Get to Know Frances Kellor

Published in: July-August 2016 issue.


I HAVE LONG MARVELED that my hero, the subject of my dissertation and book, Frances Kellor (1873–1952), is not as famous as her contemporary Jane Addams. You’ve probably heard of Addams, who started settlement houses for immigrants, most famously Hull House in Chicago. Kellor worked with immigrants at the same time. And yet, Addams is in every high school textbook on U.S. history, while Kellor is nowhere to be found. While a few explanations are plausible, I believe Kellor has been written out of history mostly because she was a lesbian and because she publicly challenged gender norms.

Jane Addams, for her part, looked maternal: overweight and always in a dress, she was America’s grandmother. Frances Kellor, in contrast, frequently dressed in full drag. In young photos on an ocean liner and in one with Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt on a boat, she might be mistaken for a man. One woman who remembered Kellor from their home town, Coldwater, Michigan, remarked that kids didn’t like Kellor because she walked and talked like a boy.

Another reason for Kellor’s relative obscurity may be her status as a lesbian. She met Mary Dreier in 1903 and they remained a romantic couple until Kellor’s death in 1952. Kellor clearly assumed the masculine role with Mary. In one photo in which the two are greeting Eleanor Roosevelt, Kellor has her arm around Mary in a typical position of male dominance. In another photo, while Mary sits in a car’s passenger seat in feminine garb, Kellor, wearing a suit, is preparing to drive.

Jane Addams was also a lesbian and had a female lover for many years, along with other romantic connections. The difference is that Addams and her companions chose to play conventional female roles; they had plausible deniability. Whatever else it was, Addams’ Hull House was in fact a house, a domestic space. And while Addams and her fellow occupants undertook some reform efforts, Hull House was mostly known for offering classes on the arts and childcare. Addams fought for recreational spaces for urban children and for garbage collection, both causes that were safely domestic. Moreover, Addams’ fights against prostitution reinforced traditional social norms. Addams’ mission, in short, was to enlist women in “civic housekeeping” based on their assumed domestic nature.

Francis Kellor
Frances Kellor and Mary Dreier in a Model T. Courtesy Schlesinger Library, Harvard U.

Kellor’s major claim to fame was her leadership in the so-called “Americanization Movement.” She would tour immigrant labor camps across New York state, documenting the horrors of these company slums. Her organizations wrote the legislation that was needed to remedy these abuses. One such law led to the the creation of the Bureau of Industries and Immigrants (BII). Once passed, Kellor became the head of the BII, thus becoming the first woman to head a New York state bureau. Upon taking this position, a newspaper writer expressed surprise that the head of the BII was not “some big strong man.” This feminine incursion into men’s work places and male halls of power was a purposeful move to break down gender barriers, a strategy whose culmination we may get to witness in this election year.

Frances Alice Kellor was born in 1873 and raised by a single mother in Coldwater, Michigan. She never met her father. While many progressive activists, including Jane Addams, came from wealthy families, Kellor did not. Her mother was a domestic worker and barely kept the family in threads. Alice had to drop out of high school to help her mother make a living. Fortunately, she was rescued by two unmarried sisters who got Kellor a job writing a gossip column for the local newspaper. They also helped her to pass the Cornell entrance exam. Significantly, in Coldwater, she published under the name Alice Kellar, but upon entering Cornell in 1895 she decided to go with her more gender-ambiguous first name, Frances.

At Cornell, Kellor fought for official recognition of her rowing team. At the time it was argued that competitive athletics would “unsex” female participants. A photo of her rowing team features one member in male drag. Just after graduating, in 1898, Kellor published her first article on basketball and gender, where she observed that there were two very different sets of rules and standards for men’s and women’s versions. Women, she wrote, needed to be able to play men’s basketball, with men’s rules consistently applied. After a decade of playing and coaching basketball, she and her co-author Gertrude Dudley published their 1909 sports opus, Athletic Games in the Education of Women. The book argued that women were increasingly involved in work and public life and so needed to change. Traditional women, she explained, were too emotional, morbid, and subjective. Obsessed with private morality, they ignored social justice issues. Kellor shared several vignettes from popular literature that made women look stupid. Indeed she often denounced women for their domesticity and femininity. As society fretted that sports might endanger women’s femininity, she argued that women needed sports precisely to help them to become more masculine.

