Introduction to Women in the Progressive Era

Although traditional histories of the Progressive Era focus on male figures such as Theodore Roosevelt and Upton Sinclair, in many ways women were the driving force behind progressive reforms. The efforts of women during the Progressive Era significantly impacted the lives of countless Americans and led to many of the "luxuries" we take for granted today - including clean water, trash collection, hot lunches at schools, community playgrounds, fire codes for office buildings, public libraries, and so much more.

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Cartoon from Puck Magazine (1917), the text on the wall reads: "Woman's sphere is the home wherever she makes good," Library of Congress, LC-USZC2-1199

At the end of the nineteenth century, women were considered the "moral guardians" and protectors of the home. During the Progressive Era, female reformers used this ideology to argue that in order to protect the home, women should move into the public sphere where they could exercise their moral authority over issues such as public sanitation and education, which ultimately affected the home. In massive numbers, women joined volunteer organizations to work for reform. Efforts often began at the local level, and expanded to the state and national level. Women conducted research, implemented programs, and lobbied for legislation to address social, political, and economic problems.

Middle-class clubwomen and settlement workers organized to address issues of education, healthcare, and political corruption. Working women organized on their own and in partnership with middle-class women to raise wages and improve working conditions. African American women organized to combat racism and provide mutual support. Together, their efforts led to real improvements in the lives of many Americans.





Copyright © 2007 National Women's History Museum.