issue began in 1911 by the U.S. Children’s Bureau. They found an overwhelming amount of evidence to support the proposition of funding needs. At this time the U.S. was 17th in maternal mortality and 11th in infant mortality. Infants in poorer families were at significantly greater risk, with one in six babies dying in houses with an annual income of less than $450, and those numbers declined the wealthier the families were. Interest in this act was spiked when this information was released. Many women’s organizations and popular magazines provided publicity and support for a nationally-funded education clinic. With the help of the Women’s Joint Congressional Committee, Congress passed the act, and they placed the Children’s Bureau in charge of the funds. This Act was so different from any government programs, because it was no longer being run by male doctors and it gave females the opportunity to oversee its enforcement; giving them more political power to exercise than anywhere else in the western world at this time. This sparked more opportunities for women to be politically involved.

Florence Kelley was the daughter of a member 15 consecutive terms in the U.S. House of Representatives, William Kelley, an influential socialist who led a source of ERA opposition from 1859 to 1932, and she was the secretary-general of the National Consumers’ League from 1899 to 1932. She had a strong personal drive to correct the unhealthy work habits implemented against women and children and knew government responded to organized groups. She wanted to epitomize the interests of capital and ensure the government would be more receptive to the interests of laborers. Her long track record of hard work and accomplishments is recognized and appreciated by several important politicians. She was the key piece to the passage of wage and hour laws for women and children. The conservative tendencies of the U.S. supreme Court in the late 19th and early 20th centuries combined with the 1905 decision which required reformers to lobby for social legislation made the actual passage of social legislation difficult. Kelley and her allies successfully argued in 1908 that women working manufacturing jobs should be limited to ten hour shifts by providing evidence demonstrating the toll it would take on a woman’s health to upkeep a work schedule with more hours than that. Work hours in the 1920s were out of control, with one half of steel industry workers completing twelve-hour days. The U.S. was the only other nation, second to Japan, to allow employees to work such long hours. It was nowhere near as difficult in any other western civilization to obtain regulations on long hours. Men were excited about the prospect of shorter shifts for women since men’s laws had a tendency to follow women’s. Kelle and her fellow associates in the National Consumers’ League had legislation approved for shorter work hours, and were able to extend that approval to cover men.

Kelley was alive during an influential time for women. She was among the upper middle class of women who were college educated and dedicated their lives to social reform rather than a traditional lifestyle. Many of these educated women came together and created settlements. Among them were Kelley, Grace Abbott, Dr. Alice Hamilton, Julia Lathrop, and Jane Addams. The number of settlements increased to over 400 from 1891 to 1910. These settlements provided the opportunity to consolidate energy and information between female activists and helped surge their political efficiency.

Women were becoming more present in many different forms politically during the 1900s. Carrie Chapman, directing the suffrage movement in 1910, helped engage more women politically. Those in support of suffrage linked with social reformers to enhance each other’s causes. Unity persevered even after the vote for suffrage was won, continuing to work towards modernized solutions to combat inequality against women.

Sklar covers a wide range of perspectives and issues surrounding the ERA. Her writing is unbiased and inclusive; covering the opposition the ERA faced and why, as well as the support and how it affected those groups and individuals. Much of her article included information about Florence Kelley and the impact she had politically during the time of the ERA. I agree that she was objectively the most important woman politically during this time and dedicated her life to making a difference for people who really needed it. Kelley was concerned about one main issue: what was best for society. This article clearly covers her impact and the struggles women faced inequality politically and socially.  


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