Gilded Age Backlash: The Progressive Era

Progressive Era Cartoon

Although this cartoon refers specifically to only one of the reforms during the Progressive Era (women’s suffragism), it is visually a great example of what was going on with all reforms during this era.

Photo Credit: Political cartoon about suffrage in the United States. Four women supporting suffrage on a steamroller crushing rocks “opposition”. Illustration in Judge, v. 72, 1917 March 17, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division: Unsubtlety/Wikimedia Commons/PD 1923

Limits surely there are to the subservience even of those who must sternly execute the law. At least I have never heard of a militant choking herself into eternity.” (Barnes, par. 34)

My fiction is largely set in one of two historical time periods in America — the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era. I’ve already discussed the Gilded Age here. If the last few decades of the nineteenth century in America were gilded, the start of the new century brought a more realistic, if somewhat tarnished, view of America.

Life was good in America after the Panic of 1873. America was making a name for itself on the world stage, people were recovering from the financial woes of the 1870’s, and there was promise and hope for a better life from the aristocratic down to the poverty-stricken. But the era also had a dark side. Excess was the name of the game, for the wealthy and the growing middle class. Social and economic divide were becoming more prevalent and consumerism and commercialism more important. Wheeling and dealing in politics and business ran rampant and things were out of control.

Enter the Progressive Era. In the 1890’s, more civic-minded reformers, largely white and middle-class, began to shout out against what was happening in the country and push government to pass laws and make reforms. While much of this was very positive, there were also hidden agendas, kinks in the road, and unanticipated consequences.

For this blog post, I’ll reframe from talking too much about political reforms (like whistle-blowing and government involvement in trusts) because so many articles and books on the Progressive Era focus on this. I’ll touch upon the more social and psychological aspects of these and other reforms instead.

Many people have heard of the settlement house movement. Settlement houses conjure visions of white, middle-class women whose privileged lives and separate sphere ideals left them with little space in which to exercise their energies. One of the few outlets for nineteenth century women to show their creativity, education, and efficiency was in aiding the poor. But settlement houses were about more than this. They set out to educate the working-class and the poor with the goal of giving them the skills they needed to get better jobs and build better lives for themselves. As Pamela Pennock, in her article “Important Examples of Progressive Reforms” points out, settlement houses were meant to “improve the lives of slum-dwellers by providing education and child care, teaching English and other basic skills, helping the immigrants get better jobs and housing, and uplifting them culturally (art & music appreciation.)” (par. 1).

However, all was not rosy with the settlement house movement, as these well-meaning women had a hidden agenda — to “Americanize” the largely immigrant population which they served. Much of the education provided in settlement houses was based on the white, middle-class values and beliefs that these women knew and held as the only true and right ones. There was not the awareness of or respect for other cultures. In other words, an unconscious bargain was struck between the settlement houses and their population — accept the life we think you should live and you’ll get our help.

One of these white, middle-class beliefs was a pretty environment bred pretty thoughts and manners. Since urbanization grew rapidly in the second half of the 19th century, these reformers abhorred the filth and neglect of city streets and slums and lobbied for better sanitation and housing conditions. They also started the Beautification, or, City Beautiful movement. It’s no coincidence many of the city parks we have today were established in the late-19th century. San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, for example, was conceived in the 1860’s but really gained ground from the 1880’s when this movement was in its infancy. Of course, there were detractors of the movement who argued that “these were superficial reforms [were] enacted to please the middle-class inhabitants or tourists of cities, but did not really address the dire problems of the masses who lived in the slums” (Pennock, par. 3). There is some truth to this, since parks and squares didn’t really help produce cleaner water and air and safer housing desperately needed by the population the reformers claimed to serve.

Barnes Force Feeding Pic

Photo Credit: Photo of Modernist author Djuna Barnes (working as a reporter) being force fed, like so many of the suffragists of the Progressive Era with the headline for her article, “How it Feels to be Forcibly Fed”. World Magazine, 6 September 1914: Celithemis~commonswiki/Wikimedia Commons/PD US

Many of my protagonists are women so it’s no surprise women’s suffragism plays a big role in my fiction just as it did in the Progressive Era. Many women across the country were protesting the social, political, and even psychological limitations placed on them and their mothers and grandmothers before them. Many of their guerrilla tactics are now more familiar to us since the film Suffragette was released in 2015. The opening quote for this blog post comes from an article written in 1914 by Djuna Barnes who later became an icon of Modernist literature. The article describes in potent detail what it was like for these women reformers, who often went on hunger strikes to protest their treatment by government authorities and police, to be force-fed, one of the hallmarks of the more radical tenants of suffragism.

Why am I drawn to both these eras? Quite simply, they represent a shift from the old to the new not only in American politics and society but also in the psychological reality of the people who lived during that time.

Works Cited

Barnes, Djuna. “How it Feels to be Forcibly Fed.” Wikisource. MediaWild, 2012 (originally published in The World Magazine, 6 September 1914). Web. 29 August 2018

Pennock, Pamela. “Important Examples of Progressive Reforms (Progressive Era: approx. 1890s-1920).” Web. 29 August 2018.


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