Gender Issues During The Progressive Era

Social Dynamics and the Role of Women

The role of women in American society during the Progressive Era years of 1870-1930 changed and expanded significantly. The genesis of this growth can be found as a series of steps of progression women’s roles began to take towards equality. From the Civil War through Reconstruction and into the Progressive Era & Gilded Age, progression of women’s roles can be charted. Thus, while suffrage was not a new concept, it became much more visible on a national stage as women found their voice and stood up for what they believed were their constitutional rights. Many women saw their roles altered and during this time period. For others, there was still much work to be done to obtain gender equality at home, in the workplace and at the federal levels of government. Starting with domestic expectations of taking care of the home and family, remaining socially unseen, women began to adjust their roles to effectively participate in government, social clubs and circles as well as the workforce previously occupied only by men. Due to these changes, women became much more involved in public life, and as a result, found themselves in much more prominent and powerful positions than ever before. Women’s suffrage was indeed alive and ready to win their battle.

Many historians of American women’s ideology argue that this change in domestic dynamic was one of the first steps towards women’s suffrage and equal rights. The war effort that encompassed women really gave them a voice and a reason to push for more opportunity and acknowledgement in society and government. These historians often discuss how it affected their roles moving forwards into the Industrial and Progressive Eras. Thus, without the circumstance of allowing women to fill roles traditionally occupied by men, the seeds planted before the war could not have been cultivated so soon. America, as a young country, was not prepared for the Civil War and all the things that would come from its end.

In her work, Maternal Strategies: Irish Women’s Headship of Families in Gilded Age Chicago Patricia Kelleher provided strong evidence about the role women played, not only in the home but also in the world. While Kelleher focused squarely on the issue of diversity, discussing Irish vs. German vs. native roles women played, she drew attention to social acceptance, failure and change. Thus, the work provides an important insight into how the dynamic of the role began to change during the Gilded Age. With heavy use of examples and data tables in relation to the percentages of marital disruption occurrences in Chicago during the Gilded Age, Kelleher points to the leading cause of role change, marital disruption and the stigma of social failure. In most cases, death was the reason behind the disruption of the marriage, forcing the woman to become the head of household by default. Kelleher also notes marital disruption was a severe problem during the Gilded Age. General population mortality rates were significantly higher during this time period due to the easy spread of infectious diseases.

As Kelleher also noted, death was not the only contributor to familial disruption. Often times the male head of household left due to feelings of inadequacy and desertion. Kelleher’s most important argument is about the struggle these women faced in maintaining their family while engaging in fruitful work in order to remain socially accepted. “The primary task all marriage-disrupted women confronted was to secure a livelihood for themselves and often for dependents.” Thus, the importance of social acceptance pushes itself to the forefront of the role dynamic, once again. The role of Freethinkers in Gilded Age America, rejecting common or popular opinion instead focusing on nonconformist and individualist principles combines easily with the new role women were beginning to take on, allowing for a change in social and cultural dynamic to take place.

It was so important to make a living and maintain a household, that many Irish women in Chicago employed creative and sometimes dramatic strategies in order to keep their position as the head of family. This contributed heavily to the style of mothering and ways of cohabitating many Irish women in the City of Chicago during the Gilded Age used. Kelleher effectively demonstrated that “For many Victorian Era mothers, family headship was a hard-won accomplishment, not a badge of failure.” Clearly, the struggle was front and center during the Gilded Age even though it is often pushed aside to reminisce and discuss the positives in culture and industry that were occurring. Family headship as a role only increased the need for suffrage as well as the change in social understanding of women as family leaders. It is often said the perception is reality, and this rings true here. Women perceived themselves as the head of household, but often placed their husband and children first. The necessity of women as head of household changed the dynamic and reshaped what was socially acceptable. Additionally, it altered the expectations of citizenship as a role as well, allowing women to join into circles, clubs and companies they had not been a part of before.

Author Anke Ortlepp focused on Milwaukee’s German-American women in her article German American Women’s Clubs- Constructing Women’s Roles and Ethnic History. While Ortlepp doesn’t focus much on home life or marital disruptions, she does shed light on what was important and socially acceptable in her area (Milwaukee) during the Gilded Age. Women here were confronted with two options. They could be “agents of social change and make crucial contributions to community-building processes” or they could be housewives, mothers and caregivers. Ortlepp’s article focused mainly on German-American and their role in maintaining the German nationalism, ethnicity and culture they, like so many other nationalities, revered.

