Modern history

Humanitarian Reform

Humanitarian reformers focused on the plight of urban immigrants, African Americans, and the underprivileged. They tried mainly to improve housing and working conditions for impoverished city dwellers. Their motives were not always purely altruistic. Unless living standards improved, many reformers reasoned, immigrants and racial minorities would contaminate the cities’ middle-class inhabitants with communicable diseases, escalating crime, and threats to traditional cultural norms. These reformers also supported suffrage for women, whose votes, they believed, would help purify electoral politics and elect candidates committed to social and moral reform.

Female Progressives and the Poor

Women played the leading role in efforts to improve the lives of the impoverished. Jane Addams, the daughter of a wealthy businessman, had toured Europe after graduating from a women’s college in Illinois. The Toynbee Hall settlement house in London impressed her for its work in helping poor residents of the area. In 1889 Addams, after returning home to Chicago, and her friend Ellen Starr established Hull House as a center for social reform in the northwest neighborhood of the city. Hull House inspired a generation of young women to work directly in immigrant communities. Many were college-educated, professionally trained women who were shut out of jobs in maledominated professions. Staffed mainly by women, settlement houses became all-purpose urban support centers. Not only did they provide recreational facilities, social activities, and educational classes for neighborhood residents, but they also became launching pads for campaigns aimed at improving living and working conditions for the urban poor. Calling on women to take up civic housekeeping, Addams maintained that women could protect their individual households from the chaos of industrialization and urbanization only by attacking the sources of that chaos in the community at large.

Settlement house and social workers occupied the front lines of humanitarian reform, but they found considerable support from women’s clubs. Formed after the Civil War, these local groups provided protected spaces for middle-class women to meet, share ideas, and work on common projects. In 1890 these local associations were brought together under the umbrella of the General Federation of Women’s Clubs, which by the end of the nineteenth century counted 495 chapters and 160,000 members. By 1900 these clubs—which had initially been devoted to discussions of religion, culture, and science—began to help the needy and lobby for social justice legislation. “Since men are more or less closely absorbed in business,” one club woman remarked about this civic awakening, “it has come to pass that the initiative in civic matters has devolved largely upon women.” Starting out in towns and cities, club women carried their message to state and federal governments and campaigned for legislation that would establish social welfare programs for working women and their children.

In an age of strict racial segregation, African American women formed their own clubs to undertake reform activities. They sponsored day care centers, kindergartens, and work and home training projects. The activities of black club women, like those of white club women, reflected a class bias, and they tried to lift up poorer blacks to ideals of middle-class womanhood. In doing so, they challenged white supremacist notions that black women and men were incapable of raising healthy and strong families. By 1916 the National Association of Colored Women, whose motto was “lifting as we climb,” boasted 1,000 clubs and 50,000 members.

White working-class women also organized, but because of employment discrimination there were few, if any, black female industrial workers to join them. Building on the settlement house movement and together with middle-class and wealthy women, working-class women founded the National Women’s Trade Union League (WTUL) in 1903. The WTUL was dedicated to securing higher wages and improved working conditions, and its slogan, “The Eight-Hour Day: A Living Wage; to Guard the Home,” expressed its objectives. The WTUL recognized that many women needed to earn an income to help support their families, and it backed protective legislation based on women’s specific needs.

Believing women to be physically weaker than men, most female reformers advocated special legislation to protect women in the workplace. They campaigned for state laws prescribing the maximum number of hours women could work, and they succeeded in 1908 when they won a landmark victory in the Supreme Court in Muller v. Oregon, which upheld an Oregon law establishing a ten-hour workday for women. These reformers also convinced lawmakers in forty states to establish pensions for mothers and widows. In 1912 their focus shifted to the federal government with the founding of the Children’s Bureau in the Department of Commerce and Labor. Headed by Julia Lathrop, an Addams disciple from Illinois, the bureau attracted female reformers, collected sociological data, and devised a variety of publicly funded social welfare measures. In 1916 Congress enacted a law banning child labor under the age of fourteen (it was declared unconstitutional in 1918). In 1921 Congress passed the Shepherd-Towner Act, which allowed nurses to offer maternal and infant health care information to mothers.

