Sunday, September 19, 2010


What was "Progressivism?"--a movement of middle class (and largely upper middle class) whites who attempted to reassert the control they had previously enjoyed in American society by reigning in what they perceived to be the excesses that unfettered capitalism had unleashed.

Progressivsim--Liberal or Conservative? This is a somewhat contentious point, historiographically speaking, in large part because people today who would formerly have identified themselves politically as liberal now choose to label themselves "progressive," and their political opponents tend to attribute attitudes and programs to earlier progressives that they did not advocate. Nevertheless, many of the political positions taken by earlier progressives can be seen as "liberal"--in as much as many of these proposals were about regulating the "free market." These regulations were undertaken, however, to achieve rather conservative results, and the means to achieve those ends were fairly conservative,  as well.

A prime example of this is the campaign for Women's Suffrage, one of the earliest and longest-lasting, and most difficult to achieve of the programs that epitomize progressivism. The battle for women's suffrage predates progressivism by nearly 40 years; we generally date the beginning of this movement to August 1848 and the first Women's Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, New York.  While it was argued by opponents that this was far too a radical notion, proponents argued that extending the right to vote to women would help ensure  that the corrupting influences on the body politic (especially the liquor  lobby and capitalism) could only be defeated by the votes of women.

The women's suffrage movement from its inception was an attempt to make-over American society. In 1848, nearly all the women (and a few men) who became advocates for a woman's right to  vote were also advocated of abolition, especially among leaders like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. With the end of the Civil War, and the passage of the 14th and 15th Amendments--which pointedly gave the right to vote to black  males, but still excluded both black and white females. Particularly galling to some was the fact that males could  vote even though many of these freed slaves were illiterate. This resulted in the women's suffrage movement splitting in two, and a period of inactivity.

Rise of the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU)--founded at Washington Court House in 1874 in the aftermath of a local temperance battle. In 1879, Frances Willard became president (after serving as  another officer briefly), and remade the organization into an all-encompassing social advocacy organization for a short time.

Who Were the Progessives? Progressivism and Secular Protestantism--progressives tended to emerge from evangelical Protestant homes, where they had lost the faith of their fathers (and mothers), and instead channeled their energies into creating a better place on this earth. The tended to find places in newly emerging professions, especially in journalism and academia. This is also the first period in American history when women could readily find a place for themselves outside of the home, as the first generation of college educated women began to emerge.

The "Muckrakers"--so-named by one of the Progressive heroes, Theodore Roosevelt (muck is what is raked  out of a barn after the animals there have been fed and watered--if you catch my drift). The muckrakers were journalist employed mainly by new magazines that were emerging during this time, that worked to expose what they viewed as the corruption and inequality of life in the United States (this focus on the problems in American is what irked Roosevelt). Most prominent among these muckraking journals was McClure's Magazine, which at on time employed Lincoln Steffens, Ida Tarbell, and Ray Stannard Baker.

The Emergence of Academic Experts--the establishment of institutions like the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and the University of Chicago, which focused upon the education of graduate students and the creation of new academic departments, led to the creation of a host of new experts, determined to use their newly acquired knowledge to the problems of modern American society. For these newly emerging academics, knowledge was not merely to be used to be able to read the biblical texts in the original Latin or Greek, which had been the objective of a college education before this time.

Social Work--inspired by the work being done at Toynbee Hall in London's East End, women like Jane Addams founded settlement houses in large cities throughout the United States, where they attempted to address the problems of the burgeoning immigrant populations there. This provided an outlet for college educated women in the United States, who were finally able to find useful, challenging work that allowed them to utilize the college education they had just recently received. Women readily moved into this kind of work because it was viewed as an extension of the home life they had long been responsible for.

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