Historical Context of 1870 - 1914 (Gilded Age & Progressive Era)

Book Cover, Milton Rugoff
Source: bcc-cuny.digication.com

Virginia R. Bensen

To understand many of the women’s reform activities and the woman suffrage efforts during this time period in America, this concise historical overview of the societal changes is most helpful. These next few paragraphs will provide some background and insights into the “Gilded Age” and the “Progressive Era.”

Historian Robert H. Wiebe claims that between 1877 and 1900 was “an age” in America of

  • nationalization,
  • industrialization,
  • mechanization, and
  • urbanization.

He also claims that during that time, the United States was a society without a core.(1)Historian Michael McGerr argues that the United States was several nations. It was extremely regional, and it was split by race, ethnicity, and by class from the end of the Civil war until the 1900s. America experienced massive growth in land mass as well as in industrialization. The country changed from being primarily rural agricultural to being urban industrial. (2)With these major shifts numerous social changes occurred. According to historian Louise Knight, “democracy’s nineteenth century meanings were destabilized by many nineteenth-century developments.” She describes these developments asindustrialization,

  • concentration of wealth,
  • rise of labor unions,
  • arrival of millions of immigrants, and
  • the expansion of suffrage to working-class and African American men, but not to women.(3)McGerr extensively explains that the nineteenth century meanings for individualism, the relationship between individual and society, roles of men, women, and family, work and pleasure toward the end of the nineteenth century were different between the wealthy, the workers, the farmers and the middle-class.  He then explains how the different generations of that time viewed how the “stresses of industrialization” split the traditional societal ideologies. (4). Historian Richard Hofstadter claims the two systems of political ethics emerged. One was based upon Yankee-Protestant traditions and the other was based on the values of the immigrant, the boss and the urban machine.(5) Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner labeled the post-civil war years “The Gilded Age.” (6)

The Progressive era was an outgrowth of the many ideological and social conflicts that developed int he Gilded Age. It started approximately in 1890 and ended just before 1920. (7) There has been much debate among scholars whether or not progressivism was a movement, because it did not meet the criteria of a movement. Historian Peter G. Filene states a social movement must have unanimity of purpose on a programmatic or philosophical level as well as goals, a form of organization, and members who combine and act together in a deliberate self-conscious way. In fact, progressives shared no party (with he exception of an attempt in 1912 for Theodore Roosevelt’s candidacy for President of the United States) or organization. Many who claimed to be progressives disagreed on many major issues and many of those issues were contradictory. Historians have summed up lists in ways that progressives were divided. Richard Hofstadter claims the progressives had “two minds.” Historian Daniel T. Rogers agrees with the “two minds,” but further expounds their division as follows:

  • social reformers vs. structural reformers.
  • western Democratic Bryanites vs. eastern elitist Rooseveltians.
  • consumer conscious insurgents vs. job conscious modernizers.
  • new stock, urban liberals vs. patrician reformers. 

Both Filene and Rogers agree that progressivism was not a movement, but “an era of shifting, ideologically fluid issue-focused coalitions, all competing for the reshaping of American society. (8)  Rogers further states that “if progressivism qualified as an “ism” at all, surely it was a system of shared ideas. (9)

The previous paragraph begs the question, “Who were these so-called progressives?” This group or groups were comprised of

  • liberal-minded clergy who wanted to restore their influence and authority in society;
  • academics in the new fields of economics, sociology and political sciences,
  • women reformers,
  • small businessmen, 
  • new middle-class of technicians, salaried professionals, clerical workers, salespeople, and
  • some public-service personnel. (10)

This varied listing supports Filene and Rogers’ claim that the progressives were issue-focused coalitions.

A second question tends to follows, “What did these issue-focussed coalitions accomplish or try to accomplish? Overall, progressives sought to

  • curb cut-throat entrepreneurial capitalism/business monodies,
  • promote new ideas of social harmony,
  • promote new schemes of business-government cooperation. (11).  

Many reforms fell into three classes which were to

  • reshape adult behavior,
  • change other classes,
  • improve living conditions of workers, and to
  • modernize agrarian way of life. (11)  

As stated earlier progressivism contained many varied participants varied ideas and goals, varied coalitions that became political pressure groups.

Their efforts did produce a variety of results such as:

  • railroad legislation,
  • Federal Reserve Act,
  • Fair Trade Commission Act, and
  • the women’s right to vote.

The extra-party pressure groups that were formed included:

  • manufacturers’ organizations,
  • labor lobbies,
  • civic leagues,
  • trade associations,
  • women’s clubs,
  • professional associations, and
  • issue oriented lobbies.  

These helped to change the rules of politics of that time. (12)


  1. Robert H. Wiebe, The Search for Order: 1877-1920 (New York: Hill and Wang, 1967), 12.
  2. Michael McGerr, A Fierce Discontent: The Rise and Fall of the Progressive Movement in America, 1890-1920 (New York: Free Press, 2003); (Kindle Reader: L 133).
  3. Louise W. Knight, Citizen: Jane Addams and the Struggle for Democracy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), 2.
  4. McGerr, 92.
  5. Richard Hofstadter, The Age of Reform (New York: Vintage Books, 1955); (Kindle Reader, L131-135).
  6. Charles Calhoun, ed., The Gilded Age: Perspectives on the Origins of Modern America, 2nd ed. (New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2007), 1. NOTE: “The Gilded Age” (1873) was the title of a novel written by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley satirizing business speculations and political corruption.
  7. Hofstadter, (Kindle reader, L4668).
  8. Peter G. Filene, “An Obituary for The Progressive Movement,” American Quarterly 22, no. 1 (Spring 1970), 20-34; Hofstadter, (Kindle Reader, L2261-2268); Daniel T. Rogers, “In Search for Progressivism,” Reviews in American History 10, no. 4 (December 1982), 114.
  9. Rogers, 121-122.
  10. Hofstadter, (Kindle Reader, L3715).
  11. Rogers, 120.
  12. McGerr, (Kindle Reader, L1510).
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