1889 – 1920 Modernizing America

Gertrude Kasebier (photographer), Zitkala Sa, Sioux Indian and activist, c. 1898. Gertrude Kasebier, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.

Key Ideas

1. New opportunities arose in the realms of education, recreation, and social reform, but traditional gender roles and stereotypes still significantly shaped women’s lives.

2. While the era saw an increase in the number of women working for pay, the vast majority of women were still contributing to the family economy via unpaid housework and childcare.

3. Involvement in activism was a powerful outlet for women of diverse backgrounds to step beyond the home and fight for change.

4. The persistence of xenophobia and nativism often counterbalanced progressive ideals—not all women benefited from reform.


Commonly known as the Progressive Era, the years between 1889 and 1920 saw rapid growth and change across the United States. Cities grew. Immigration expanded. Industries boomed. Women representing diverse racial, economic, and social backgrounds felt the dramatic changes of modern America deeply. Almost every aspect of their lives became a point of contention as the United States became an increasingly diversified, urbanized, and polarized nation.

This was the era of the suffragists, activists, and feminists. In 1889, a young college-educated woman named Jane Addams opened a settlement house in Chicago’s 19th Ward with her confidant and partner, E