1889 – 1920 Modernizing America Fighting for Social Reform

Key Ideas

1. The challenges of modern life lead to a new wave of social reform that was often led by women.

2. Social reformers came from almost every walk of life and included women from different backgrounds.

3. Activism provided many women with an opportunity to step out of traditional roles within the home and influence public life.

Introduction

An image of women shirtwaist strikers holding copies of “The Call.” Many of the women wear sashes. They are wearing long coats over long dresses/skirts. Some are wearing hats. A placard with Hebrew writing is next to the building in the background.

Unknown photographer, Portrait of women shirtwaist strikers holding copies of “The Call.” A placard with Hebrew writing hands in the background, 1910, 1910. The Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives, Cornell University.

Fighting for Social Reform

The Progressive Era was a golden age of reform. Almost every aspect of modern life seemed to need improvement.

Tenements and workplaces—often one in the same—were unsafe. Urban nightlife threatened public morality. Lack of medical knowledge and sanitary resources led to public health crises. For many women, political and social activism offered an opportunity to break from traditional roles and enact change. Social reformers included national figures traveling the world to speak to mass audiences, artists documenting the horrors of urban life, and laborers risking their livelihoods on the picket line.

Social reformers came from almost every walk of life and included women from different racial, economic, and geographic backgrounds. Young women fought for fair labor practices in the garment industry of New York and the laundries of Texas and Oregon. Social workers and nurses opened settlement houses and clinics to serve poor immigrant communities. Extremists advocated for the total abandonment of social and political constructs that prevented women from achieving equality. Turn-of-the-century America was filled with a spirit of reform, often driven by women.

Section Essential Questions

1. What specific social and political challenges were social reformers responding to in this era? How did these challenges affect women?

2. How did different women become involved in social reform? What did they do? What issues did they promote?

Resources

Two images that show women at work in different settings: at home in an urban tenement and in a factory in the rural South. The images also point to the challenges of working motherhood.
CURRICULUM CONNECTIONS:
industrial work, child labor, tenements, cotton mills, working mothers, muckrakers, photography and social reform
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The United States Supreme Court opinion in Muller v. Oregon that outlines one rationale behind laws designed to protect women in the workplace and demonstrates the often sexist and short-sighted nature of social reforms.
CURRICULUM CONNECTIONS:
women’s health, reproductive rights, working mothers, protective laws, industrial work, the United States Supreme Court
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A pair of newspaper articles that follow the story of laundry workers in El Paso, Texas who formed a union and fought against unfair labor practices.
CURRICULUM CONNECTIONS:
Mexican and Mexican American History, immigration, labor activism, strikes, immigration and labor, racism in the workplace
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An advertisement for Margaret Sanger’s women’s health clinic in a predominantly Italian and Jewish community in Brooklyn, New York. This resource demonstrates the challenges women faced in securing their reproductive rights.
CURRICULUM CONNECTIONS:
reproductive rights, birth control, public health, activism, immigration, hunger strikes and force-feeding
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An advertisement for a feminist mass meeting in New York City that includes an outline of topics up for discussion and a list of some of the city’s most prominent feminist radicals.
CURRICULUM CONNECTIONS:
feminism, mass meetings, fashion, marriage and domesticity, motherhood, labor activism
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A photograph of the Atlanta Neighborhood Union, a women-led organization in Atlanta, Georgia that provided a safe haven and social services for black women and children.
CURRICULUM CONNECTIONS:
community building and organizing, social services and support systems, motherhood, black life in the Jim Crow South
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Life Stories

The story of the college educated founder of Hull House, who went on to inspire a generation of social reformers and peace activists.
CURRICULUM CONNECTIONS:
social reform, Hull House, settlement houses, higher education, social work, pacifism, World War I
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The story of a radical anarchist immigrant who fought against the tyranny of capitalism and promoted full equality for women.
CURRICULUM CONNECTIONS:
anarchism, Red Scare, nativism, World War I, feminism, reproductive rights, suffrage, immigration
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The story of a young Jewish immigrant who inspired thousands of women to fight for improved working conditions in the garment industry.
CURRICULUM CONNECTIONS:
labor organizing, strikes, immigration
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The story of an anti-lynching crusader who used the power of journalism and statistical evidence to raise awareness about the most extreme horrors of life under Jim Crow.
CURRICULUM CONNECTIONS:
anti-lynching activism, journalism, black suffragists, black life under Jim Crow
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