Gender, Class, Race, and Reform in the Progressive Era

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Noralee Frankel and Nancy Schrom Dye, eds. Gender, Class, Race, and Reform in the Progressive Era. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1991. 202 pp. $19.95, ISBN 0-8131-0841-1.


In Gender, Class, Race, and Reform in the Progressive Era, twelve scholars in separate essays examine the role of gender in Progressive era reform. More specifically, these scholars attempt to explain how gender was defined, used for reform efforts, and complicated and augmented by race and class during the Progressive era. In the view of the essays presented here, the key to gender during this period is the communities of women that organized around a particular set of issues to enact intentionally far-reaching reform. It becomes clear, however, that women Progressives were less successful in certain areas based on their inability to build consensus beyond a supposed common identity as women; that to be an African-American woman or a working-class immigrant woman held drastically different meanings from each other and to the commonly identified white, educated Progressive reformer.

A primary argument made throughout the volume is the idea that women continued to define themselves by traditional, Victorian mores of femininity, but linked that identity to the need for an active role in politics. Though often viewed as a severe limitation to the Progressive woman reformer ideology, “women’s attempts to redefine the relationship of the home to the workplace, the market, and the state in the modern industrial society and to create ways for women to play meaningful and influential roles in the public sphere have had a lasting impact in American concepts of social justice, American public policy, and the role of women in the United States” (Dye 1).

Race as a factor complicates such a positive view however. As Jacqueline A. Rouse in her study of Atlanta points out, women Progressives were operating under a racist worldview that sought to further oppress black families by blocking opportunities for education. In Atlanta, there then developed a second camp of women reformers with African American women creating their own agenda and building beneficial communities. Nancy A. Hewitt paints a similar picture of Tampa where “racial tensions and class strife in the new century illuminated not only differences in the daily lives of blacks, Latins, and Anglos, but also the conflicts generated as each group pursued its own version of civic improvement, community order, and social justice" (27).

Race and gender are further complicated in Progressive reform with the consideration of class and labor. As Sharon Harley states in her study of working class African American women, “a history of working in exploitative situations and of dealing with racial oppression made it easier for black women to identify with the demands of labor organizations and with the plight of other oppressed workers” (51). At the same time, however, immigrants and minorities were seen as objects to be reformed because of home labor and consumption practices that were considered questionable by the white urban women reformers. The working-class experience is “best understood at the intersection of production and consumption” (Cameron 57), both of which were subject to objection and reform by other Progressive era women.

Not all scholars in this collection see gender as monolithically and problematically however. In her study of Alice Hamilton, a pioneering scientist and public health official of the Progressive era, Barbara Sicherman argues that “as a group men never seemed so insistently or deeply concerned with the problems that animated her [Alice Hamilton’s] female associates. It was difficult to express this sense of difference other than in terms of gender. To do so made the reformers less sensitive to the way in which gender continued to constrain women, but their gender consciousness encouraged the personal and political bonding necessary to their endeavor” (141). Further, Ellen Carol DuBois points to the generational divide among the Progressive reformers: “the first generation of progressives constructed women’s class relations on the model of the family, in which poor women were as dependent as children on the loving protection of the reformer-mothers, the second generation of women progressives tended toward a professional model, with its mutually defining positions of expert and client” (164). These two defenses of gender as a tool for understanding Progressive era reform add another layer of analysis, but leave a more complicated picture of Progressive reform: one that was shaped by gender, race, class, and generations, opening the door for a multitude of other possible explanations for Progressive reform.


Amy Lechner, Fall 2007

Gender, Class, Race, and Reform in the Progressive Era provides details that a synthesis of the Progressive era cannot. These essays offer snapshots of reformers’ particular efforts to regulate child health and labor and improve living conditions for families. However, the volume is really about gender and treats race and class unevenly. Race and class are added to the question of gender to complicate and nuance the gendered role of women Progressive reformers. Within the volume, race occupies a small portion with the few articles contradicting each other. For example, Sharon Harley states that “even in the poorest black families, husbands and fathers, not wives and mothers, were considered the primary breadwinners regardless of the duration of their employment” (44) whereas Jacqueline Rouse argues the opposite. With only two other articles about race, each dealing with separate dynamics, it is difficult to construct a solid conclusion about race as a factor in women’s Progressive reform.

The remainder of the book deals with the question of class and provides a much more multi-faceted set of interpretations that compliment each other, but do not relate to the articles on race. The articles on class and gender in the Progressive era reveal the breadth of scholarship that includes cultural theory and political and legal history. At the same time, however, the variance makes it difficult to evaluate each of the articles fairly. For example, would a legal historian agree with Alice Kessler-Harris’ description of “free labor” that essentializes gender so that her analysis neatly fits into the separate spheres paradigm? (90-91)

Gender, Class, Race, and Reform in the Progressive Era is a useful addition to a collection of literature dealing with the Progressive era. However, it lacks a cohesive enough argument to provide a solid introduction to the topic it addresses. Given that there are inconsistencies and overstated content, a student would have to be judicious in her use of this source and understand that the articles, especially in regards to race, may not represent the flavor of the current scholarship on race, class, and gender in the Progressive era.

--Alechne1 15:20, 21 Aug 2007 (EDT)

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