Gilded Age Backlash: The Progressive Era

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 timeframes in America — the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era. So this blog post is going to be about the latter. Since a few weeks ago, I posted about the Gilded Age, this post will be about the Progressive Era.

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 and influenced our own psyches in years to come (and still has its influences). Since I write a lot about characters’ psychological reality, that interested me.

As I discussed in my post about the Gilded Age, life was good in America after the Panic of 1873. America was making a name for itself globally, people were recovering from the recession of the early 1870’s, and there was a lot of promise and hope. But the era also had a dark side, though. Excess was the name of the game, for the wealthy and the growing middle class. Social and economic divide were becoming more prevalent and the showy aspects of life more important. So was money. Wheeling and dealing in politics and business was 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 about a lot of the things that were happening in the country and to 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 some of the more social and psychological aspects of sone of the other reforms instead.

Many people have heard of the settlement house movement and have probably had visions of white, middle-class women whose privileged lives and separate sphere beliefs left them with too much time on their hands so they spent that time aiding the poor. Much of this is true, but the settlement houses were about more than that. They set out to educate the working-class and the poor with the goal of giving them the skills and learning they needed to eventually 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 houses, as they had a hidden agenda — to “Americanize” the largely immigrant population which they served. Much of what settlement houses taught were based on white, middle-class values and beliefs that those running the places themselves knew and held as only true and right. There was not the awareness of or respect for other cultures that there is today.

One of these white, middle-class beliefs was that a pretty environment bred a mind of pretty thoughts and manners. Since urbanization grew in the second half of the 19th century and also many of the immigrants that came to America came to the cities, 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 that many of the city parks we have today took hold in the mid-19th century and later. San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, for example, was conceived in the 1860’s but really gained ground from the 1880’s onward when this movement was just beginning. 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.

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 stories are about women, so it’s no surprise that women’s suffragism plays a big role in my fiction just as it did in the Progressive Era. This was the time when many women across the country were rising and protesting the social, political, and even psychological limitations that had been placed on them and their mothers and grandmothers in the past. Many of their guerrilla tactics are now more familiar to us since the film Suffragette (2015) was released. 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.

If the Gilded Age was the era of excessiveness, the Progressive Era was its backlash. The wheels that ran the nation socially and politically were breaking down and an old order based on hierarchies of class and money were being called into question. While this doesn’t mean that all was well, it did hurl America into the modern age and brought out some of the most endearing qualities of a particularly American democracy.

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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