Important Examples of Progressive Reforms

(Progressive Era: approx. 1890s-1920)


Settlement House Movement – White, upper-middle class, college-educated women who wanted to make a difference in society created and worked at settlement houses, which were like community centers in inner-city, immigrant neighborhoods.  They wanted to improve the lives of slum-dwellers by providing education and child care, teaching English and other basic skills, helping the immigrants get better jobs and housing, and uplifting them culturally (art & music appreciation.) Part of the mission of the settlement house workers was Americanization of immigrants – to teach the immigrants WASP middle-class values. The most famous settlement house was Hull House in Chicago, led by Jane Addams.  Black middle-class women ran separate settlement houses for fellow African-Americans – illustrating the racial segregation of the Progressive movement.


Housing and Sanitation Reforms – Progressive reformers urged cities to pass legislation which set standards for housing (to try to eliminate the worst tenements) and such sanitation matters as garbage pick-up and sewage systems.  The legislation would require the hiring of inspectors to see that these standards were met.  Many of the inspectors first hired by city governments under these reforms were women, such as Jane Addams.


Beautification Campaigns – Some reformers wanted to improve the urban environment by making it more pleasant and attractive. This, like the housing reforms, was based on their idea that an improved environment meant improved people. (This idea was a rejection of Social Darwinism.)  Some of their reforms included parks, civic centers, and better transportation systems.  Some historians argue that these were superficial reforms enacted to please the middle-class inhabitants or tourists of cities, but did not really address the dire problems of the masses who lived in the slums.


Anti-Prostitution Campaign – Progressives were responsible for the Mann Act (1910), which  prohibited interstate transportation of women for “immoral purposes.”  By 1915, nearly every state had outlawed prostitution.


Woman suffrage – This was the movement to secure for women the right to vote. Many different kinds of women (race, class, and ethnicity) joined the campaign to win the federal amendment, but the movement was mainly led by WASP middle and upper-class women.


Factory Safety Regulations, Limits on Working Hours (mainly for women), Workers’ Compensation for injuries, Restrictions on Women and Child Labor -  While labor unions sought these measures by organizing workers to bargain with their employers, a tense alliance between some middle-class and working-class reformers also sought these reforms by passing laws (government intervention instead of collective bargaining.)  These reformers were successful in convincing most states to pass factory inspection laws, workers comp, and minimum age of employment laws.  Some states passed laws limiting the number of hours women (but not men) could work.  These regulations were usually difficult to enforce; many employers found ways to evade them. 

Another problem was that some working-class families wanted their women and children to work in order to make as much money for the family as possible (in order to survive) and did not appreciate reforms that restricted women and child labor.  Many middle-class reformers did not understand this reaction.  Many middle-class reformers believed that the working class should adopt WASP middle-class values, which included the value that women and children should not work for wages. 

Moreover, even though they wanted to improve conditions for workers, many middle-class reformers were suspicious of (or hostile to) labor unions because they felt threatened by the idea of working-class autonomy, or working-class solidarity.  They were much more comfortable with the idea of the middle class generously bestowing labor reforms upon the downtrodden workers, which is a paternalistic attitude.  Working-class reformers, including socialists, recognized this condescending attitude and were uneasy about working with middle-class reformers to ahiceve labor legislation, though they often swallowed hard and did anyway. There were, however, some examples of fairly harmonious organizations that brought working-class and middle-class reformers together to help workers.



Temperance, then Prohibition – Progressive reformers focused their fight against the consumption of alcohol on the saloons.  Saloons were a major center of immigrant culture, for they were not only bars but important social gathering places and where most political machines operated out of.  The Progressives’ war on saloons was motivated by a sincere concern for the real dangers of alcohol consumption and its effect on families, particularly on innocent women and children, and also by a less compassionate anti-immigrant sentiment.  Overall, Prohibition aimed at decreasing, if not stopping, drinking by the working class, especially working-class immigrants. Prohibition also had an economic motivation: employers wanted sober, efficient workers.


Kill the Political Machine – Progressives viewed the immigrants’ political machines as corrupt and inefficient.  Also, middle-class WASP reformers felt threatened by the power these machines afforded working-class immigrants.  Progressives wanted to take the “politics” (the wheeling & dealing, the personal favors) out of government to make it more scientific and efficient and remove power from the hands of immigrants.  They advocated replacing elected officials with appointed experts, such as trained city managers.


Initiative, Referendum, Recall, and Popular Election of Senators (17th Amendment)(look these up in your textbook if you don’t know what they are)These reforms aimed to bring about broader political participation – to return power to “the people” and eliminated corrupt and concentrated power.  Some historians argue that middle-class WASP reformers pushed these reforms because they saw themselves, not working-class immigrants or African Americans, as the “people” who would gain power.  Some middle-class reformers assumed that the working class would not have the time, intelligence, or other resources to participate actively in the political process.


Meat Inspection Act, and the Pure Food & Drug Act – Before the passage of these acts, there was no government agency to make sure that food, drugs, or any other kind of product was safe. The credo “let the buyer beware” had dominated.  But when Upton Sinclair published The Jungle in 1906, which publicized the disgusting methods of meat-packing plants, the public became outraged.  Reformers argued that in a complex, technological age dominated by big business, consumers needed impartial government experts to regulate manufacturers, tell consumers what was safe, and eliminate corrupt business practices.


 Anti-Trust Regulation  - Progressives sought more fairness in the capitalist economy and thought that if businesses became too big and powerful (trusts or monopolies), then they could exploit consumers and workers and drive out small businesses.  Progressives believed that the government needed to intervene to regulate the size and power of corporations. Examples of anti-trust laws and government agencies to regulate “trusts” are the Interstate Commerce Commission (and the Hepburn Act), the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, and The Federal Trade Commission.