Mary Van Kleeck
Mary Abby Van Kleeck
June 26, 1883
Glenham, New York, U.S.
|Died||June 8, 1972 (aged 88)|
|Alma mater||Smith College|
|Employer||Russell Sage Foundation (1910-1948)|
Mary Abby van Kleeck (June 26, 1883 – June 8, 1972) was an American social scientist and social feminist of the 20th century. She was a notable figure in the American labor movement as well as a proponent of scientific management and a planned economy.
A Dutch American, van Kleeck was a lifelong New Yorker, with the exception of her undergraduate studies at Smith College in Massachusetts. She began her career as part of the settlement movement, investigating women's labor in New York City. Van Kleeck rose to prominence as director of the Russell Sage Foundation's Department of Industrial Studies, which she led for over 30 years, beginning in 1916. During World War I, van Kleeck was appointed by US President Woodrow Wilson to lead the development of workplace standards for women entering the workforce, becoming the first woman appointed to a position of authority in the American federal government during the war.
After the war, she led the creation of a federal agency to advocate for women in the workforce (the Women's Bureau), before returning to the Sage Foundation and continuing her determined research into labor issues. By the 1930s, van Kleeck had become a socialist, arguing that central planning of economies was the most effective way to protect labor rights. During the Great Depression, she became a prominent left-wing critic of the New Deal and American capitalism, advocating a radical agenda for social reformers and workers. Retiring from the Sage Foundation in 1948, van Kleeck ran for New York State Senate as a member of the far-left American Labor Party, but lost the election and turned her focus to peace activism and nuclear disarmament. As a long-time advocate of planned economies, she became a defender of Soviet-American friendship, leading to suspicion from the powerful anti-communist movement. She died aged 88 in 1972.
Van Kleeck was born June 26, 1883 in Glenham, New York. She was the child of Eliza Mayer of Baltimore and Robert Boyd van Kleeck, an Episcopal minister of Dutch origin. Van Kleeck was the youngest of five siblings, including a brother who died in infancy. Her grandfather was Charles F. Mayer, a prominent Baltimore lawyer and politician. She was close with her mother, but had a distant relationship with her father, who was often sick when she was young. He died in 1892, when she was only nine. Van Kleeck was the valedictorian of her class at Flushing High School in New York City, where she was also a student leader and debater. Van Kleeck had a strong reputation for intelligence and force of personality among her classmates. She wrote in her valedictory address:
We are living in an age of disputes, and by no means the least among them is the question of woman and her rights... [those who defend women] make one great mistake--they bravely defend woman, but they forget that she needs no defense, they eloquently plead her release from the bonds of slavery, but they forget that she is not a slave.-- Mary van Kleeck, 1900
Van Kleeck studied at Smith College from 1900 to 1904, where she flourished--studying calculus, writing poetry, and enjoying popularity among her fellow students. She became involved in the Smith College Association for Christian Work (SCACW), the main student organization on campus. She served as president of the SCACW in 1903. Through this organization, she encountered the YWCA, which she remained affiliated with for the remainder of her life. At a YWCA summer retreat in Silver Bay, New York, van Kleeck was drawn to the ideas of Florence Simms, the YWCA's industrial secretary. Van Kleeck became determined to dedicate her career to public service, an ideal to which she dedicated a poem in Smith's yearbook.
After graduating from Smith, van Kleeck received a joint postgraduate fellowship from the College Settlement Association and the Smith College Alumnae Association which enabled her to perform research in New York City. As part of this work, van Kleeck carried out investigations of the enforcement of the labor law governing the workweek, which was limited to 60 hours at the time, though this provision was frequently ignored by employers.
She also worked for the New York Child Labor Committee and the Consumers League. Van Kleeck's work with the College Settlement Association, along with her role as industrial secretary of the Alliance Employment Bureau (AEB), led to the beginning of her research on women in industry and child labor. For the AEB, she conducted a study on the irregular working conditions of milliners and makers of artificial flowers, both major sources of employment for women at the time. Van Kleeck also undertook graduate work in social economy at Columbia University during this time. She studied under the experienced labor economist Henry Rogers Seager as well as Franklin Giddings and Samuel McCune Lindsay, but never completed a doctoral degree.
Van Kleeck gained support from the Russell Sage Foundation in 1907, shortly after its establishment, the start of a professional relationship which would last for forty years. The organization had been founded by Margaret Olivia Sage to support social activism and progressive reforms through dedicated scientific research. Mentored and trained by Florence Kelley and Lilian Brandt, prominent older labor activists and social reformers, van Kleeck was hired directly by the Foundation in 1910 to lead its Committee on Women's Work. She was instrumental in the passage of New York laws prohibiting long working hours in 1910 and 1915. Van Kleeck and the Sage Foundation published a series of books based on her research: Artificial Flower Makers (1913), Women in the Bookbinding Trade (1913), and Wages in the Millinery Trade (1914).
