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WOMEN AND PROGRESSIVE

Women played a major role in progressivism from the very beginning. In 1899 Florence Kelley founded the National Consumers League, an organization made up largely of women that lobbied at the state and national level for legislation that would protect both women and children at home and in the workplace. Minimum wage laws for women were enacted in various states beginning in 1911; more stringent child labor laws began to be enacted in states one year later.

Women also played a crucial rule in the creation of settlement houses. In 1889 jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr founded Hull House in Chicago, which would become a model for settlement house construction in other cities. Found at Hull House (and at many other centers) were clubs for adults and children, rooms for classes, and a kindergarten. Settlement house workers also gave poor and immigrant women (and their husbands) advice on countless problems that they encountered in the city. Some settlement houses were more successful than others in actually helping lower-class families cope with urban life. Programs at settlement houses were multidimensional, stressing art, music, drama, and dance. Classes in child care, health education, and adult literacy could be found at most settlement houses.

Women differed greatly on how they felt the urban poor could be helped. Some pushed heavily for reforms in the workplace, while others joined organizations such as the Anti-Saloon League, whose members felt that alcohol was the major cause for the woes of the lower classes. Still others became deeply involved in the suffrage movement, oftentimes attempting to get lower-class women interested in the vote as well. Women started to get the vote in individual western states beginning with Idaho, Colorado, and Utah in the 1890s. In 1916 Alice Paul founded the radical National Woman's party, and Carrie Chapman Catt founded the National American Woman’s Suffrage Association. Both organizations would be crucial in the final push for women’s suffrage after World War I.

In addition, during this era women in public meetings first began to discuss the topic of feminism. The word was first used by a group of women meeting in New York City in 1914. Feminists wanted to remove themselves from the restraints that society had placed on them because they were female. A radical feminist of the time was Margaret Sanger, who as a nurse in New York City observed the lack of knowledge that immigrant women had about the reproductive system. Sanger devoted herself to teaching the poor about birth control and opened the first birth control clinic in the United States.

Some laws were passed in the era to protect working women. In Muller v. Oregon, a case that went all the way to the Supreme Court in 1908, it was ruled constitutional to set limits on the number of hours a woman could work. The rationale given for this, which the Court agreed with, was that too much work would interfere with a woman’s prime role as a mother.

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