Not all women believed in the idea of protective legislation for women. In 1898 Charlotte Perkins Gilman published Women and Economics, in which she argued against the notion that women were ideally suited for domesticity. She contended that women’s accepted relationship to men was unnatural. “We are the only animal species in which the female depends on the male for food,” Gilman wrote, “the only animal species in which the sex relation is also the economic relation.” Emphasizing the need for economic independence, Gilman advocated the establishment of communal kitchens that would free women from household chores and allow them to compete on equal terms with men in the workplace. Emma Goldman, an anarchist critic of capitalism and middle- class sexual morality, also spoke out against the kind of marriage that made women “keep their mouths shut and their wombs open.” She endorsed “free love,” in which women and men enjoyed sex equally. These and a growing number of other women did not consider themselves reformers so much as radicals, and even feminists—women who aspire to reach their full potential and gain access to the same opportunities as men.

Fighting for Women’s Suffrage

Until 1910, women did not have the right to vote, except in a handful of western states (see chapter 15). The passage of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments had disappointed many campaigners for women’s suffrage. Although the amendments extended citizenship to African Americans and protected the voting rights of black men, they left women, both white and black, ineligible to vote. The Fourteenth Amendment had underscored this distinction by specifically referring to “male inhabitants” in its provision dealing with voting for national officials (see chapter 14). Following Reconstruction, the two major organizations campaigning for women’s suffrage at the state and national levels—Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s National Woman Suffrage Association and Lucy Stone and Julia Ward Howe’s American Woman Suffrage Association—failed to achieve major victories. In 1890 the two groups combined to form the National American Woman Suffrage Association, and by 1918 women could vote in fifteen states and the territory of Alaska (Map 19.1).

Suffragists included a broad coalition of supporters and based their campaign on a variety of arguments. Reformers such as Jane Addams stressed that suffrage for women would be an extension of “civic housekeeping.” They attributed corruption in politics to the absence of women’s maternal influence. In this way, mainstream suffragists couched their arguments within traditional conceptions of women as family nurturers. They claimed that men should not fear women’s desire to vote; rather, they should see it as an expansion of traditional household duties into the public sphere. By contrast, suffragists such as Alice Paul rejected arguments stressing women’s domesticity and their inherent difference from men. Paul, who had earned a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania and two law degrees, asserted that women deserved the vote on the basis of their equality with men as citizens. She founded the National Woman’s Party and in 1923 proposed that Congress adopt an Equal Rights Amendment to provide full legal equality to women.

Traditionalists, both male and female, fought against women’s suffrage. They believed that women were best suited by nature to devote themselves to their families and leave the rough-and-tumble world of politics to men. Suffrage opponents insisted that extending the right to vote to women would destroy the home, lead to the moral degeneracy of children, and tear down the social fabric of the country.

Campaigns for women’s suffrage did not apply to all women. White suffragists in the South often manipulated racial prejudice to support female enfranchisement. In the wake of the Populist Party’s efforts to recruit black voters in the 1890s, most of the former Confederate states rewrote their constitutions or enacted statutes removing African Americans from the voter rolls through the use of poll taxes, literacy tests, and grandfather clause requirements (see chapter 17). Although they did not constitute a majority, outspoken white suffragists such as Rebecca Latimer Felton from Georgia, Belle Kearney from Mississippi, and Kate Gordon from Louisiana used white supremacist arguments to make a case for white women gaining the vote. As long as even a fraction of black men voted and the Fifteenth Amendment continued to exist, they contended that allowing southern white women to vote would preserve white supremacy by offsetting black men’s votes. These arguments also had a class component. Poll taxes and literacy tests disfranchised poor, uneducated whites. Extending the vote to white women would benefit mainly those in the middle class who had some education and enough family income to satisfy restrictive literacy test and poll tax requirements.

MAP 19.1

Women's Suffrage

Western states and territories were the first to approve women's suffrage. Yet even as western states enfranchised women, most placed restrictions on or excluded African American, American Indian, Mexican American, and Asian American women. States granting partial suffrage allowed women to vote only in certain contests, such as municipal or school board, primary, or presidential elections.

Many middle-class women outside the South used similar reasoning, but they targeted newly arrived immigrants instead of African Americans. Many Protestant women and men viewed Catholics and Jews from southern and eastern Europe as racially inferior and spiritually dangerous. They blamed such immigrants for the ills of the cities in which they congregated, and some suffragists believed that the vote of middle-class Protestant women would help clean up the mess the immigrants created. One supporter proclaimed that suffragists “had always recognized the usefulness of woman suffrage as a counterbalance to the foreign vote.”