In 1916, van Kleeck persuaded the Foundation to create the Division of Industrial Studies with her as its head. As director of the division, soon renamed and expanded to become the Department of Industrial Studies, she became a well-known figure in the study of industrial labor conditions and women's employment in industry. Van Kleeck's department became an organization known for expertise on industry and labor, and for training graduate students and developing new methods of investigation. Its work was characterized by "careful empiricism, collegial review, and cooperation with state and private agencies," according to the historian Guy Alchon.
Van Kleeck's department frequently recommended labor reforms, such as the establishment of cooperative wage boards. More than once, the Sage Foundation was required to protect the Department of Industrial Studies from reprisals from aggrieved corporations which had been investigated by the department. The Remington Arms manufacturing company, criticized by van Kleeck's department in 1916 for providing substandard conditions for its workers, attempted to suppress the resulting report, but was rebuffed by Robert DeForest, the foundation's vice president.
Alongside Eleanor Roosevelt, van Kleeck was also co-vice president of the Women's City Club of New York, which was founded in 1915. During this period, van Kleeck's output of labor studies and other articles was prodigious, and she often worked closely with the Women's Trade Union League (WTUL). For instance, she authored an article in the Journal of Political Economy arguing that working girls should be able to access evening school courses without financial barriers, published in May 1915. She also taught a series of courses on industrial issues at Columbia University's New York School of Philanthropy from 1914 to 1917. At Columbia, Van Kleeck encountered the ideas of Taylorism (also known as scientific management) and rapidly became a proponent, viewing it as a "social science of utopian potential." She was a prominent member of the Taylor Society for several decades.
In 1917, amidst World War I, van Kleeck undertook an investigation of the possibility of the employment of women in U.S. Army warehouses at the behest of the War Industries Board and Herman Schneider. She recommended the creation of a Women's Bureau in the War Department, and as a result President Woodrow Wilson appointed van Kleeck to lead a new Women in Industry Service group, a sub-agency of the Department of Labor. As such, she became the first woman in the United States appointed to a position of authority in the federal government since the beginning of the country's involvement in World War I. Van Kleeck wrote that the great numbers of women brought into the workforce by the war represented a "new freedom" for women: "freedom to serve their country through their industry not as women but as workers judged by the same standards and rewarded by the same recompense as men".
The Women in Industry Service group produced a series of reports documenting wage disparities, unsafe working conditions, and discrimination against female workers, conducting investigations in 31 states. Their recommendations were often ignored, and at an October 1918 conference to discuss women's labor organized by van Kleeck, Secretary of Labor William Wilson declined to take action to address wage inequality. Van Kleeck made it a priority to appoint a black woman to the staff of the Women in Industry Service group, working with George Haynes to find a suitable candidate. Eventually, an experienced researcher named Helen Irvin, a graduate of Howard University, was hired from the Red Cross.
In December 1918, the group published a wide-ranging report entitled Standards for the Employment of Women in Industry. The report was later used as the basis for the groundbreaking Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which applied standards to workplaces throughout the country. After the war, van Kleeck's group became the United States Women's Bureau. Van Kleeck wrote the law enabling this transition in June 1920. On July 14, van Kleeck was appointed as the head of the new agency within the Department of Labor. Although she was expected to lead the Bureau permanently, van Kleeck was called away to help care for her dying mother and resigned after a few weeks. Mary Anderson, her close friend and colleague, became its first long-term director instead.
Van Kleeck resumed her work and research with the Russell Sage Foundation after World War I, once more becoming director of the Department of Industrial Studies. The foundation continued to perform in-depth studies of conditions for workers at workplaces such as the Rockefeller coal and steel works, the Dutchess Bleachery, and Filene's Department Store. These studies collectively represented "one of the decade's most searching examinations of the dramatic changes underway in the relationship between capital, labor, stockholders, and management," according to the economic historian Mark Hendrickson. During the 1920s, van Kleeck also served on several government committees in Harding's, Coolidge's, and Hoover's administrations, including the President's Conference on Unemployment in 1921. Chaired by Hoover, who was then Secretary of Commerce, the unemployment committee developed a plan for the uniform calculation of employment statistics across the United States, work in which van Kleeck played a key role.
From 1928, she was also active in the International Industrial Relations Institute, which she co-led with Mary (Mikie) Fleddérus. Prominent members of the Institute included Adelaide Anderson and Lillian Moller Gilbreth. Fleddérus, a Dutch social reformer, became van Kleeck's lifelong partner and the two women lived together for most of their later life, splitting their time evenly between the Netherlands and New York City each year and exchanging daily letters when apart. The historian Jacqueline Castledine characterizes their relationship as romantic, describing van Kleeck and Fleddérus as "women-committed women" in a time before lesbianism was acceptable in mainstream society. Such relationships, not unknown in urban communities of college-educated women, were called Boston marriages.