After becoming the third woman to get a law degree from Cornell, in 1898, Kellor went to the University of Chicago to study criminal sociology. Her graduate work culminated in the 1901 book Experimental Sociology: Descriptive and Analytic, which includes a convincing challenge to the world’s leading criminologist, Cesare Lombroso, who maintained that criminals were born that way. To counter Lombroso’s claim that criminals had distinctive physical traits that could be measured, such as the shape of their skulls, Kellor examined a sample of African-American women in Southern prisons for nearly two years. In the end she showed that criminality had nothing to do with “high cheek-bones or a heavy jaw,” as claimed. Instead, she argued that environmental factors predispose some populations toward criminality. This groundbreaking book documented the horrific and systemic abuse of African-American women, condemned the Southern criminal justice system, and changed the way we see criminals.

Despite her prolific academic publishing, Kellor left the university prior to graduation. At the time, the University of Chicago had set up a lesser, female graduate school of social work. Had she continued in academia, this would have been one of the few places she could have worked. So she decided to move to New York to pursue a life of political activism.

Kellor’s next book, Out of Work (1904), was transitional. For this book, she and her female team went undercover in seven cities to document abuses of domestic workers, which was then the largest source of employment for women. The domestic workers she studied—and championed—were female rural transplants, African-American women who had moved north, and recent immigrants into the U.S. As an outgrowth of this work, Kellor co-founded the National Urban League. This was the last book in which she focused largely on minority women. After that, she would turn her attention to immigrants, including both men and women.

As the state official in charge of Ellis Island immigrants, with the backing of her powerful private organizations, Kellor worked to protect immigrants from the dock to the workplace. She set up an office at the docks across from Ellis Island, where she heard thousands of immigrant fraud cases concerning transportation tickets, currency exchange, hotels, banking, real estate, employment agencies, and more. Typically, Kellor’s organizations had both educational and legislative branches. The educational branches also got federal agencies and local schools to coordinate their efforts, seeing that thousands of immigrant children were placed in schools. Simultaneously, the legislative branches passed and enforced dozens of employment laws concerning worksite housing, wages, sanitation, worker safety, and the like.

In the three-way election of 1912, both Kellor and Jane Addams played prominent roles. Addams is famous for having seconded Theodore Roosevelt’s Progressive Party nomination for president. Kellor was the only woman on this campaign’s executive committee. The New York Times observed that anyone predicting such a prominent role for women just a year earlier would have been “thought mad.” At the convention, Roosevelt declared that he had “always favored women’s suffrage, but only tepidly, until my association with women like Jane Addams and Frances Kellor … changed me into a zealot instead of a lukewarm adherent.” Both women deserve credit for getting women’s suffrage on Roosevelt’s platform that year— but Kellor actually helped get suffrage on two national presidential campaign platforms.

In 1916, Kellor served as the highest-ranking female member of Charles Evan Hughes’ suffrage-supporting presidential candidacy. In this capacity, she took a train full of women from New York to California. Every day, when the train stopped, they would disperse and speak around the city. Yet this journey was not only undertaken for Hughes or suffrage; Kellor used it to break down gender barriers. In daily briefings, this street fighter lectured her team on the “masculine” way of campaigning. To shake up the public, the activists focused on “masculine” issues such as war, industrial policy, and immigration. Given the visibility and success of this campaign, the question remains, “Why is Addams so famous while Kellor is so obscure?”