Another important point within this article is the discussion of gender relations and roles. Portrayed as much less poor and downtrodden than Kelleher’s Irish immigrants, Ortlepp’s German-American’s are presented as liberal traditionalists, willing to follow equal rights, personal freedom and self-fulfillment. While Ortlepp does discuss the Freethinkers culture and their “traditional notions of femininity that centered on women’s duties as wives and mothers,” she does not go as far as Kelleher in her analysis of this gender role or social status.

Both articles demonstrate the idea of a more liberal women’s movement beginning to take form. As Ortlepp noted, “Often the women used their regular meetings to discuss women’s rights and reflect on the woman question. Theoretical discussions of gender relations and women’s status in society went hand in hand with discussions of the latest political developments and the successes and failures of the American suffrage movement.” The authors’ approaches may be different, but the underlying tone is clearly focused on women and women’s rights in a changing era. The main objective both author’s concentrate upon is central to the predicament of women during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. Kelleher and Ortlepp show that region did not matter; women faced similar social situations and gender role divisions nationwide.

Further research and discussion provides commentary in the form of gender opportunity within the U.S. women’s suffrage movement. Women’s historian Holly J. McCammon focused on the political changes created by the shift in gender roles, as well as the political association and effect of gendered opportunities in her article, How Movements Win: Gendered Opportunity Structures and U.S. Women’s Suffrage Movements, 1866-1919. A comparison of ethos here is not impossible, as a portion of the article focused on the traditional role of women and how the small changes effectively became a large crack in the surface of gender equality. The discussion of gender roles takes on a new thread with the addition of political change. McCammon does a spectacular job of linking political change in the Gilded Era with social and gender roles. The ability to understand this shifting dynamic in attitude, vision and roles in society are inherently important to the critical discussion and comprehension of the evolution of women’s social and gender roles during the Gilded Age.

As McCammon noted, “During the nineteenth century, a clear cultural demarcation between women’s and men’s appropriate social spheres emerged, with women’s place defined as the private sphere of child rearing and domestic work and the men’s place defined as the public sphere of politics and business…But the suffragists found gendered opportunities in changes or variations in gender relations that altered existing views about the proper roles of women.” The discussion of social spheres is a common thread in women’s role changes during the Gilded Age.

It is important to remember that women were fighting to work in these often dominated male roles, and in doing so, a transformation of the social and gender roles began.

McCammon also touched upon the nationality of citizens in her discussion of gender opportunity within the Gilded Age. Discussion of Italian-American and Irish-American family practice during this time focuses on the more traditional housewife and mother role women generally played. This compares and contrasts nicely to the Kelleher article, once again reminding us from a historical viewpoint that perception and understanding of the social influence is fundamental to comprehending the opportunity and acceptance of gender roles during this the Gilded Age. As Kelleher shows the value in women becoming head of household and transitioning to a combined domestic and social role, so does McCammon in her discussion of gender opportunity and acceptance of gender roles embraced by many women. McCammon concludes with a significant theory of competing logics, discussing the ideological rationale often used when discussing the traditional beliefs and appropriate societal roles of women versus the new women with expended political rights and significant war time contributions, which was slowly beginning to erode the sense of domesticity in the role women played in America.

Another discussion of politics, suffrage and women’s roles can be found in Elisabeth Isreals Perry’s article, Men are from the Gilded Age, Women are from the Progressive Era. Perry argues the viewpoint that women were the progressives during the Gilded Age, pushing for political reform and equal rights, especially in term of voting. This article places much focus on the political aspect of women and their role in politics during the Progressive Era. It also delves into the subject of women’s activism and how that helped shape the political movements of the time. While not as comparable to the previous articles it nonetheless places significant emphasis on the role women played and how suffrage worked hand in hand with the politics and gender opportunities to allow women a more equal role within society and government. However one criticism that is brought up in this article lends itself to a contrast on the current historiography of the subject. As Perry notes, “In the past decade, Progressive –era history has become much more responsive to women’s history than it was during the 1980’s.” Prior to this, historians focus was much more concentrated on suffrage and political-minded efforts than on gender opportunities.

Perry criticizes previous works of women’s suffrage in the Gilded Age, indicating they do not focus as much on the complexities or greater meanings as they should. This is a critical difference in Perry’s work compared to Kelleher, Ortlepp and McCammon’s articles. Perry places more focus on suffrage, politics and the role women played as opposed to gender roles and opportunities that women were afforded due to the change in social dynamic. It provides a valuable insight as to what may be lacking and how historians can focus their research and efforts more clearly to provide a deeper analysis of the gender opportunity and role of women during the Gilded Age. And yet, the idea and connections made of women in politics during this time are mediocre at best. Most women were not directly in the political sphere, but rather on the outskirts doing the hard work from the outside looking in. Their activism and participation in fundraising and social gatherings made them ripe for the world of politics long before they were granted access. Perry argues this point ad nauseum, but still leaves room for further discussion and debate. The supportive role of women clearly branched into the political role men occupied. They were no longer viewed as just a housewife or mother; they were now recognized as an involved member of society.