In 1932, as a longtime advocate of social-economic planning, van Kleeck visited the Soviet Union, which she viewed as being at the forefront of scientific management and labor rights. The next year, she was elected as a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Van Kleeck also led the formation of the American Association of Social Workers, which later merged into the National Association of Social Workers.
Although several fellow social scientists and activists advocated for van Kleeck to receive a cabinet position in the new Roosevelt administration in 1933, her increasingly radical views made this unlikely. By the early 1930s, van Kleeck had become a socialist, and she opposed the Roosevelt administration's New Deal initiatives, instead favoring Soviet-style economic planning, which she was convinced would be effective in solving the USA's continuing economic issues. Although appointed to the Federal Advisory Council of the New Deal U.S. Employment Service, she resigned in protest after one day due to her belief that the National Recovery Administration was not sufficiently supportive of unions. Van Kleeck continued to conduct labor studies and write in favor of socialist policies. Her book Miners and Management, published in 1934, was based on a study of the Rocky Mountain Fuel Company, and argued that all industry should be socialized. Her next book, Creative America, was published in 1936 and opposed continued private control of the means of production.
During the early years of the New Deal, van Kleeck was considered a leading figure of the American left, with considerable influence over the national social work movement, which advocated for progressive improvements in society. Her influence was showcased by a rapturous reception at the National Conference of Social Work (NCSW) meeting in 1934. There, she presented her paper "Our Illusions Regarding Government", arguing that social reformers must not allow themselves to be corrupted by a government controlled by capital and big business, which would "tend to protect property rights rather than human rights".
Van Kleeck's speech, delivered to a packed crowd, was so well-received that she received the conference's top award for an outstanding paper, and was asked to present it again to meet the high demand from attendees to hear her work. This reaction alarmed more conservative members of the NCSW and led its president, William Hodson, to criticize van Kleeck's radicalism and opposition to the New Deal at the organization's annual banquet. In response, nearly 1,000 conference attendees organized to unofficially censure Hodson.
Van Kleeck was also a member of the board of directors of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), heading up the Subcommittee on Labor Policy. She was affiliated with the ACLU from 1935 until 1940, when she resigned in protest after the ACLU expelled Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, one of its own founders, for belonging to the Communist Party.
Van Kleeck was initially opposed to American entry into World War II, viewing it as an imperialist misadventure. During the war, she continued to argue for the inclusion of women in government and the labor force. In 1944, van Kleeck co-wrote a book with Mary Fleddérus, entitled Technology and Livelihood. The book argued that increased technological innovation and efficiency inevitably lead to increased unemployment and underemployment, and suggested a strong welfare state and labor movement as the necessary remedy to this problem. Known for her prewar contributions to labor statistics, van Kleeck became a Fellow of the American Statistical Association in 1945.
Van Kleeck retired from the Sage Foundation at the age of 63 in 1948. She ran for New York State Senate the same year as a member of the far-left American Labor Party. She lost the election and turned her focus to anti-nuclear activism and disarmament work. She assisted in the founding of the Congress of American Women, an important organization in the post-war peace movement. Van Kleeck argued that the organization should focus on women not just as homemakers but as workers, and invited Mary McLeod Bethune to present to the organization on discrimination against African-American women.
Although she never publicly joined the Communist Party, van Kleeck became a defender of the Soviet Union, believing it to represent the world's only viable alternative to capitalism. As a result, she came under government suspicion and sustained FBI surveillance as a 'fellow traveler' and possible secret member of the Communist Party, although no evidence of membership was ever presented. Several times, van Kleeck was denied a visa to travel abroad. As an openly dedicated socialist, van Kleeck was called before Joseph McCarthy's Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations in 1953, where she was represented by civil rights lawyer Leonard Boudin and questioned by Roy Cohn. An excerpt from that questioning follows:
Mr. COHN: Are you a believer in our form of government today?
Miss VAN KLEECK: Emphatically. I am an American with a long family background going back to the early days, and my whole work is devoted to the United States of America.
Mr. COHN: My question was: You are a believer in the capitalist form of government?
Miss VAN KLEECK: Is the United States essentially and forever capitalist? It has changed its form of organization through the years. I am a believer in political democracy, which is the essence of the United States of America.
In retirement, she lived with her longtime romantic companion Mikie Fleddérus in Woodstock, New York. A lifelong Christian socialist, she was a member of the Episcopal League for Social Action and the Society of the Companions of the Holy Cross. Van Kleeck died of heart failure on June 8, 1972, in Kingston, New York. She was 88.
mary van kleeck.