Michigan Social Issues: 1900-1941

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Michigan was an important player in American history in the early 20th century, and how it dealt with many issues helped set national tones. In this lesson, we'll explore the major social issues in the state's past.


If you ever get lost in Michigan, hold up your hand. Given the state's hand-like shape, many Michiganders can identify their state of origin by pointing to their palms. This won't help you find where you parked your car, but still, it's pretty cool. Michigan has played an important role in American history and dealt with several social issues that are substantially more serious than palm geography.

In the first half of the 20th century, Michigan was one of the fastest growing states in the nation, a center of industrial production and major shipping state on the Great Lakes. It has an important history and a complex one. So, keep up. We wouldn't want you to get lost.

The Progressive Era

Let's start at the beginning of the century. Around 1900, America was entering the Progressive Era, which lasted roughly through World War I. Michigan in the Progressive Era was torn between diverse interests - those of the Progressive social reformers and those of industrial titans. Sometimes these groups got along, and other times they could get pretty confrontational.

Progressive Issues

Michigan's social reformers jumped on the Progressive bandwagon and started campaigning for issues shared by reformers across the nation. Their goals were to create direct change through state and national legislation, and two issues stuck out. First was the prohibition against alcohol. Michigan's reformers managed to successfully campaign against alcohol, and the state legislature adopted its own prohibition amendment in 1916, a few years before the nation followed suit.

Another successful Progressive campaign was women's suffrage, or the right of women to vote. Michigan first attempted to allow women to vote at the state level in 1912, but this failed. Finally, in 1918, Michigan voters approved an amendment to the state constitution allowing women to vote, largely thanks to the supportive role of women in WWI. The federal government followed suit a year later with the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution.

Industrial Issues

Prohibition and women's suffrage were social issues the Progressive reformers controlled, but not the only issues in the state. Michigan was already becoming an industrial center when Henry Ford started mass producing automobiles in 1908. The state became the definitive center of the blossoming automobile industry, and by 1940, 60% of the world's automobiles were made in Michigan.

Henry Ford
Henry Ford

The automobile industries became extremely wealthy, giving them incredible power and a strong voice in many issues. One big one was immigration. The industrial boom of the United States attracted immigrants, and Michigan became home to growing populations of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe, as well as Mexico. Many people in the Progressive Era opposed immigration, fearful that newcomers would change mainstream American culture, but Michigan's industries had a strong voice here and encouraged immigration for cheap labor.

One reason the industries favored immigration was that immigrants were less likely to join unions. Unions were something largely supported by Progressive reformers, but not by the industrialists. The results could be disastrous. Major union strikes in copper mines across the state in 1913 and 1914 led to riots and violence. While many reformers supported labor issues, the powerful industries used their influence to try and prevent unions from gaining any political power.

One other issue we have to mention is roads. Yep - roads. Before the rise of the automobile industry, most American roads were dirt or gravel. The quick ascension of cars as a major feature of American society led to the demand for better roads, called the Good Roads Movement. Considering the role of automobile industries in Michigan's economy, the state was a leader in national efforts to improve the road system.

Michigan was a leader in the Good Roads Movement.

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