Women’s Associations and the Progressive Era

The period from 1870 through 1928 produced huge changes in population and in the number of women’s associations established to remediate poor social conditions.  Up until 1870 America’s overall economy was still heavily agrarian.  The value of cotton dwarfed the value of manufacturing.  All of a sudden, Europeans and Chinese who might have balked at immigrating to America because of the Civil War, were now attracted to its possibilities for a new life.  Population increased by millions, which caused many cities to grow by tens of thousands. There was no shortage of jobs for immigrants.  Gold flowed from Europe into US Banks, and gold discovered in the Far West likewise made bankers ready to loan to manufacturers.  Tariffs were still high on imported manufactures.  America’s borders increased from sea-to-sea before 1860 and the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869 and brought new homesteaders and manufactured articles westward and throughout the continent..  

Opportunities were matched in size by the problems:  Housing was not available to immigrants, wages were not adequate for a reasonable standard of living, public health in cities was overwhelmed, and governance in the biggest cities was in the hands of corrupt political machines. Onto this stage, stepped numerous women who had been preparing since the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention.  Apart from tackling “City Hall Corruption” they founded scores of new associations to address other issues.  They even carved out new opportunities for paid labor in the new profession of social worker.  

The Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) was formed to address moral reform of alcohol and prostitution.  Their reach was strongest in the states west of the Mississippi, but no beer or whiskey producer anywhere could ignore their threat to survival.  The Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) helped single women in every city find safe housing in proximity to jobs in offices and factories.  

One of the most important initiatives was to improve safety and sanitary conditions for factory workers.  Both the National Consumers League and the National Child Labor Committee campaigned at state levels to improve working conditions and end long hours for women and children.  Their demand for state inspections led to women’s appointments to head and staff inspections of working conditions in factories.  

Settlement houses followed an example of Toynbee Hall, a settlement house in London. Jane Addams founded Hull House in Chicago and inspired numerous others throughout the country.  Some men and women wanted to help the urban poor, but not go home elsewhere at the end of the day.  Settlement house workers lived in the houses among the poor in their neighborhood.  The houses provided instruction, recreation, and care for children during the day. Those who lived in the settlement house provided public health, visiting nurses, and other services in the community. Secular settlement house concepts were adopted by Protestant, Catholic and Jewish sponsors.  The Christian settlement houses often are still extant as “missions” whose outreach now is to save souls.    

Some progressive women believed they could better help working women by efforts to empower them through collective bargaining – a particularly difficult proposition as women were usually thought of as marginal employees except in the garment industry, where collectivizing could include both males and females.  The National Women’s Trade Union League (WTUL) had branches in many cities.  

The National Woman Suffrage Association (1869) and American Woman Suffrage Association achieved passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920, and fulfilled women’s rights sought since before Abigail Adams wrote to husband John,  “to not forget the ladies”. Thereafter, the women’s movements went into decline, during the “roaring twenties”.  

Publiustoo.com                                                                        May 25, 2020