Women Progressives in the Late 19th Century

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Photo Credit: Children gathered in Hull House for kindergarten, 1902, Allen B. Pond, James Addams Hull House Museum: JethroBT/Wikimedia Commons/PD US

Last year, I wrote this blog post about the Progressive Era. But progressive reforms didn’t just begin the 20th century. The Gilded Age laid the groundwork in the last quarter of the 19th century, and especially its last decade when its dazzle of its excessiveness, idleness, and glitter were beginning to wear off, and Americans were becoming more aware of the political wrongs in the country that needed to be made right.

Women, mainly from the upper class social stratum (that is, wealthy and middle-class women) put themselves front and center as reformers during this time for several reasons. They took up issues they felt were of particular concern to, and in the domain of, women, such as sanitation, health and safety, and child labor. They saw reform as more about social problems than political problems (so they were not necessary suffragists, though the suffragists were certainly concerned about these issues as well). These women were social reformers who preferred to work within the woman’s sphere — that is, unlike the suffragists, who could rub the public the wrong way with their demand for a voice in public arenas such as politics, business, and law, women progressives preferred to work in areas that were more private. 

A myriad of social changes were happening in America during the last decade of the 19th century. One of them was the economic criss brought on by the Panic of 1893. In the wake of this panic, slums in big cities like New York and Chicago grew, as well as the population of the poor elsewhere in America. Added to this, immigration increased during this time (with the opening of Ellis Island), and conflicts between laborers and employers signaled a growing concern for the rights and conditions of working women and children.

Much of this social reform took place in the settlement houses largely run by middle-class women that offered a host of services for poor and working class people in urban communities. Probably the most famous of these was Hull House in Chicago, run by Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr. But there were others all over the country.

Photo Credit: Telegraph Hill from Sacramento and Powell Streets, 1858-1900, Thomas Houseworth & Co., Publishers: New York Public Library/Public Domain

Since I deal with San Francisco and the Bay Area in my books, I went seeking information about settlement houses in the city in the late 19th century and found that the first one that operated was very similar to Hull House. Located on San Francisco’s Telegraph Hill (one of the most picturesque areas of the city), the Telegraph Hill Neighborhood Center opened its doors in 1890 in response to the area’s growing immigrant population and its neighborhood children being pulled out of school and play for work, Elizabeth Ashe and Alice Griffith, like Addams and Gates, were educated New Women who responded to the growing needs of the neighborhood after they got to know some of its children through their teaching of Sunday school. Like Hull House, their objective was to offer residents a myriad of social improvements, from education to physical activity. The center offered classes for children and adults and also a library, as well as a playground and gymnasium, encouraging nurture of the mind and body, as well as the soul.

In Book 3 of the Waxwood Series, women progressives make an appearance in two ways. First, there is a group called the Bay Area Women’s Social and Political Rights League made up primarily of wealthy women to which Vivian Alderdice, the main character of the series, was introduced in Book 2 by one of the Washington Street blue bloods, Marvina Moore. Vivian also meets some New Women in the book through Annette Grace, a Waxwood native who owns a pharmacy/drug store in town. Though from different classes, both these groups are concerned with women laborers and their situation in the late 19th century, and both are looking to implement social changes as the nation moves into a new century.

Book 3 of the series, Pathfinding Women, will be out this summer, and you can find out more about it here. And to find out more about the series, go here.      

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Author: tammayauthor

Tam May grew up in the United States and earned her B.A. and M.A in English. She worked as an English college instructor and EFL (English as a Foreign Language) teacher before she became a full-time writer. She started writing when she was 14, and writing became her voice. She writes characters who examine their past in order to move into their future and are influenced by the time in which they live. Her first book, a collection of contemporary short stories titled Gnarled Bones And Other Stories, was nominated for a 2017 Summer Indie Book Award. She is currently working on a Gilded Age family saga. The first book, The Specter, is now available, and the second book will be out in December, 2019. She is also working on a historical mystery series featuring a turn-of-the-century New Woman sleuth. Both series take place in Northern California. She lives in Texas but calls San Francisco and the Bay Area “home”. When she’s not writing, she’s reading classic literature and historical fiction, watching classic films, or cooking up awesome vegetarian dishes.