Episode 31: Feminism and Suffrage Hi, I’m John Green, this is Crash Course
U.S. history and today we’re going to talk about women in the progressive era.
My God, that is a fantastic hat. Wait, votes for women??
So between Teddy Roosevelt, and Woodrow Wilson, and all those doughboys headed off to war,
women in this period have sort of been footnoted shockingly..
Mr. Green, Mr. Green. I’d NEVER make a woman a footnote. She’d be the center of my world,
my raison d’etre, my joie de vivre. Oh, Me from the Past. I’m reminded of why
you got a C+ in French 3. Let me submit to you, Me from the Past, that
your weird worship of women is a kind of misogyny because you’re imagining women as these
beautiful, fragile things that you can possess. It turns out that women are not things. They
are people in precisely the same way that you are a person and in the progressive era,
they demanded to be seen as full citizens of the United States.
In short, women don’t exist to be your joie de vivre. They get to have their own joie
de vivre. intro
So, it’s tempting to limit ourselves to discussion of women getting the right to vote
with the passage of the 19th amendment, but if we focus too much on the constitutional
history, we’re gonna miss a lot. Some historians refer to the thirty years
between 1890 and 1920 as the “women’s era” because it was in that time that women
started to have greater economic and political opportunities. Women were also aided by legal
changes, like getting the right to own property, control their wages and make contracts and
wills. By 1900 almost 5 million women worked for
wages, mainly in domestic service or light manufacturing, like the garment industry.
Women in America were always vital contributors to the economy as producers and consumers
and they always worked, whether for wages or taking care of children and the home. And
as someone who has recently returned from paternity leave, let me tell you, that ain’t
no joke. And American women were also active as reformers
since, like, America became a thing. And those reform movements brought women into
state and national politics before the dawn of the progressive era.
Unfortunately, their greatest achievement, Prohibition, was also our greatest national
shame. Oh, yeah, alright, okay. It’s actually not in our top 5 national shames.
But, probably women’s greatest influence indeed came through membership AND leadership
in the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. The WCTU was founded in 1874 and by 1890 it
had 150,000 members, making it the largest female organization in the United States.
Under the leadership of Frances Willard, the WCTU embraced a broad reform agenda. Like
it included pushing for the right for women to vote.
The feeling was that the best way to stop people from drinking was to pass local laws
that made it harder to drink, and to do that it would be very helpful if women could vote.
Because American men were a bunch of alcoholic scoundrels who darn well weren’t going to
vote to get rid of beer hoses. In 1895 Willard boldly declared, “A wider
freedom is coming to the women of America. Too long has it been held that woman has no
right to enter these movements (…) Politics is the place for woman.”
But the role of women in politics did greatly expand during the Progressive era. As in prior
decades, many reformers were middle and upper class women, but the growing economy and the
expansion of what might be called the upper-middle class meant that there were more educational
opportunities and this growing group of college-educated women leaned in and became the leaders of
new movements. Sorry, there was no way I was gonna get through
this without one “lean in.” I love that book.
So as we’ve talked about before, the 1890s saw the dawning of the American mass consumer
society and many of the new products made in the second wave of industrialization were
aimed at women, especially “labor-saving” devices like washing machines.
If you’ve ever had an infant, you might notice that they poop and barf on everything
all the time. Like, I recently called the pediatrician and I was like, “My 14-day-old
daughter poops fifteen times a day.” And he was like, “If anything, that seems low.”
So the washing machine is a real game-changer. And many women realized that being the primary
consumers who did the shopping for the home gave them powerful leverage to bring about
change. Chief among these was Florence Kelley, a college-educated
woman who after participating in a number of progressive reform causes came to head
the National Consumers League. The League sponsored boycotts and shaped consumption
patterns encouraging consumers to buy products that were made without child or what we now
would call sweatshop labor. Which at the time was often just known as
“labor.” And there was also a subtle shift in gender
roles as more and more women worked outside the home. African American women continued
to work primarily as domestic servants or in agriculture, and immigrant women mostly
did low-paying factory labor, but for native-born white women there were new opportunities,
especially in office work. And this points to how technology created
opportunities for women. Like, almost all the telephone operators in the U.S. were women.
