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Women in the Progressive Era

Instructor: Ivy Roberts

Ivy Roberts is an adjunct instructor in English, film/media studies and interdisciplinary studies.

This lesson explores the role of women in establishing the foundations for gender equality during the Progressive Era period in American history. We will learn about the women who led the suffrage movement, established settlement houses, and paved the way for social welfare organizations.

Achievements in Women's Rights

Sometimes it seems like the fight for human rights is making no progress at all. With racial unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, talk of building a wall around Texas out of distrust of immigrants, and controversy over healthcare coverage for contraception, you come to feel like Sisyphus pushing a boulder up a mountain only to have it roll back down again.

That's why it's good to recognize the accomplishments in American history that secure our freedom and quality of life: the right to vote, clean cities with proper sanitation, child labor laws, unions, safe working conditions, contraception, and restrictions on the sale of alcohol. All of these little things that we take for granted came about as a direct result of the Progressive Era and women reformers. Fighting for social welfare and equal rights in the first decades of the twentieth century, these women paved the way for the civil rights and feminist movements. Looking back on their achievements helps us appreciate these victories, however small.

Feminist Suffrage Parade in New York City, 1919
suffrage

The Fight for Women's Suffrage

The Progressive Era was a period in American history that took place in the early twentieth century that witnessed the formation of initiatives to fight political and commercial corruption and find solutions to social problems in areas such as public health, labor, and education. Though suffrage, which means the right to vote, constituted just one part of the wider efforts of women reformers during the Progressive Era, it was considered symbolic of the broader struggle for the recognition of women's rights. Before 1920, most states in the Eastern and Central U.S. held restrictions on voting for women, while suffrage had already taken hold in the West. Many states denied women the right to vote, and it was believed that federal action in the form of a constitutional amendment would be the first step in getting women the recognition as equal citizens. When Congress ratified the 19th Amendment in 1920, it marked the end of the women's struggle for equality and the beginning of a new era in human rights.

The movement developed to combat political and commercial corruption through initiatives including public health, education, and labor. It was driven by women seeking to claim a role in society combating the image of women whose place belonged in the home, a place symbolized by fashion and gossip. That image is crystallized in the image of the Women's Sphere, a political cartoon from a Progressive Era illustrated magazine that depicts a domestic woman gazing over the fence in a hopes of escape. The caption condenses the popular opinion in a warning about what would happen if women were to escape the domestic sphere: 'Woman devotes her time to gossip and clothes because she has nothing else to talk about. Give her broader interests and she will grow to be vain and frivolous.'

Progressive-era political cartoon
womans sphere

From Progressive Reform to Social Work

Following the path blazed by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton who were responsible for launching the women's rights movements in the mid-nineteenth century, Progressive Era reformers including Jane Addams, Florence Kelley, Julia Lathrop, and Ellen Starr stepped up to fill their shoes. On the path to gaining equal rights in America, women reformers organized clubs. The largest and most influential of which was the General Federation of Women's Clubs (GFWC). Formed in 1890, the GFWC brought together all of the existing clubs under one umbrella organization: alumni associations, trade unions, religious associations, and other women's clubs such as the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA) and the National Congress of Mothers (which later became the PTA). The National Council of Jewish Women and the National Association of Women of Color were also formed that same year. Even while women banded together based on gender inequality, divisions of class, religion, nationality, and race continued to divide them in society.

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