Frances Kellor: The lesbian behind the multiculturalism

Frances Kellor
Photo: Wikipedia

Few topics in American politics under President Trump elicit more controversy than immigration.

The same was true in early 20th century America when waves of immigrants flooded Ellis Island, causing fears that the country would become “overrun with foreigners,” as Henry Cabot Lodge wrote in 1891.

With open borders, 30 million Europeans moved to the U.S. between 1850 and 1913. By 1920, about 15 percent of the U.S. population was foreign-born–much as it is in 2018.

It was into this milieu of a burgeoning immigrant population, as well as the Great Migration of freed black slaves, that Frances Kellor defined herself as one of the most important and radical social reformists of her time.

Kellor’s progressive political and social stance was dominated by her belief that society had to be a true melting pot – a term she disliked – and not just a poetic metaphor of one. She is credited with creating the concept, if not the term, of multiculturalism.

A staunch suffragist, she believed no social advancement could reasonably occur in the U.S. without women having full enfranchisement.

Kellor felt the same about the roles of black women and men, as well as immigrants in American society. Without full assimilation into mainstream white male society, she insisted, there would forever be a level of marginalization that would sustain and maintain a tiered caste system that would disallow women, persons of color, and immigrants from achieving their goals and rising in any field of endeavor.

Kellor herself, born in Columbus, Ohio in 1873, was raised by a single mother after her father abandoned her, her mother and older sister before she turned two. The three moved to Coldwater, Michigan, a liberal bastion that had been a seat of abolition and a stop on the Underground Railroad.

Growing up in Coldwater, Kellor was known as a tomboy who could whittle and shoot as well as any boy. She also excelled at sports. As an adult, Kellor had a strong interest in promoting sports for women as a means of getting women out of the confines and “drudgery” of both housework and factory work and building camaraderie and friendships outside the often restrictive environment of the home.

While at Cornell, Kellor founded the women’s rowing club – despite threat of expulsion for daring to assert women deserved their own sports teams like the men had.

Education changed Kellor’s life, vaulting her from poverty to an illustrious career with achievements that would alter American society. Her two benefactors, the philanthropists Mary and Frances Eddy, paid for her to attend Cornell law school. In 1897 she graduated with a law degree.

Kellor was only the third woman to achieve that goal at Cornell. In 1900, there were 85,338 female college students in the U.S. and just 5,237 earned their bachelor’s degrees – Kellor was among them.

From Cornell, Kellor advanced via a scholarship to the newly founded University of Chicago, to be among the first women graduate students. Cornell had piqued her interest in criminology and the writing she had done for the Coldwater paper had focused on social issues, including crime. Kellor had written provocatively of a sleepy rural America unaware of how Negroes and immigrants were being railroaded into prisons purely because of their race, ethnicity or even lack of English-language skills.

The University of Chicago opened up Kellor’s world vastly–and introduced her to other reformist-minded women. From there Kellor’s career propelled forward and with it her increasingly more crucial work as she connected with lesbian social reformers in Chicago, notably Jane Addams and Mary Rozet Smith, and in New York, where in 1903 she met Mary Dreier, a philanthropist, suffragist and campaigner for unionization of women workers.

The connection between the two women was described by others as passionate and consuming. Early in their relationship, Kellor wrote to Dreier, “The colors and sunlight make me hungry for you.” Later she would write that being with Dreier made her “love burns thru beautiful nights you dear sweetheart.” In 1905 the two moved in together, living as a couple until Kellor’s death in 1952. Dreier lived alone until her death in 1963. The two are buried together in Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York.

Kellor was known for her tailored look and briskly authoritative presentations. She may not appear a butch lesbian by today’s standards, but she was likely known outside her lesbian reformist circles as a lesbian – not just a “spinster.” Within her lesbians circles, she was known for being rowdy and boisterous and deeply loving of the much more restrained Dreier. The two were among many dynamic and deeply politically committed lesbian couples whose social reformist work radically altered American society in the years before the Civil War through World War II.

The couplings of lesbian activists in this late 19th and early 20th century period supported and created some of the most significant social reform movements in American history. There were those lesbians who fought for the abolition of slavery and suffrage for women and “Negroes,” like Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Carrie Chapman Catt and Anna Dickinson. Those who founded social work and the settlement movement like Jane Addams, Ellen Gates Starr and Mary Rozet Smith. Healthcare for immigrants and factory workers was the key focus of lesbian physicians Dr. Emily Blackwell, Dr. Elizabeth Cushier and Dr. Alice Hamilton. Reform of child labor, as well as creation of a public health approach to pediatric medicine was built by Dr. Ethel Collins Dunham and Dr. Martha May Eliot, as well as Dr. Sara Josephine Baker, who received written support from her novelist partner, Ida Wylie.

In this era of radical foment, Frances Kellor was in her own category. At the University of Chicago Kellor wrote papers on sociology–her field of study–and criminology. She also authored a scholarly treatise on Athletic Games in the Education of Women. In 1901 Kellor published her first book, Experimental Sociology, Descriptive and Analytical: Delinquents, which was widely quoted and whose theories that criminality was not innate angered many.

Propelled by her tangential excursions into Jane Addams’ Settlement movement in Chicago and deeply concerned by the marginalization of women of color and working-class and poor women, especially immigrants, Kellor focused her attention on accessing equality for these women. Kellor’s writings on black women and men contravened the sociological perspective at the time that black criminality was a factor of biology and race. Kellor was certain it was directly related to poverty and racism and lack of access to a living wage.

