Sklar Traces Minimum Wage to Trailblazing Reformer

By Miguel A. Novoa Cipriani - The US Women's Rights Movement (1848-1920) was not just a fight for women's suffrage, and its proponents did not only seek to improve the lives of women. In a talk titled "The Origins of Minimum Wage Laws in the United States, 1889-1909," held on February 7, 2018, Kathryn Kish Sklar argued that reformer Florence Kelley initiated the movement towards a minimum wage law.

Distinguished Bartle Professor of History and co-director of the Center for the Historical Study of Women and Gender at SUNY Binghamton University, Kathryn Kish Sklar is the author of multiple works on the history of the Women's Rights Movement, including multiple biographies. 

"I start with the questions, not the persons," Sklar explained. She believes that studying individuals can help her to address larger questions about social, political, and cultural change. She views biographies as combining lived experience with political economy, rather than simply telling the story of a person's life and death.

A pioneering reformer

Kelley was a pioneering reformer who lived between 1859 and 1932, amid a period of rapid socioeconomic shifts caused by the Second Industrial Revolution. This time saw the creation of revolutionary inventions and innovations, such as the mechanization of industry and the rise of mass production, that brought economic growth and shaped modern life across much of the Western World.

Yet, industrialization did not necessarily herald improved living standards for all. Much of the laboring lower class found itself displaced by machines. Those that retained employment faced grueling working conditions and little repose. The labor market's sluggishness or incapacity to adjust these oppressive circumstances brewed great social unrest. Reformers such as Kelley sought to amend these injustices, thus bringing relief to the masses. 

Kelley was born into a Philadelphia family of great political power. She was influenced by her father, the abolitionist congressman William Kelley. From an early age, she sought to help the disadvantaged, at 16 years of age graduating from Cornell University with a thesis about poor children. Denied admittance to the University of Pennsylvania due to her sex, she instead attended the University of Zurich in Switzerland, there becoming a committed socialist.

"Of all the college-trained Americans," said Sklar, "only Florence actually threw in her lot with working-class socialism." Kelley even translated a book for her friend Friedrich Engels in 1885, a version that remains in use to this day.

Activist and protector

Understanding Kelley's passion for social reform is complex when considering her undertakings. "Her real commitment was to the regulation of the industrial workplace," Sklar said.

Upon returning to the United States, Kelley worked as an activist for women's suffrage. Between 1891 and 1899, as a factory inspector in Chicago—a position she acquired after successfully organizing a campaign for women factory officials—she fiercely protected women and child laborers from overwork and disease.

In 1909, she helped found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), tirelessly working in alliance with W.E.B. Du Bois for legislation favoring racial equality in education and working conditions. Between 1899 and 1926, Kelley also worked as General Secretary of the National Consumers League, fighting against the long hours and low wages in sweatshops.

Changing consumer habits

In 1899, she developed a manifesto about the power of consumers. In it, she advocated the importance of consumer protection. According to Sklar, Kelley's push for a minimum wage came not under the flag of socialism or the labor movement. "She needed more than that.” 

Instead, Kelley advanced her minimum wage campaign by association through the consumer protection league. Kelley basically asked consumers to think about the supply of their goods, to care about their fellow human beings, and thus to demand improved conditions for workers. She also encouraged changes in purchasing habits, urging consumers to think about working conditions before purchasing cheap goods. Through these changes in consumer demand habit, Kelley effectively laid the groundwork for the success of minimum wage laws.

"I hope you can [now] think of the origins of minimum wage as fairly human and simple," Sklar said.

This event was sponsored by the Department of History, Women's and Gender History Research Group and the UC Davis Institute for Social Sciences. 

 Learn more about Kathryn Kish Sklar.