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Gender in Muckrakers & Reformers

The Ladies Step Up

Women played an integral role in the Progressive movement. Longstanding social traditions held that women were uniquely predisposed to maintain the moral center for their families. They were supposed to be purer, less vulnerable to temptation than men; especially since men were supposed to go to work in the vice-infested public sphere, while wives remained cloistered within the moral bastion of the home. Since women were also deemed responsible for raising children, they assumed the role of teachers and guardians of Christian virtues and values. Though these same religious teachings implied that women should be obedient wives and subservient individuals, ironically, they also provided a socially acceptable venue in which females could assume an active role in public life. That is, women could transgress traditional gender roles in the name of safeguarding other, more sacred traditions like Christian piety and social morality. In the long term, Progressive women were successful on several counts, but in their success lay unimagined troubles and complications.


Popular movements to combat "the sin of drink" had existed since the early nineteenth century in the United States, but had never met with much success. Though several states passed prohibition laws in the antebellum period, by the late 1860s most had already repealed those laws. When the Prohibition Party was organized and ran its first national campaign in 1872, it did not fare well (candidate James Black drew about 0.1% of the popular vote). Though the United States was a deeply religious—and overwhelmingly Christian—nation, its voting males had grown up in a culture of strict party loyalty. It was very rare for a person to bolt his party affiliation to join up with an independent movement, especially for the sake of a tiny party with a single-issue platform. Many men hoped that their own parties would eventually adopt prohibition as part of their platform, and others deemed temperance a "moral" issue that ought not be combated through politics. Many others simply did not find their religious views and their taste for drink to be mutually exclusive. In 1884, the Prohibition Party—which still exists today—did nonetheless attract just enough votes in New York state to take the presidential election from Republican James G. Blaine and hand it to Democrat Grover Cleveland by the thinnest of margins. At its peak, which occured in the 1888 and 1892 elections, the Prohibition Party polled about 2% of the popular vote.

Meanwhile, female temperance activists were organizing an even more powerful association. The Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) was organized in 1874, pledging support for the Prohibitionist Party but also assuming responsibility for a range of other projects. It soon became the largest women's organization in the country, advocating a string of reforms in addition to temperance—from prison reform and public health to world peace. In 1876, former educator Frances Willard assumed leadership of the WCTU. Under Willard, the organization became a key supporter of the female suffrage movement. Consequently, the liquor lobby became one of the principal opponents to women's suffrage, as it justly feared that women might use the franchise to vote to prohibit the sale of alcohol. The issues of temperance and suffrage were thus intertwined throughout the Progressive Era, although not all suffragettes were for temperance, and vice versa. Both prohibtionists and suffragettes had to wait until after World War I to realize their goals on a nationwide scale.

In the meantime, frustration took hold for some temperance activists. In Kansas, Carry A. Nation secured a place for herself in the history books when she ahandoned the WCTU's peaceful approach in favor of violent direct action. Nation, who was briefly married to an alcoholic in the 1860s, joined up with a growing movement of primarily female temperance activists who were enraged by the state's uneven enforcement of an 1881 "dry" law that had not succeeded in shuttering all of Kansas's saloons. A frustrated Nation argued that "A woman is stripped of everything by them [saloons]. Her husband is torn from her; she is robbed of her sons, her home, her food, and her virtue.... Truly does the saloon make a woman bare of all things!" In June 1900, Nation had a dream in which a voice appeared to her and said, "Take something in your hands, and throw at these places... and smash them." This seemingly religious sign was all the impetus that the devout Carry required to take action into her own hands. Arming herself with rocks, brickbats, axes, and a fervent religious devotion, Nation led her followers on a succession of saloon attacks between 1900 and 1910, chanting "Smash, ladies, smash!" throughout each onslaught. She was arrested 30 times but felt emboldened by her religiosity, describing herself as "a bulldog running along at the feet of Jesus, barking at what he doesn't like."23 A handful of women, frustrated by their inability to vote, had been smashing Kansas saloons since 1855, but Nation became something of a national celebrity. While incarcerated in Topeka in July 1901, she received numerous offers from "theatrical, circus, and museum managers," one offering as much as $800 along with her own private railroad car and a maid. Nation turned down these offers but ultimately acquiesced in allowing Lyceum manager James E. Furlong to represent her so that she could raise some money through lecturing. In some places, she was received respectfully, but in others—like New York's famous pleasure beach, Coney Island—she was treated "in effect, as a side show."24 Nonetheless, her popularity helped to bring about a favorable climate for passage of nationwide prohibition in 1919.


