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.


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 Yiddish 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?


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.
Progressive Era, industrial work, labor reform, immigration
Go to Resource
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.
Progressive Era, industrial work, U.S. Supreme Court cases
Go to Resource
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.
Progressive Era, labor reform, immigration
Go to Resource
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.
Progressive Era, immigration, reform movements
Go to Resource
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.
Progressive Era, women's rights movement
Go to Resource
A photograph of the Atlanta Neighborhood Union, a women-led organization in Atlanta, Geo