The Status of Women in the Progressive Era


Click for more images of women factory workers
Women making teddy bears in a factory, 1915,
Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-108038

The status of women was changing rapidly in the Progressive Era. For the most part, middle-class white married women still did not work outside the home. Women workers were primarily young and single, or widows, divorcees, poor married women, and/or women of color. In addition, most women continued to work in agriculture, in factories, and as domestic servants. African American women, in particular, worked as domestic servants in large numbers.



Women work in the typewriting department of the National Cash
Register in Dayton, Ohio, 1902, Library of Congress, LC-D4-42930

However, new jobs were opening up for some women as well. Many women began to find employment in department stores. Middle-class women were able to find jobs as clerical workers (typists, clerks, and telephone operators). Finally, more middle- and upper class women were graduating from college and entering white-collar professions. A few women excelled as lawyers, doctors, journalists, and scientists. At the time, however, professional women often chose or were forced to remain single.

Recognizing the changes that were occurring in the lives of some women, the public and the press coined a phrase for these women, the “New Woman.” The “New Woman” was supposedly young, college educated, active in sports, interested in pursuing a career, and looking for a marriage based on equality.

Image depicting the "New Woman"
on wash day, Library of Congress,

It was primarily middle-class women who drove the reforms of the Progressive Era. Middle-class married women, who were still expected to avoid work outside the home, turned to reform efforts as an outlet for their intellect and creativity. Young professional “New Women” made careers within the reform movement, as settlement workers, social workers, and public health nurses.


Click for full image
Puck cartoon depicting the "New Woman" in a variety of situations,
always on a bicycle, 1895, Library of Congress,





Copyright © 2007 National Women's History Museum.