Frances Kellor and the birth of multiculturalism

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 enfranchisment. 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 was born in Columbus, Ohio, in 1873 and raised by a single mother after her father abandoned her, her mother and older sister before she turned 2. The three moved to Coldwater, Michigan, a liberal bastion that had been a seat of abolition and a stop on the Underground Railroad.

It was here that Kellor built her resilience and interest in social justice. The family was poor — Kellor’s mother, Mary, was a laundress and a domestic.

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.

For two years as a teenager, Kellor worked with her mother as a laundress to raise money to attend high school. While there were many public elementary schools by this time, there were few public high schools. But after two years, Kellor was forced to drop out of high school for lack of funds. It was during this period that Kellor had a shooting accident, injuring her hand, which bled profusely despite efforts of her companions to stanch the bleeding. The local librarians, Mary and Frances Eddy, witnessed her running bloody through the town and took her to a local doctor and then to their home to recover.

Wealthy philanthropists, the Eddy sisters became Kellor’s guardians, broadening her education and social circles. They introduced her to social movements, which she developed an avid interest in. The sisters also found her a position as a typesetter at the local newspaper.

The influence of the Eddys had helped hone Kellor’s natural intellectualism and passion for justice. She soon became an investigative reporter for the paper, writing about social issues, including poverty, and, within a construct of her time, racism. Her focus on these issues would continue throughout her adult life. She would argue that education was the key to equality, writing that equality should be taught in the schools and those schools should be a locus for assimilation and acceptance: “From the schoolhouse should come the beliefs that living conditions should be decent, that laws should be enforced for all alike, that there should be no racial discriminations.”

Education changed Kellor’s life, vaulting her from poverty to an illustrious career with achievements that would alter American society. Her two benefactors 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 among them.

From Cornell, Kellor advanced via a scholarship to the newly founded University of Chicago, to be among the first women graduate students.

Kellor would focus on the lives of women and immigrants for decades, and she did much of that work in tandem with her partner of 47 years, Mary Dreier, a philanthropist, suffragist and campaigner for unionization of women workers.

Dreier used her wealth — a trust fund left to her by her father — to fund numerous feminist and progressive causes, and for years devoted herself almost entirely to achieving women’s suffrage.

Dreier chaired New York City’s Woman Suffrage Party. Ardently political throughout her life, she was investigated by the FBI during the McCarthy era, despite being in her 70s.

Kellor and Dreier met in 1903. There was correspondence between them throughout 1903-04, with various endearments, such as Kellor calling Dreier “my own dear beautiful” and noting that “along with your love,” she can do the work she’s committed to.

The connection between the women was described by others as passionate and consuming. 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.

Kellor and Dreier 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 and through World War 2.

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; and 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. 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.

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.

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 cofounder 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.

In 1908, Gov. 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 1910-13. 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.

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 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.

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 that Americanization would “unite foreign-born and native alike in enthusiastic loyalty to our national ideals of liberty and justice.”

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 lesbian circles, she was known for being rowdy and boisterous and deeply loving of the much-more-restrained Dreier.

Kellor’s resume is a compendia of work that linked feminism, anti-racism and anti-xenophoobia 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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Victoria A. Brownworth is a Pulitzer Prize-nominated award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, DAME, The Advocate, Bay Area Reporter and Curve among other publications. She was among the OUT 100 and is the author and editor of more than 20 books, including the Lambda Award-winning Coming Out of Cancer: Writings from the Lesbian Cancer Epidemic and Ordinary Mayhem: A Novel, and the award-winning From Where They Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth and Too Queer: Essays from a Radical Life.