Similarly, Linda Kerber’s article titled Separate Spheres, Female Worlds, Woman's Place: The Rhetoric of Women's History discusses the gender opportunities and role changes women experienced throughout American history. Kerber focuses her article on the social aspects of the changes, contrasting sharply with Kelleher and Ortlepp who focus on the specific situations and anecdotes to provide color around the growing role women faced during the Gilded Age. Kerber notes, “Although the idea of women's sphere was not necessarily protofeminist, domesticity and feminism were linked by "women's perception of 'womanhood'" as an all-sufficient definition and of sisterhood as implicit in it.” Kerber’s viewpoint allows for a more clear understanding of the social impact that the gendered opportunities brought upon women. Liberalism and ideology shifts became part of the norm during this period of American history, as social dynamics continuously shifted with suffrage and equality rights being constantly challenged. Kerber cites the challenges very succinctly, stating “The ideology of republican womanhood recognized that women's choices and women's work did serve large social and political purposes, and that recognition was enough to draw the traditional women's "sphere" somewhat closer to men's world.” Kerber points out too, that Progressive Era women encountered significant opposition to their growth and change in roles. “The years 1870-1920 may be the high-water mark of women's public influence: through voluntary organizations, lobbying, trade unions, professional education, and professional activity. But women also met unprecedented hostility and resistance that seems disproportionate, even in the no-holds-barred political arena…” This relates acutely with the Perry article, in that political resistance for the inclusion of women was widespread. This issue in and of itself is provides the necessary understanding as to the conflict and inconsistency that women of the time faced. It also parallels the McCammon article in discussing the social spheres that women experienced during the Gilded Age. Perceptions of societal roles and expanded domestic and social responsibilities were changing and transforming considerably.

A final comparison of the articles researched indicates that not much dissention exists in the viewpoints of women’s roles and changes in society in terms of suffrage and gender opportunities. While each resource focused it’s topic on women’s roles and suffrage in the Gilded Age, each also took a very different approach in what class or nationality they discussed. Kelleher and Ortlepp focused on nationality, while McCammon, Perry and even Kerber focused on political associations in order to reference women’s changes. The examples of Kelleher’s Chicago women compare almost seamlessly with the women of Ortlepp’s Milwaukee in that they both show the trials and tribulations women faced socially and economically as strong, independent wives, mothers and in some cases, heads of household. Regardless of divisional topic, the underlying review of gender opportunity and women’s changing roles is discussed in depth and mostly concurred upon by all authors. The contention of just how important the role was and how it played out varies between articles, but nonetheless provides the needed development to fully understand the scope of the issue. Clearly, all authors agree that the ideals and ideology of women were in a constant flux during this period.

Further discussion and research could be warranted within the topic of gender roles and how they affected the male family members as well. While Kelleher touches upon the fact that many older sons remained with their head of household mothers once grown and capable of maintaining their own households, the topic could be expanded. Researching the nationality and tendencies of immigrants to remain with a female head of household may provide some diverse and powerful data. The gaps in research of gender roles are not significant, but specific themes and venues in relation to the gender roles could certainly provide further insight and uncover supplementary understanding as to the development in social, economic, cultural and political changes during the time period. Taking Kelleher and Ortlepp’s study just a bit further and identifying specific nationality variances could provide important insight into the chasms of economic divide between ethnic groups. Additional discussion on the effect that gender roles had on children that remained in the household could be examined, to uncover added social and cultural dynamics and shifts in ideologies within regions or nationalities.

In discussing the Progressive Era, it’s clear that the role of women as well as their expectations and how they were viewed socially and culturally changed significantly. Not only were women expected to be the caregivers and caretakers of the homestead during the Civil War, they were also expected to take on many roles vacated by the men who went off to fight. Women became much more involved in public life due to this change and as a result, found themselves in much more prominent and powerful positions than ever before. Post war, women found that their roles were again evolving and changing, but not as directly as they may have expected. Hard work and perseverance were definite requirements of the Gilded Age women who expected to succeed. Yet, as their gender roles started to evolve and opportunity was presented to them, women found a natural gift in their networking and social status which helped them to transition more easily into these political and social roles, previously reserved for the male gender.

10 September 2019
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