1866 - 1904 Industry and Empire

Cihak and Zima (photographer), Ida B. Wells-Barnett, ca. 1893-1894. University of Chicago Library, Special Collections Research Center.

Key Ideas

  1. Women contributed to the reimagining of what it meant to be American in the wake of the Civil War and during widespread immigration and migration.
  2. Industrialization changed the daily lives of women from many different backgrounds.
  3. Westward expansion and imperialism affected women across the country and beyond.
  4. The experiences of women in this period varied widely based on race, class, age, identity, and geographic region.


José Maria Mora, Mrs. William K. Vanderbilt (Alva Murray Smith) as a Venetian Princess at the Vanderbilt Ball, 1883. New-York Historical Society Library.

The United States experienced major changes in the latter half of the 19th century as the country struggled with its identity after the Civil War. Industrialization, immigration, and westward expansion contributed to reshaping American society. Americans grappled with many questions. What does it mean to be an American, and who should be one? What rights should the U.S. government guarantee for its citizens? How should the United States establish itself on the global stage?

Women were central to answering these questions. They actively participated in the debates surrounding the rights and responsibilities of American citizenship. It is no coincidence, for example, that the women’s suffrage movement gained significant momentum during this time. However, amid these battles over equality and citizenship, women of different backgrounds faced increasing inequalities. The end of Reconstruction and the rise of Jim Crow led to growing racial discrimination. Meanwhile, industrialization and immigration expanded the disparity between classes. While American expansion and imperialism provided opportunities for some, they had devastating effects on the lives of others, including Indigenous women.

Industry and Empire, 1866–1904 is divided into three sections that allow you to consider the many ways in which women contributed to and were influenced by societal changes during this time. Labor and Industry explores how women of different races, classes, and national origins were influenced by industrialization and urbanization. Expansion and Empire considers the effects of westward expansion and American imperialism on Indigenous women and settlers. Fighting for Equality focuses on the contributions of women to end inequalities in American society.

The resources in this unit can be explored by section or by theme. Background information and vocabulary lists provide context for each resource. Resources also include suggested activities on how to combine different resources on a certain topic. You can easily integrate these materials into current lesson plans or structure new lessons around them.

Unit Essential Questions

  1. How did women fight against inequalities in the Gilded Age?
  2. What impacts did industrialization, expansion, and immigration have on women of different backgrounds?
  3. How did women’s experiences vary depending on race, class, age, gender identity, and geographic region?

Explore by Section

Explore the sections below to learn about this era thematically.

Labor and Industry

The industrialization of the United States moved the country from an agricultural to an industrial economy.

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Fighting for Equality

Women continued to pursue equality in the decades following Reconstruction, organizing for suffrage and against regressive Jim Crow policies, while navigating continuing conversations about their role in American society .

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Expansion and Empire

Women's lives were shaped both by American expansion westward and by the country's expansion beyond the continental United States.

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Explore by Theme

Explore resources related to common curricular topics and themes.

Activism and Social Change

American Identity and Citizenship

Domesticity and Family

Geography and the Environment

Immigration, Migration, and Settlement

Power and Politics

Science, Technology, and Medicine

Work, Labor, and Economy

View All Resources

Discover all the resources in this unit below and click through to the sections to find even more background information.