1889 – 1920 Modernizing America Xenophobia and Racism

Key Ideas

1. The continuing rise of nativism, xenophobia, and racism led to a limited definition of what it meant to be an American.

2. National and local policies frequently restricted the rights of non-white women.

3. Although social reformers promised great change, the benefits of reform were not necessarily meant for all.

4. Many women fought against racist policies and beliefs, often risking their own personal safety.


Black and white photograph of Japanese women in traditional kimonos (left) and white government officials (surrounding the women) reviewing their passports. The image was taken at Angel Island in 1920.

Bettmann, Japanese Picture Brides at Immigration, 1920. Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

Xenophobia and Racism

The racial tensions born in the nineteenth century spilled over into the twentieth. For all of its promises of equality and protection, the Progressive Movement was deeply entrenched in white, middle-class society.

This privileged view of the world offered a limited definition of what it meant to be American. And as the threat of a world war loomed, deep fears of radical outsiders only further entrenched nativist tendencies.

Immigration policies like the Chinese Exclusion Act and the Gentleman’s Agreement with Japan made emigration from Asia difficult. The Expatriation Act stripped American women of their citizenship upon marriage to non-citizens. Life for most Black Americans deteriorated as the presence and influence of Jim Crow racism and the Lost Cause mythology continued to rise. The federal government’s education projects for Indigenous communities taught children to reject their culture in favor of an “American” one. Although many social reformers of the era promised great change, it was increasingly clear that the benefits of those changes were not always meant for all.

Section Essential Questions

1. How did xenophobic and racist policies and practices target women?

2. To what extent did the spread of racism and nativism contradict the ideals of the Progressive Era and its spirit of social reform?

3. How did women activists fight against xenophobia and racism? What policies did they challenge and how were they effective?


A set of three letters between a mother and the federal government that exemplify the tremendous sacrifices Indigenous parents made in exchange for a formal education for their children.
Progressive Era, Indigenous cultures of the Americas
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A photograph of newly arrived picture brides that embodies the particular challenges of immigrating to the United States from Japan and one way the Japanese American community sought to resist those challenges.
Progressive Era, imigration, U.S. foreign policy
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An article from the Chicago Defender that describes the new opportunities and challenges northern cities offered women looking to escape the horrors of the Jim Crow South.
Progressive Era, Jim Crow era, Great Migration
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A newspaper article that challenges the unfair federal policy that tied a woman’s citizenship to that of her husband and offers an example of how one native born American woman was a victim of the system.
Progressive Era, immigration
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Three sources describing and depicting the Jefferson Davis monument in Richmond, Virginia, which includes a statue of Miss Confederacy, a symbolic representation of idealized Southern womanhood.
Jim Crow era, race and racism, Confederacy
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A photograph of the NAACP’s 1917 silent march against lynching, which included thousands of women protesters.
Jim Crow era, race and racism
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