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What was Progressivism?

Standing at Armageddon provides the economic backdrop of Progressivism; in four decades, "the United States went through the change from a rural agricultural based nation to one of industry." Silver Cities as well as Segregation both agree with the importance of industrialization, focusing on the role of the city during this time. However, by seeing the reform movements and governmental changes associated with the Progressive Era over the course of the last 70 centuries Segregation challenges the idea that the Progressive Era was an era at all.

In A Fierce Discontent, McGerr addresses the changing role of individualism between the Victorian era and the Progressive era and its impacts on labor, consumption, and gender, among others. He describes the “four quintessential progressive battles: to change other people; to end class conflict; to control big business; and to segregate society”(xv).

For the most part, other scholars agree on such a definition. For example, the dollar diplomacy described in Financial Missionaries to the World, fits under the category of changing other people.

The ideal of ending class conflict is a bit more suspect. Molina’s Fit to Be Citizens? suggests that Progressives wanted to maintain the status quo and keep others in their place, which might well exacerbate class conflict.

Missing from McGerr’s list are the gendered ideals of manliness and motherhood.

Progressivism and Class

In many of these books, the typical Progressive seems to be a middle-class or upper-class white person, male or female. Women may have embraced reform as a way to get out of the house. Spreading the American Dream challenges this individualism of the era by focusing on the role of the federal government to promote these reform movements.

Were they just middle-class whites?

Financial Missionaries to the World suggests that Progressive bankers supported the gold standard at the expense of farmers. In order to escape the anti-bank rhetoric of the 19th century, they emphasized their professionalism.

Silver Cities does not challenge the idea that most of these reformers were middle class whites, but instead shows how crucial photography was in encouraging the reforms of the era through the work of photographers like Jacob Riis.

Progressivism and Race

Gender, Class, Race, and Reform in the Progressive Era suggests that "immigrants and minorities were seen as objects to be reformed" by middle-class reformers. The book suggests, however, that the Progressives were sincere in their belief they were helping others.

Becoming Citizens notes the presence of black Progressives, who cared about anti-lynching, education, and settlement work. But "the white women’s refusal to reach out to other races slowed their progress and forced African-American women to create their own clubs and organizations. Mexican and Chinese women were left out completely."

Is the ideal of improving other people's lives inherently racist?

Progressivism and Gender

Progressives embraced two gendered ideals: manliness and motherhood.

Vaughn notes that Financial Missionaries to the World draws heavily on "the work of Gail Bederman offered in her book, Manliness & Civilization: A Cultural History of Gender and Race in the United States 1880-1917 (University of Chicago Press, 1995). Bederman saw an emerging twentieth century masculinity that is both civilized, in that it is self-controlled and protective, and primitive, in that it is connected to its native power." Of course, this distinction between civilized and primitive was racialized.

Fit to Be Citizens? stresses the ideal of motherhood. Progressives blamed high rates of infant mortality on the incompetence of Mexican-American mothers, even though unsanitary conditions were the real cause.

Gender, Class, Race, and Reform in the Progressive Era notes the alternative values of immigrants. They wanted to maintain child labor, which kept the family together. Standing at Armageddon notes that the gendered reform of closing the saloon did not provide better jobs for the men in the saloon.

In Rebirth of a Nation Jackson Lears argues that this era was characterized by the Protestant idea of rebirth that resulted in a "militaristic creed" of "renewal through war" (44,49), aka white AngloSaxon manhood strengthened by violence (racial violence, imperialism. etc)

Progressivism and Citizenship

Books such as Becoming Citizens and Fit to Be Citizens? put the question of citizenship right in their titles, but they do not explain broader debates about citizenship in the early twentieth century. We could use more information about the status of immigrants, Indians, and annexed peoples (such as Puerto Ricans) in this era.

Suggestions for Additional Reading

  • Gail Bederman, Manliness & Civilization: A Cultural History of Gender and Race in the United States 1880-1917
  • Daniel T. Rodgers, Atlantic Crossings: Social Politics in a Progressive Age
  • Kimberley S. Johnson, Governing the American State: Congress and the New Federalism, 1877-1929
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