Vivien Kellems

Industrialist, politician and inventor who became known for her battle with the US taxman.

Born in Iowa in 1896, Vivien Kellems initially studied at the University of Oregon, eventually completing a masters in economics. Vivien displayed the forthright attitude that she would later be known for, becoming the first and only female on the university’s debating team, easily outpacing many of her male contemporaries in a competition believed at the time to be for men only.

Vivien Kellems
Vivien Kellems pictured with her invention, the Kellems cable grip

After graduating in 1921, she collaborated with her brother, Edgar, on an invention known as the Kellems cable grip, an endless-weave grip used to lift, position and support electrical cables.

Realising the potential of the invention and armed with $1,000 of her won money, plus $1,000 she had borrowed, in 1927 Kellems opened the Kellems Company factory in Connecticut in order to manufacture and market the device.

The factory was a success, employing hundreds of local people and expanding when the USA entered the Second World War, selling around two million of the grips to the armed services.

It was also during the war that Kellems’ penchant for debate returned to the fore when she publically criticised several government decisions – mainly concerning waste and inefficiencies – and made the newspaper headlines in the process. This led to her private correspondence being intercepted by the Office of Censorship.

It was during the post-war employment and tax reforms of President Harry S Truman that Kellems really took on what she saw as government intrusion at all levels.

When, in 1947, the state of Connecticut passed a law forbidding women from working after 10pm, Kellems staged two protests in response: the first saw her bring several hundred women into her factory to work at night, testing both the new law and the police’s enforcement of it: no arrests were made. The second came when she took a job in an all-night diner, threatening to work there every night until the law was repealed – which it was, two days later.

Kellems really sprung into action, however, when the government made tax withholding – when tax is deducted and paid before wages are received – permanent and compulsory. Killems was incensed at both having to act as an unpaid government agent by collecting taxes from her employees, and also by what she saw as an unconstitutional way of disguising the amount of money the state was taking from ordinary workers.

So she continued to pay her employees in full, calling for the government to indict her in the hope that such a process would challenge the constitutionality of the withholding system. The government refused, of course, instead raiding her bank account to recoup the unpaid funds.

Although Kellems was eventually refunded by court order and was seen as a heroine by many at the time, she was also held up as an example of the futility of attempting to fight the state on tax policy as a constitutional matter.

Nevertheless, Kellem continued her opposition to tax withholding into old age, authoring a book on the subject, giving regular media commentary on the matter, and even running for office in Connecticut and the US Senate, albeit unsuccessfully.

It was also in her later years (aged 71) that she enrolled at the University of Edinburgh to obtain her PhD. And the subject of her thesis? "Income tax and how individuals can act to change the law".