The women’s struggle to obtain equality has come a long way. Before the 1890s, referred to as the era of the woman, the woman’s place was subdued, to say the very least. Women had to conform to the expectations of traditions and Christian values which required them to be obedient, submissive, sexually and morally pure and after getting married, to work hard so that they could feed and clothe their families. Their main role was in managing the family budget, socializing their children to the expectations of the society and to uphold a respectable picture of themselves. They worked and worked, had no access to birth control which was considered distasteful, and were not allowed to vote. In any case, their husbands preferred them not to work as this would reflect badly on their positions as breadwinners (Roberts, 1995).
In the years following the American civil war of 1865, women discovered new opportunities that marked the beginning of their struggles for equality. Previously, most white women especially from the middle class did not work outside the home. Those who did were young and single, widowed, divorced, poor or women of color. But as industrialization expanded, more and more women engaged in waged labor in factories, they enhanced their education, formed clubs to protect their interests and fought for a right to vote (Sigerman, I994).
The 1890s through to the 1920s was therefore a special decade for women. Termed as the progressive era, this period saw women improve their quality of life in almost all sectors. New jobs opened up even for the middle-class women and a significant number acquired college education and joined professions previously dominated by men. African American women also took part in the reform efforts. Having obtained their freedom, they migrated, mostly from north to south and moved from working in farm plantations to working in factories and as domestic servants. However, they were faced with sexism and racism, even from the white reform women and their struggles were to a large extent, from the white woman’s struggle (NWHM, 2007).
Women’s struggle for equality in the progressive era
The Grimke sisters struggle
These two women were very important to the struggle for abolitionism and women’s rights. Devoutly religious, their struggle was initially geared towards antislavery but soon added a feminist agenda when they discovered that they were being criticized for stepping out of the proper women’s sphere. Through numerous letters and publications, for the sisters were gifted writers, they made widely publicized, their anti-slavery and feminist views (Birney, 1885). In a major way, the Grimke sisters can be considered as having laid the groundwork for the long struggle to women’s liberation.
Improvement in working conditions
As the years progressed, the women continued to take up waged labor but were subjected to deplorable working conditions and low pay. The Women Trade Union League established in 1903 became an important factor in their struggle for self-improvement. In the early 20th century, it helped women initiate strikes and lobbied for protective legislation for women in the workplace. It was a struggle for women of all classes; the working-class women downed their tools and stayed on picket lines while the middle and upper-class women provided mainly financial, legal and organizational support (NWHM, 2007).The struggle took time but eventually, the movement made tremendous gains in the improvement of working conditions for women.
These were the initiative of the middle-class women. Their aim was to move into settlement houses in poor working class neighborhoods so that they could undertake reforms in those areas. They offered child care and healthcare services in the surrounding community and lobbied governments to pass reform legislation for the working class such as minimum wage laws, proper safety standards at the workplace and sanitation regulations. One of the most well known settlement houses was hull house which was instrumental in the women’s struggle. Started in 1889 by Jane Addams and Ellen Gate Starr, the house quickly moved from a daycare and employment bureau to a cooperative housing for working women. The residents of Hull house soon became influential reformers who convinced the state of Illinois to pass child labor laws and laws protecting women and children. Eventually, they became active in the suffrage movement (NWHM, 2004).
The birth control movement
Women also worked to gain control of their sexuality and have an equal say as men in their marriages. Some of their concerns were for the sexual conduct of men to be held in the same standard as the women, increase the age of sexual consent, abolish prostitution and trafficking of women and be able to control their number of children. Under the leadership of Margaret Sanger, the National Birth Control League was established which advocated for the use of birth control. In 1916, Sanger opened a birth control clinic in New York and was subsequently arrested and charged under the Comstock Laws that forbade the distribution of birth control materials. However, she and her supporters did not give up the struggles and in 1922 formed the American Birth Control League which would become the Planned Parenthood Federation of America many years later (NWHM, 2004).
