By Amy Friedman
“After a few months in Chicago, Florence Kelley’s soft-voiced but electric style of public speaking, as well as her magnetic personality and her demonstrated commitment, made her prominent among the advocates for the cause whose day had come.” While Leigh Buchanan Bienen here describes her book’s subject, the factory inspector, reformer, attorney, writer and mother who fought for the rights of workers and children in 1890s Chicago, these words could have just as easily been written about the author herself. As an attorney and champion of just causes, Bienen fought tirelessly to abolish the death penalty, first in New Jersey and then in Illinois. She also served as Director of the Chicago Historical Homicide Project that transcribed handwritten documents into online records, making data available to the public on more than 14,000 homicides in Chicago between 1870 and 1930. Bienen is a prolific writer and a senior lecturer at Northwestern University School of Law, among many other accomplishments. Reading her latest book, it’s easy to see why Florence Kelley, a fellow Cornell graduate, attorney and advocate for the underdog, became Bienen’s focus.
The book unfolds through a unique format that weaves together three distinct narratives: Kelley’s private struggles as a single mother of three living in Jane Addams’ Hull-House and her public accomplishments as a factory inspector pushing for legal protections for workers in the late nineteenth century; Bienen’s personal account of life as the wife of Henry Bienen, fifteenth president of Northwestern University, as well as her professional efforts to end the death penalty; and the changing modern political landscape that in so many ways mirrors the struggles and events of Kelley’s world. This structure allows the reader to discover the static nature of the human experience and the repeating political and social conditions that allow for meaningful change. I had the pleasure of hearing the author along with two of her colleagues present excerpts from her book coupled with a discussion on Florence Kelley at the Arts Club of Chicago on January 13. I also spoke with the author about her approach to this project.
You mention several factors that motivated you to write about Florence Kelley. After doing so, what do you find most important about her legacy?
The way she picked herself up after all of the obstacles she faced. No one told her how to be a factory inspector or how to earn a law degree. She simply found a way. She had a generosity of spirit and dedicated herself to working on behalf of others.
You intersperse information about the law in the late 1800s with issues with the law today. How much has changed and how much remains the same in trying to fix injustices?
I was surprised at how intact the legal system was as an institution; the structure remains pretty unchanged today. The system of trial was very similar, which is hopeful. It’s a good thing that our legal structure remains stable.
There are many parallels between you and Florence Kelley. How much did her life and work influence your work to abolish the death penalty in Illinois?
I was an advocate for abolishing the death penalty for twenty years before coming here. I was going to write about closing down the Levee District in Chicago (houses of prostitution), which was a political moment of great interest, but I didn’t find a person to focus on. I discovered Florence Kelley while conducting research on the homicide website, and her letters gave me grounding.
What would you say is today’s biggest or most significant challenge in need of advocacy?
One startling thing about the historical past is that issues we face have been faced by others for a long time in America. I’m startled by how little difference the technical advances between our society and Florence Kelley’s make.
Kelley taught people to read her whole life—newspapers, economics, sociology—I worry what will happen with that. What needs to change hasn’t changed an awful lot. Human problems haven’t changed. The Internet was a revolution. But I’m a staunch believer in books surviving. Kelley also understood that problems did not exist in isolation. She understood that the minimum wage was connected with healthcare, for example. We need to approach problems today with this same understanding.
“Florence Kelley, Factory Inspector in 1890s Chicago, and the Children”
By Leigh Buchanan Bienen
Open Books, 480 pages, $25