I often say that I’m lucky that I study the reformers of the Progressive Era (roughly 1890-1917) because they obsessively documented everything they ever saw or heard or thought. As a result I’m awash in primary source materials, many of them in the public domain: magazine articles, autobiographies, organizational bulletins, and sociological studies of just about everyone and everything. I gather whatever I find of these, and I read much of what I collect. I digest these materials and cross-reference their ideological origins and the results and impact of their findings. Most recently, I’d been digging into Florence Kelley’s writings when I came across a pretty striking essay where Kelley anticipates historian Richard Hofstadter’s thesis about what made the era’s reformers tick.
In 1887, Kelley (sociologist, activist, settlement house worker, prolific author, and founding member of the National Consumers’ League and the NAACP) published an article titled “The Need of Theoretical Preparation for Philanthropic Work,” in which she breaks down the complicated practice of “philanthropy” (“love of mankind,” literally translated) in an unequal society. Bourgeois philanthropy, she cautions, is really just a palliative measure, a “work of restitution for self-preservation,” and its only consequential effect is to maintain the class system and the status quo. Working class philanthropy involves changing the system: lobbying for better working conditions and protections against exploitation of labor. The latter form goes beyond the token acts of charity Kelley saw many would-be philanthropists dabbling in, but it requires self-awareness and an understanding of the mechanics of power.