Home > Modernizing America, 1889-1920 > Fighting For Social Reform
Fighting For Social Reform2019-03-05T18:48:04-04:00

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.


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?


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