The woman suffrage movement
Enfranchising of women is considered the most significant achievement of women in the progressive era, with early victories such as in Wyoming in 1869. This movement was started in 1848 under the stewardship of Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Lucy Stone, Julia Ward Howe, among others. For close to 50 years, the movement lobbied for the congress to enfranchise women but politicians were not willing to listen. This made women realize that to be heard, they had to have aright to vote. Thus by the turn of the century, this movement had become a mass movement.
In the 20th century, the movement’s agenda was passed on to two organizations; the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) under the leadership of Carrie Chapman Catt and the National Woman’s Party (NWP) under the leadership of Alice Paul. NAWSA was a fairly moderate organization, undertaking campaign to enfranchise women and lobbying the president and congress to pass a woman suffrage constitutional amendment (NWHM, 2004). Chapman used the language of domesticity to get women to support suffrage and by 1910s NAWSA membership had reached millions. However, her support of women voting was for white women only and not foreign immigrant women or women of color (Voris, 1987).
NWP on the other hand was more radical and their actions included picketing the white house in order to convince the then president and congress to pass the woman suffrage amendment. In 1920, the combined efforts of these two groups bore fruit and the 19th Amendment enfranchising women was finally ratified by the then president Woodrow Wilson (NWHM, 2004).
The role of men
Some men were sympathetic to the women’s course and offered their support in a variety of ways. Theodore Weld, Angelina Grimke’s Husband, was very instrumental in the Grimke sisters’ struggles and in fact trained them to be abolitionist speakers at a time when women were not expected to address public gatherings (Birney, 2004).
Others like George Catt, the husband to Carrie Chapman Catt supported her suffrage work and allowed her in a prenuptial agreement, two months to tend to it (Voris, 1987). However, some men were not sympathetic to the struggle by women as evidenced in Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s husband, Henry Brewster Stanton, who was an abolitionist but did not fully support women’s emancipation.
The place of race in the struggle for women’s rights
The instances of cooperation between black and white reformers were few and far between. Some white women such as Florence Kelley were sympathetic to the black cause and helped form the national association for the advancement of colored people (NAACP). The women’s missionary council of the Southern Methodist church, the Association of southern women for the prevention of lynching and the Woman’s Missionary Council of the Southern Methodist church are other examples of cooperation. For the most part however, immigrant and Black women were excluded from the white women’s reform organizations and had to form their own women clubs. Their goals were no different from the white women’s goal but in addition, they struggled for the ending of racial bias and in particular, the lynching of blacks. It wasn’t until much later that black women were considered equal to their white counterparts (NWHM, 2004).
Legacy of the women’s struggle in the 21ST century
Women of the progressive era achieved a lot in their time and their legacy still lives on in the 21st century. Their most significant victory was in the 19th amendment of 1919 which enfranchised women. This set the pace for other countries to follow and to date, women have a right to vote and participate in policy making in almost all corners of the world with the exception of some countries in the Middle East.
The American women also redefined the role of the federal government in the American society. To date, through their efforts, the government oversees issues of education, sanitation, health, wages, working conditions and social welfare. This has vastly improved the role of women in the economy, society and politics (NWHM, 2004).
The reform women are considered as link between the progressive era and the realization of the New Deal by President Theodore Roosevelt which has been influential in many elections thereafter. The deal permanently expanded the role of the federal government in economic regulation and resource development, the provision of social services and a number of agencies that still exist to date and it played a major role in the growth of the Democratic Party in the United States of America.
The efforts of the reform women have improved the woman’s place all over the world and different women’s agencies are working for the improvement of their lives in line with the achievements of the progressive era.
- Elizabeth Roberts, 1995, A woman’s place: an oral history of the working class women 1890-1940) Wiley Blackwell.
- Harriet Siegerman, 1994, Laborers for liberty: American Women 1865-1890(Young oxford history of women in the US vol 6) Oxford University Press.
- Catherine H. Birney 2004, The Grimke Sisters, Kessinger Publishing.
- National Women History Museum 2007,Reforming their world: Women in the progressive era. Web.