By 1920 office workers and telephone operators made up 25% of the female workforce, while
domestic servants were only 15%. A union leader named Abraham Bisno remarked
that working gave immigrant women a sense of independence: “They acquired the right
to personality, something alien to the highly patriarchal family structures of the old country.”
Of course this also meant that young women were often in conflict with their parents,
as a job brought more freedom, money, and perhaps, if they were lucky, a room of one’s
own. Oh, it’s time for the Mystery Document?
Please let it be Virginia Woolf, please let it be Virginia Woolf. The rules here are simple.
I guess the author of the Mystery Document. I’m either right or I get shocked.
Alright, let’s see what we’ve got. “The spirit of personal independence in
the women of today is sure proof that a change has come … the radical change in the economic
position of women is advancing upon us… The growing individualization of democratic
life brings inevitable changes to our daughters as well as to our sons … One of its most
noticeable features is the demand in women not only for their own money, but for their
own work for the sake of personal expression. Few girls today fail to manifest some signs
of the desire for individual expression …” Well, that’s not Virginia Woolf.
Stan, I’m going to be honest, I do not know the answer to this one. However, it has been
Woodrow Wilson for the last two weeks. You wouldn’t do that again to me, or would you?
I’m gonna guess Woodrow Wilson. Final answer. DANG IT.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman in the book Women and Economics? What? Aaaaaah!
The idea that having a job is valuable just for the independence that it brings and as
a form of “individual expression” was pretty radical, as most women, and especially
most men, were not comfortable with the idea that being a housewife was similar to being
a servant to one’s husband and children. But of course that changes when staying at
home becomes one of many choices rather than your only available option.
And then came birth control. Huzzah! Women who needed to work wanted a way to limit
the number of pregnancies. Being pregnant and having a baby can make it difficult to
hold down a job and also babies are diaper-using, stuff-breaking, consumptive machines. They
basically eat money. And we love them. But birth control advocates like Margaret
Sanger and Emma Goldman also argued that women should be able to enjoy sex without having
children. To which men said, “Women can enjoy sex?”
Believe it or not, that was seen as a pretty radical idea and it lead to changes in sexual
behavior including more overall skoodilypooping. Goldman was arrested more than 40 times for
sharing these dangerous ideas about female sexuality and birth control and she was eventually
deported. Sanger, who worked to educate working class
women about birth control, was sentenced to prison in 1916 for opening a clinic in Brooklyn
that distributed contraceptive devices to poor immigrant women.
The fight over birth control is important for at least three reasons. First, it put
women into the forefront of debates about free speech in America. I mean, some of the
most ardent advocates of birth control were also associated with the IWW and the Socialist
Party. Secondly, birth control is also a public health issue and many women during the progressive
era entered public life to bring about changes related to public health, leading the crusade
against tuberculosis, the so-called White Plague, and other diseases.
Thirdly, it cut across class lines. Having or not having children is an issue for all
women, regardless of whether they went to college, and the birth control movement brought
upper, middle, and lower class women together in ways that other social movements never
did. Another group of Progressive women took up
the role of addressing the problems of the poor and spearheaded the Settlement House
movement. The key figure here was Jane Addams. My God,
there are still Adamses in American history? Oh, she spells it Addams-family-Addams, not
like founding-fathers-Adams. Anyway, she started Hull House in Chicago in 1889.
Settlement houses became the incubators of the new field of social work, a field in which
women played a huge part. And Addams became one of America’s most important spokespeople
for progressive ideas. And yet in many places, while all of this
was happening, women could not technically vote.
But their increasing involvement in social movements at the turn of the 20th century
led them to electoral politics. It’s true that women were voting before the passage
of the 19th amendment in 1920. Voting is a state issue, and in many western states, women
were granted the right to vote in the late 19th century. States could also grant women
the right to run for office, which explains how the first Congresswoman, Jeannette Rankin,
could vote against America’s entry into World War I in 1917.
That said, the passage and ratification of the 19th Amendment is a big deal in American
history. It’s also a recent deal. Like, when my grandmothers were born, women could
not vote in much of the United States. The amendment says that states cannot deny
people the right to vote because they are women, which isn’t as interesting as the
political organization and activity that led to its passage. Alright, let’s go to the
Thought Bubble. The suffrage movement was extremely fragmented.