With regard to black freed women, she wrote about how black women were still being sold as slaves and how sex, crime and race were linked incorrectly. Kellor was particularly focused on the destitution, abuse and racism that faced Negro women as they migrated from the Reconstructionist South to northern cities. This work would lead her to become a co-founder of the National Urban League, now known as the Urban League.

Kellor’s 1904 book Out of Work: A Study of Employment Agencies was the result of undercover work with Negro and immigrant women domestics. A groundbreaking investigation and sociological study of the victimization of black Southern women–many freed slaves or daughters of slaves–and immigrant women by northern employment programs and hiring practices, the book revealed the level of penury imposed on these women and the ways in which they were manipulated by work and wages. Combined with her earlier writing, Out of Work defined Kellor as an expert sociologist who also took risks male sociologists did not–and that she was willing to refute decades-held beliefs about “lower class” and non-white workers, insisting that environment, not biology, formed adults.

Kellor’s career is robust and stunningly full of dynamic and influential work. She became a well-known social worker, with ties to New York’s Summer School of Philanthropy and the Henry Street Settlement. By 1904, Kellor directed the new Inter-Municipal Committee on Household Research, which investigated child labor, tenement conditions, and corrupt employment agencies. In 1906 Kellor, spurred by her anger at the incarceration of black women for what she saw as purely racial reasons, created the National League for the Protection of Colored Women.

In 1908, Governor Charles Evans Hughes appointed Kellor secretary of the New York State Immigration Commission, and then head of the Bureau of Industries and Immigration. Her national status as an immigration expert–one of the only in the country–got the attention of President Theodore Roosevelt.

Roosevelt had formed a group–the “Female Brain Trust”–which included fellow lesbian reformers Jane Addams and Florence Kelley as well as Kellor’s partner’s sister, Margaret Dreier Robins.

At the Theodore Roosevelt Center there are letters on file from Roosevelt to Kellor. One apologizes for appearing to be glib about the cause of women’s suffrage, which he asserted had his full support. In another letter, Roosevelt enlists his “dear friend” to help fight against the constant and expanding problem of manipulative employment agencies misleading immigrants and employers abusing immigrant workers.

Roosevelt was the first to incorporate women’s suffrage in his party’s platform–largely at Kellor’s behest. Roosevelt insisted 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 zealous instead of lukewarm adherent of the cause.”

By 1909 Kellor was the highest placed woman in New York, as secretary and treasurer of the New York State Immigration Commission and chief investigator for the Bureau of Industries and Immigration of New York State from 1910 through 1913. She became managing director of the North American Civic League for Immigrants and a member of the Progressive National Committee. She also oversaw the American Association of Foreign Language Newspapers. These positions were all groundbreaking, glass-ceiling-smashing jobs for a woman.

At this juncture, Kellor was driven by her belief that America could be all things to all people through Americanization. Her sociological studies of women and racial and ethnic minorities led her to believe that assimilation created equality. She wrote, “There is no science of race assimilation. No nation has had a sufficiently free opportunity with many diverse races to establish its enduring principles and certain procedure. America has this opportunity in her thirty-five different races speaking fifty-four languages, of whom 13,000,000 are foreign-born. One third of her total population has its roots in other soils and in diverse cultures. She has the laboratory for the experiment in her wide expanse of territory, much of it still unsettled; in the elasticity of her institutions; and in the still formative state of her cultural life.”

It was a radical concept–that there was room for everyone and that differences were beneficial to the whole in this most diverse country on earth. The Theodore Roosevelt Center notes that “In 1912, Kellor, Addams, Kelley, and Margaret Dreier Robins wrote the social justice planks for Roosevelt’s Progressive presidential platform. Kellor also helped prepare campaign statements and recruited other social reformers to join the Progressives. In 1913, she and Roosevelt established the Progressive National Service, a network through which to spread Progressive ideas.”

The two world wars intensified xenophobia in the U.S. In 1914, Kellor began directing the National Americanization Committee (NAC), viewed as the most pivotal link to assimilating immigrants in the country. Writing for the NAC in 1916, just prior to the U.S. entering World War I, Kellor suggested Americanization programs would solidify both worker efficiency and essential pre-war patriotism. Acutely aware of the number of worker accidents from Dr. Alice Hamilton and other lesbian reformers focused on workplace safety, Kellor asserted that teaching English to workers would reduce the number of accidents and injuries as well as lessen the xenophobia toward “foreign” and immigrant workers. Ultimately, she argued Americanization would “unite foreign-born and native alike in enthusiastic loyalty to our national ideals of liberty and justice.”

Though in 2018 Kellor could be perceived as forcing assimilation on ethnic communities and communities of color, at the time she was promoting this goal–and asserting that black Americans were not innately criminals and ethnic minorities were fully capable of being American citizens–it was a wildly radical view to suggest that persons of color were in fact equal in all ways to whites, save for their access to social and economic connections. Her role as a leader in the Americanization movement was to posit that women, people of color and immigrants were all as deeply patriotic and vital to American society as white men.

Kellor’s resume is a compendium of work that linked feminism, anti-racism and anti-xenophobia reforms. She was both intersectionalist and multiculturalist before either of those sociological theories existed, and so much of the work she was doing a century ago and more remains just as necessary and vital now as it was then.


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