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Remembering Frances Kellor, "defender of the downtrodden"

Frances Kellor reading on a dock.
Harvard University, Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America
Frances Kellor reading on a dock.
Frances Kellor reading on a dock.
Credit Harvard University, Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America
Frances Kellor reading on a dock.

Our conversation with John K. Press

As our nation continues to lay entrenched in the immigration debate, it might do us well to remember the life and work of a woman from Coldwater.

Frances Kellor rose from very humble roots in Michigan to become a nationally respected reformer. She worked in prison reform and for women’s issues, championed the cause of immigrants, rural and African American workers, and challenged the country to think about what it really meant to be an American.

John K. Press’ profile Francis Kellor: Defender of the Downtrodden is in Michigan History Magazine’s November/December issue. He’s also written a book about this remarkable woman, titled Founding Mother: Frances Kellor and the Creation of Modern America.

Press tells us Kellor founded organizations like the National Urban League and the American Arbitration Association, launched the idea of multiculturalism, was a huge proponent of adult education, pushed for women’s involvement in sports and politics, was instrumental in securing women’s right to vote, and was “officially in charge of greeting the Ellis Island generation as they came to America.”

But before she became “Defender of the Downtrodden,” Press tells us Kellor lived a very tough life. He says she was raised by a single mother, “the poorest person in town,” and had to drop out of high school to help her mother as a domestic worker.

“So yeah, she grew up under the stigma of poverty,” he says.

Kellor was eventually taken in and taught by a pair of “spinster sisters,” Press says. They continued her education by taking her to Chautauqua lectures – part of an adult-education movement – and teaching her themselves, helping Kellor pass Cornell University’s “very tough” entrance exam.

Press tells us Kellor’s activist attitude started to develop through writing a gossip column for The Coldwater Republican, but her first real piece of activism came when she fought to establish a women’s rowing team at Cornell.

“This later led to her writing many articles on women and sports, and her big book about women and sports, Athletic Games in the Education of Women,” Press says.

When she went to the University of Chicago to do her graduate work, Kellor began to challenge the commonly held belief that biology made people criminals. Press tells us she replicated a study performed by Cesare Lombroso, “a guy who dominated criminology,” using a device called a chemograph to measure physical characteristics of white women in northern prisons as well as black women in southern penitentiaries.

“She found that face shape and physiological characteristics had no association with criminal behavior,” Press says. “In criminology studies you’ll see that she is considered a seminal leader in this field and shifting the view to the view that environment actually impacts how we turn out. And her book, Experimental Sociology, on her trip through the southern penitentiaries, is a big indictment of southern culture. Not only their legal practices, but the racism and discrimination that besieged African Americans and turned them to poverty and crime.”

“This is in 1898,” Press says, “so this is very, very early.”

Kellor later worked on behalf of immigrants as part of the Americanization Movement, a huge movement that Press tells us went from 1906 to 1921 and was often portrayed as being oppressive of new immigrants.

“But when I studied it, I found out it was really the roots of multiculturalism, and that she was behind promoting this vision of America as a multicultural nation,” Press says. In his article, he says Kellor wanted to “combat exclusiveness with inclusiveness and rejection with appreciation.”

Press believes that Kellor’s drive for inclusiveness and appreciation had roots in personal experience.

“Kellor was a transgender lesbian woman,” he tells us. “She lived with a woman for 47 years, she always dressed like a man, she was … excluded in Coldwater for looking and talking like a boy, and she wanted to be included personally. And so I think that that informed her efforts to have America accept immigrants as they were.”

Kellor went on to become deeply involved in politics. She was the only woman on President Theodore Roosevelt’s executive council, and led a bunch of women activists across the country stumping for Charles Evans Hughes.

“This was at the time really radical. These are women speaking not just on behalf of suffrage, but on immigration and industrial policy, on war policy. So she’s trying to really consciously break the mold of women not being in politics, and if they are, only speaking about the right to vote,” Press says.

When the U.S. voted in 1921 “to pretty much end immigration,” Press tells us Kellor pivoted and began to study international arbitration. She created what is today the largest international arbitration association in the world.

According to Press, Kellor arranged a trade agreement between 22 states in the Western Hemisphere before she died in 1952.

John K. Press is a professor at Namseoul University in South Korea. He tells us more about the life and achievements of Frances Kellor in our conversation above.

Copyright 2021 Michigan Radio. To see more, visit Michigan Radio.

Ryan is interning as a Production Assistant for Stateside. An Ypsilanti native, Ryan received a Music Production/Engineering certificate from Washtenaw Community College and is currently studying at Eastern Michigan University, pursuing degrees in Electronic Media and Film as well as Electrical Engineering Technology. For as long as he can remember, Ryan has loved public radio. Ryan is a big fan of podcasts, movies, longboarding, playing the drums, video games and spicy foods.