Well, one historian accused Kellor’s Americanization work of standing for the “imperious demand for conformity of the outsider to national norms.” But Kellor’s most famous World War I immigrant program, Americanization Day, refutes this charge. From 1915 to 1918, on the Fourth of July, in over 150 cities, her organizations ran parades in which established Americans welcomed immigrants marching in their traditional costumes. In New York, in 1918, over 70,000 marched; in Detroit, 20,000. Delegations included groups from Armenia, Syria, Switzerland, Spain, the Philippines, and Venezuela. This was radical, public multiculturalism. Per usual, Horace Kallen gets credit for having started multiculturalism in the U.S. As far as I can tell, he only wrote articles—and these were published in Kellor’s journal! While some in the Americanization movement called for cultural conformity, Americanization Day clears Kellor of the charges. Quite the opposite, she pioneered public, official multiculturalism.

Kellor and Addams had a falling out over Kellor’s support for World War I. This, too, could account for textbooks ignoring Kellor. While Addams denounced entry into the war, Kellor argued for “preparedness.” In fact, Kellor even held a military post during the war. And while Addams received a Nobel Peace Prize for her pacifism in 1934, during the war she was reviled by many Americans for not supporting the war effort.

From today’s standpoint, Addams’ position might be seen as the more palatable, especially by GLBT activists. When we look at the details, however, we can defend Kellor’s constructive engagement approach. First, her participation in the war was not unconditional. She resigned from her military post rather abruptly, apparently in protest against the abuse of immigrants. During the war, she also served as the head of the American Association of Foreign Language Newspapers, so she controlled the majority of English-language advertising in America’s foreign-language media. In this capacity, her leadership was crucial in helping to stop Congress from effectively shutting down the foreign-language press in the U.S. As the head of Federal Americanization, she included “enemy” immigrant groups in deliberations and championed progressive curricula.

That Kellor is ignored by the wider public while Addams is celebrated cannot be due to sexism, as both were women. Both in fact were lesbians, so sexuality alone cannot account for Kellor’s obscurity. But, because of her gender-bending style, Kellor’s lesbianism was harder to ignore. Ultimately, I suspect the admiration for Addams has to do with her maternal image. She is still lauded as “the mother of social work.” By way of contrast, Kellor often derided femininity and pursued traditionally masculine issues surrounded by powerful men.

In her private life, Kellor was ostracized for being a gender anomaly, just as she’d been shunned as a child for acting like a boy. Her Cornell rowing team didn’t get official recognition while she attended. It appears that her failure to earn a graduate degree was related to her resistance to gender norms. Nor was Kellor ignored in her own time, but her image was often distorted. In 1913, The New York Times published a line drawing of Kellor. Although it was based upon a photograph, the drawing gave her more hair, put a smile on her face, and placed flowers near her head; and the caption referred to her as “Alice,” a name that she had rejected long ago. The Times’ need to feminize Kellor reveals just how uncomfortable her gender identity seems to have made the editors, and presumably the paper’s readers.

In 1921, when Kellor was 48, the Federal government passed stringent immigration restriction measures, effectively rendering her Americanization work irrelevant. In her final book on Americanization, she complained that immigrants “have come to believe that this movement meant that Americans wished them to forget their language homeland and heritage.” She wrote that as long as the U.S. “tolerates discrimination in sanitation, housing and enforcement of municipal laws,” we can “serve on all the Americanization Committees that exist and still fail.” Presaging multiculturalism, she wrote that the U.S. does not have a common “interest in language, science, art or literature.” Amazingly, she even rejected the concept of “immigrants” as conventionally understood, arguing that the world needed to move toward a recognition of “the international human being.”

Upon leaving Americanization, Kellor co-authored (with Antonia Hatvany) a two-volume analysis of the League of Nations titled Security Against War and, in 1926, launched the American Arbitration Association (AAA), which remains the world’s largest international arbitration organization. She served as its vice president until her death in 1952. That year, her organization arbitrated 47 international conflicts. Her civil rights organization the National Urban League also continues to this day. Kellor also made signal contributions in women’s sports and criminology, and she pioneered multiculturalism. Because she did her work while fighting to break down gender barriers, the GLBT community would do well to acknowledge her contributions and work to rehabilitate her reputation as a founding figure in its struggle.


John K. Press, PhD, author of Founding Mother: Frances Kellor and the Creation of Modern America, teaches at Namseoul University in South Korea. (See for more information.)



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