Political and Social Reforms

During the Progressive Era (1900–1920), the country grappled with the problems caused by industrialization and urbanization. Progressivism, an urban, middle‐class reform movement, supported the government taking a greater role in addressing such issues as the control of big business and the welfare of the public. Many of its accomplishments were based on efforts of earlier reform movements. The federal income tax and the direct election of senators, for example, were a part of the Populist program, and Prohibition grew from a pre‐Civil War anti‐alcohol reform tradition. Although the Progressives formed their own political party in 1912, the movement had broad support among both Democrats and Republicans. Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft (Republicans) and Woodrow Wilson (Democrat) all claimed the Progressive mantle.

The need for reform was highlighted by a group of journalists and writers known as the muckrakers, who made Americans aware of the serious failings in society and built public support for change. Exposés such as Lincoln Steffens' The Shame of the Cities (1904), an attack on municipal corruption, and Ida Tarbell's History of the Standard Oil Company (1904), which chronicled John D. Rockefeller's ruthless business practices, often first appeared in the new mass circulation magazines, such as McClure's and Cosmopolitan, and were later published as books. The muckrakers' impact could be powerful, as in the case of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle (1906), a book whose vivid descriptions of working and sanitary conditions in Chicago's meatpacking plants led directly to federal laws regulating the industry.

Making government more responsive and efficient. Two important objectives of Progressivism were giving the public the opportunity to participate more directly in the political process and limiting the power of big city bosses. Progressives hoped to accomplish these goals through a variety of political reforms. These reforms included the direct primary a preliminary election giving all members of a party the chance to take part in a nomination and that was intended to limit the influence of political machines in selecting candidates; initiative a process for putting a proposition or proposed law on a ballot (usually by getting a specified number of signatures on a petition), and referendum, the voting on an initiative, allowing the people to enact legislation that a state legislature is either unwilling or unable to do; and recall, a process giving voters the power to remove elected officials from office through petition and a vote. Governor Robert M. LaFollette of Wisconsin championed these reforms, and their implementation in his state became the model for the rest of the country (the Wisconsin Idea).

Meanwhile, making the national government more responsive to the people was expressed through the Seventeenth Amendment (1913) which provided for the direct election of senators rather than their selection by the state legislatures. State legislatures were also increasingly concerned about the welfare of their citizens. In 1902, Maryland became the first state to offer workmen's compensation, payments to workers or their families for disability or death suffered on the job. Some protection was offered to federal employees under the 1916 Workmen's Compensation Act.

Progressives were also fascinated by efficiency and scientific management. In 1900, when a hurricane and flood destroyed much of the infrastructure of Galveston, Texas, the mayor and city council were replaced with a commission made up of nonpartisan administrators who ran each of the city's municipal departments. The commission form of government became popular in small and medium‐sized cities throughout the country. Following a flood in 1913, Dayton, Ohio experimented with a city‐manager system. Under this plan, the structure of a city government followed that of a business corporation, with a city administrator acting as a manager reporting to a board of directors made up of a mayor and city council. The Progressive Era also saw the growth of the public ownership of water, gas, and electric service; municipally owned utilities offered consumers lower rates than private companies. Utilities that remained in private hands invariably came under the jurisdiction of regulatory commissions that reviewed rates, mergers, and other business activities. Railroads and urban transportation systems were under similar regulation. Progressive reform measures, however, extended beyond restructuring the government and addressed social problems as well.

Prohibition. The campaign against the evils of alcohol made little progress until the formation of the Anti‐Saloon League in 1893. Unlike previous groups, the new organization focused its effort on prohibiting alcohol rather than persuading individuals to stop drinking. Supported by Protestant churches, it pioneered single‐issue politics and backed only “dry” candidates for elected office. This strategy worked, and by 1917 almost two thirds of the states had banned the manufacture and sale of alcohol. With German Americans prominent in the brewing and distillery industries, American participation in the First World War added allegedly patriotic motives to the calls for a constitutional amendment on prohibition. In December 1917, Congress adopted the Eighteenth Amendment, which was approved by the states in January 1919 and went into effect a year later, banning the manufacture, sale, and transportation of alcohol nationwide.

Child labor and women's rights. The National Child Labor Committee coordinated a movement to address the exploitation of children. One of the most effective weapons in its campaign were photographs taken by Lewis Hine that showed boys and girls as young as eight years of age working with dangerous equipment in coal mines and factories. By 1910, many states had enacted legislation establishing the minimum legal age when children could work (between 12 and 16) and the maximum length of a workday or week. It is not clear, however, what had more of an impact on child labor — these laws or the state compulsory school attendance requirements that were becoming more widespread at the same time.

Progressives also wanted to limit how long women could work, arguing that long hours in a factory were detrimental to a woman's well being. The Supreme Court agreed in Muller v. Oregon (1908) and upheld a state law that limited women laundry workers to working no more than ten hours a day. The case was significant because the Court accepted the Brandeis Brief a wealth of sociological, economic, and medical evidence submitted by attorney Louis Brandeis demonstrating that the health of the women was impaired by long factory hours. Sometimes, however, change came only as a result of tragedy. On March 25, 1911, almost 150 people, mostly Italian and Jewish immigrant women, died in the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire. In response, the New York State legislature established a 54‐hour workweek for women, prohibited children under 14 from working, and imposed new building regulations and factory safety rules.

Although the cause of equal opportunity in the workplace was pushed back by the Progressive's argument that women were weaker than men, women finally did get the right to vote. A number of western states had already granted suffrage (enfranchisement, or voting privileges) — Wyoming (1890), Colorado (1893), Utah (1896), and Washington (1910) — and the Democratic Party platform in 1916 called on the remaining states to do the same. While the National American Woman Suffrage Association relied on patient organizing, militant groups adopted more direct tactics. The Congressional Union, for example, was committed to gaining the vote through the passage of a constitutional amendment rather than securing it piecemeal state by state, and the National Woman's Party used picket lines, marches, and hunger strikes to build momentum for their cause. Women's participation in World War I, through service in the military and work in defense plants and the Red Cross, heightened the momentum. The Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which gave women the right to vote, passed the Senate in June 1919 and was ratified by the states in August 1920, more than 70 years after the first women's rights meeting in Seneca Falls, New York.