The radical wing of the suffrage movement had existed for some time, but it differed substantially from the radicals of the temperance movement. Suffragette radicals were less religiously zealous than their teetotaler counterparts, even if they did pursue similarly confrontational and immediatist tactics. In 1869, the more progressive, New York-based National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) split from the more conservative American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA), based in Boston. Even after the two organizations reunited for the sake of the cause in 1890, internal tensions persisted. In 1895, movement cofounder Elizabeth Cady Stanton published The Woman's Bible, which promoted a more liberal view of the Bible that offered an alternative to the traditional explanations of how God and His apostles defined a "woman's place." Many conservative NAWSA members disapproved of the book's controversial reappraisal of Christian doctrine, and sought to distance Stanton from the movement's new mainstream. Stanton had resigned as NAWSA president in 1892, and after her book was published, NAWSA stopped inviting her to sit on the stage at its conventions. Most suffragettes did not want to appear threatening or radical, since they were trying to persuade a hesitant male electorate that female enfranchisement would not revolutionize American society or the women who lived in it.

Yet Stanton's radical legacy in the suffrage movement influenced many women within the next generation of activists. In 1913, Alice Paul and Lucy Burns organized the Congressional Union, later known as the National Woman's Party. They were inspired by Stanton and the tactics of the radical, militant Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) in England. Woman's Party members emulated WSPU tactics by picketing the White House, getting arrested, participating in hunger strikes, and practicing other modes of civil disobedience to bring attention to the suffrage cause. In 1913, some 5,000 suffragettes and their supporters held a parade in Washington, D.C. on the day before Woodrow Wilson's inauguration. The new NAWSA President Carrie Chapman Catt fiercely opposed such tactics, as she supported President Wilson and did not want to alienate moderate voters and politicians. Internal debates over the basic strategy of the suffrage movement persisted until World War I, when the activists took advantage of the global crisis to successfully pressure the government into acting on their behalf.

Not all women supported enfranchisement for their sex. In 1911, a group of primarily wealthy women and Catholic clergymen organized the National Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage (NAOWS). Mrs. Arthur Dodge led the organization, which received support from Southern congressmen, urban political machines, and businessmen. These groups opposed female suffrage for a variety of reasons, ranging from the ideological conservatism of the Southern congressmen to the businessmen's pragmatic fears that female voters might support costly regulatory legislation.

Mixed Results

Like so many aspects of Progressive reform, the suffrage and temperance movements experienced plenty of both success and failure. By 1898, only five states had passed legislation to prohibit the manufacture and sale of alcohol. But with the coming of World War I, a series of factors coalesced to give the longstanding temperance campaign the boost it needed to secure a constitutional amendment banning booze. Large groups of religious women, black and white, had effectively organized in (segregated) branches of the WCTU to campaign for prohibition. The more extreme temperance advocates like Carry Nation had also managed to arouse considerable attention, if not always goodwill. Many of these women and their husbands were also social reformers who came to view alcohol as one of the principal vices plaguing the nation's inner cities, where political bosses could buy votes with drink and where fathers might spend their paychecks in the saloon instead of on groceries for the family. Additionally, employers came to believe that they might enjoy a more dependable and efficient workforce without the influence of alcohol.