There was a first wave of suffrage, exemplified by the women at Seneca Falls, and this metamorphosed
into the National American Women’s Suffrage Association, or NAWSA. Most of the leadership
of NAWSA was made up of middle to upper class women, often involved in other progressive
causes, who unfortunately sometimes represented the darker side of the suffrage movement.
Because these upper class progressives frequently used nativist arguments to make their claims
for the right to vote. They argued that if the vote could be granted to ignorant immigrants,
some of whom could barely speak English, then it should also be granted to native born women.
This isn’t to say that the elitist arguments won the day, but they should be acknowledged.
By the early 20th century a new generation of college-educated activists had arrived
on the scene. And many of these women were more radical than early suffrage supporters.
They organized the National Women’s Party and, under the leadership of Alice Paul, pushed
for the vote using aggressive tactics that many of the early generation of women’s
rights advocates found unseemly. Paul had been studying in Britain between
1907 and 1910 where she saw the more militant women’s rights activists at work. She adopted
their tactics that included protests leading to imprisonment and loud denunciations of
the patriarchy that would make tumblr proud. And during World War I she compared Wilson
to the Kaiser and Paul and her followers chained themselves to the White House fence. The activists
then started a hunger strike during their 7-month prison sentence and had to be force-fed.
Woodrow Wilson had half-heartedly endorsed women’s suffrage in 1916, but the war split
the movement further. Most suffrage organizations believed that wartime service would help women
earn respect and equal rights. But other activists, like many Progressives, opposed the war and
regarded it as a potential threat to social reform.
But, in the end, the war did sort of end up helping the cause. Patriotic support of the
war by women, especially their service working in wartime industries, convinced many that
it was just wrong to deny them the right to vote. And the mistreatment of Alice Paul and
other women in prison for their cause created outrage that further pushed the Wilson administration
to support enfranchising women. Thanks, Thought Bubble. So, women’s long
fight to gain the right to vote ended with the ratification of the 19th Amendment in
1920. But, in some ways, the final granting of the franchise was a bit anti-climactic.
For one thing, it was overshadowed by the 18th Amendment, Prohibition, which affected
both women and men in large numbers. Also Gatsbys.
You could say a lot of bad things about Prohibition, and I have, but the crusade against alcohol
did galvanize and politicize many women, and organizations such as the WCTU and the Anti-Saloon
League introduced yet more to political activism. But, while the passage of the 19th amendment
was a huge victory, Alice Paul and the National Women’s Party were unable to muster the
same support for an Equal Rights Amendment. Paul believed that women needed equal access
to education and employment opportunities. And here they came into contact with other
women’s groups, especially the League of Women Voters and the Women’s Trade Union
League, which opposed the ERA fearing that equal rights would mean an unraveling of hard-won
benefits like mother’s pensions and laws limiting women’s hours of labor.
So, the ERA failed, and then another proposed amendment that would have given Congress the
power to limit child labor won ratification in only 6 states.
So in many ways the period between 1890 and 1920, which roughly corresponds to the Progressive
Era, was the high tide of women’s rights and political activism. It culminated in the
ratification of the 19th amendment, but the right to vote didn’t lead to significant
legislation that actually improved the lives of women, at least not for a while.
Nor were there immediate changes in the roles that women were expected to play in the social
order as wives and mothers. Still, women were able to increase their autonomy
and freedom in the burgeoning consumer marketplace. But it’s important to note that like other
oppressed populations in American history, women weren’t given these rights, they had
to fight for the rights that were said to be inalienable.
And we are all better off for their fight and for their victory. Women’s liberation
is to be sure a complicated phrase and it will take a new turn in the Roaring 20s, which
we’ll talk about next week. I’ll see you then.
Crash Course is produced and directed by Stan Muller. Our script supervisor is Meredith
Danko. The associate producer is Danica Johnson. The show is written by my high school history
teacher, Raoul Meyer, Rosianna Rojas, and myself. And our graphics team is Thought Café.
Every week there’s a new caption to the Libertage. You can suggest captions in comments
where you can also ask questions about today’s video that will be answered by our team of
historians. Thanks for watching Crash Course and as we
say in my hometown, don’t forget to be awesome. I’m gonna go this way, Stan, just kiiidding! Suffrage –