Given all these influences, an increasing number of states passed dry laws during the first fifteen years of the twentieth century, especially in the more conservative and fervently religious regions of the South and Midwest. But prohibitionists, like the suffragettes, saw national legislation as the surest means of effectively securing and enforcing their goals. The war provided them with an effective argument, since many beer brewers were of German descent, and the country was consumed with virulent anti-German sentiment amidst the heightened patriotism of wartime. The government also argued that raw materials such as the grain used in liquor manufacture were now needed for wartime food production. As a result, Congress passed the Eighteenth Amendment and the states ratified it in 1919. Of course, the Prohibition period that commenced in 1920 proved disastrous; it only added to the vice of the inner city as mobsters and corrupt politicians made fortunes off of the black-market liquor trade. Workers were already stretched to their limits and did not prove much more productive while sober—if anything, they replaced saloon drinks with even more potent and possibly dangerous homemade bathtub gin. Progressives had gone into the 1920s seemingly victorious in the central battle of their struggle for a more Christian, civilized nation, but life under Prohibition left them bitterly disappointed. If anything, the "roaring twenties" instead became synonymous with hedonistic, lust-ridden abandonment.

Like the temperance crusade, the suffrage movement produced its own contradictions, even in victory. Perhaps the most formidable obstacle to women's suffrage was neither NAOWS nor the liquor lobby, but simply the difficult historical context of the moment. Aside from the fierce debate between Catt and Paul over tactics and the frequet ideological differences that arose among suffragettes, the battle for voting rights revealed one of the most important problems of the Progressive Era: the United States was riven by deep inequities of race and class. Mary Church Terrell, the president of the National Association of Colored Women, made this point clear when she addressed NAWSA's fiftieth-anniversary convention in 1898. Terrell remarked that "The colored youth is vicious we are told, and statistics showing the multitudes of our boys and girls who crowd the [penitentiaries] and fill the jails appall and dishearten us. But side by side with these facts and figures of crime I would have presented and pictured the miserable hovels from which these youthful criminals come." Terrell was arguing against poverty rooted in racism, which could be found even within the ranks of white suffragettes, and pointing out the gross inequalities in housing, resources, education, and opportunity that confronted black people in Progressive-era America (which was also the darkest hour of the age of Jim Crow). Many whites had simply taken crime rates or illiteracy among blacks—social problems largely caused by the Jim Crow system itself—as proof of African-Americans' supposedly innate racial or biological inferiority. For all of her feminist radicalism, Alice Paul herself harbored—or at least tolerated—both racist and anti-Semitic prejudices in the suffrage movement, and reassured southern whites that if "negro men cannot vote in South Carolina," then "negro women would not if women were to vote in the nation."25 Even among the suffragettes who did not personally discriminate against other races or ethnicities, few activists were willing to unite openly with black women for fear that they would alienate southern white women within the movement and provoke such controversy that they might distract attention from their chief priority—winning the vote.

"Seeking no favors because of our color," Terrell declared in 1898, "nor patronage because of our needs, we knock at the bar of justice, asking an equal chance."26 Yet even when the Nineteenth Amendment enfranchised women of all races, the persistence of white supremacy compromised this important victory for women lke Mary Church Terrell. When black women had to struggle just to make ends meet for themselves and their families, when they suffered racial discrimination at every turn and physical threats to their welfare if they did try to vote, they could hardly consider the franchise to be the embodiment of equality and empowerment. Though prominent black scholars such as W.E.B. Du Bois publicly supported women's suffrage, Du Bois and others were also troubled by the knowledge that enfranchisement would enable thousands of white women—many of whom might share their husbands' prejudices—to vote in favor of white supremacist candidates and their platforms. As black men had learned through bitter experience after 1865, the legal right to vote could only achieve its full liberatory potential when African-Americans were free to cast ballots free from intimidation and violence. In much of the country, that time would not come for black women (or men) until the civil rights movement won passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965.

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