African American women challenged these racist arguments and mounted their own drive for female suffrage. If “white women needed the vote to acquire advantages and protection of their rights,” Adella Hunt Logan of Tuskegee, Alabama, remarked, “then Black women needed the vote even more so.” African American women had an additional incentive to press for enfranchisement. As the target of white sexual predators during slavery and its aftermath, some black women saw the vote as a way to address this problem. Although they did not gain much support from the National American Woman Suffrage Association, by 1916 African American women worked through the National Association of Colored Women and formed suffrage clubs throughout the nation.

The campaign for women’s suffrage in the United States was part of an international movement. Victories in New Zealand (1893), Australia (1902), and Norway (1913) spurred on American suffragists. In the 1910s, radical American activists found inspiration in the militant tactics employed by some in the British suffrage movement. Activists such as Alice Paul conducted wide-ranging demonstrations in Washington, D.C., including chaining themselves to the gates of the White House. Although mainstream suffrage leaders denounced these new tactics, they gained much-needed publicity for the movement, which in turn aided the lobbying efforts of more moderate activists. In 1919 Congress passed the Nineteenth Amendment granting women the vote. The following year, the amendment was ratified by the states.

Progressivism and African Americans

As with suffrage, social justice progressives faced huge barriers in the fight for racial equality. By 1900 white supremacists in the South had disfranchised almost all black voters and imposed a rigid system of segregation in education and all aspects of public life, and they enforced these measures with violence. From 1880 to 1900, white supremacists lynched thousands of African Americans, often because of perceived violations of racial norms. Antiblack violence also took the form of race riots that erupted in southern cities such as Wilmington, North Carolina, and Tampa, Florida, in 1898 and Atlanta in 1906. Farther north, in Springfield, Illinois, a riot broke out in 1908 when the local sheriff tried to protect two black prisoners, one accused of raping a white woman and the other charged with murdering a white man, from a would-be lynch mob. This confrontation triggered two days of white violence against blacks, some of whom fought back, leaving twenty-four businesses and forty homes destroyed and seven people (two blacks and five whites) dead.

As the situation for African Americans deteriorated, black leaders responded in several ways. Booker T. Washington espoused an approach that his critics called accommodation but that he defended as practical. Born a slave and emancipated at age nine, Washington attended Hampton Institute in his home state of Virginia. Run by sympathetic whites, the school considered moral training its top priority. In their view, because slavery had hindered black advancement, African Americans would first have to build up their character and accept the virtues of abstinence, thrift, and industriousness before seeking a more intellectual education. In 1881 Washington founded Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, which he modeled on Hampton. In 1895 white business and civic leaders invited Washington to deliver an address at a cotton exposition held in Atlanta. The black educator received an enthusiastic reception for his message urging African Americans to remain in the South, accept racial segregation, concentrate on moral and economic development, and avoid politics. At the same time, he called on white leaders to fulfill their part of the bargain by protecting blacks from the growing violence directed at them.

White leaders in both the South and the North embraced Washington, and he became the most powerful African American of his generation. He secured philanthropic contributions from white benefactors for Tuskegee and other schools he favored. He had considerable influence over leading black newspapers and in 1900 organized the National Negro Business League. Although he discouraged public protests against segregation, he emphasized racial pride and solidarity among African Americans. “We are a nation within a nation,” he commented, and “[we must] see to it that in every wise and legitimate way our people are taught to patronize racial enterprises.” Yet Washington was a complex figure, who secretly financed and supported court challenges to electoral disfranchisement, railroad segregation, jury discrimination, and peonage (forced labor to repay debt).

Washington’s enormous power did not discourage opposing views among African Americans. Ida B. Wells, like Washington, had been born a slave. In 1878, at age sixteen, Wells lost her parents in a yellow fever epidemic that swept through her hometown in Mississippi. To support her five siblings, she took a job in Memphis as a teacher. Six years later, Wells sued the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad for moving her from the first- class “Ladies Coach” to the segregated smoking car because she was black. She won her case in the lower court, but her victory was reversed by the Tennessee Supreme Court. Undeterred, she began writing for the Free Speech newspaper, in which she owned a one-third interest. When her articles exposing injustices in the Memphis school system got her fired from teaching, she took up journalism full-time.

Unlike Washington, Wells believed that black leaders had to speak out vigorously against racial inequality and lynching. From 1885 to 1900, approximately 2,500 people were lynched, most of them southern blacks. One lynching took place in Memphis on March 9, 1892, when three black men were murdered by a white mob. The victims had operated a grocery store that had become the target of hostility from white competitors, who forcibly tried to put it out of business. In response, the black businessmen resisted an assault by armed whites and shot three of them in self-defense. Wells applauded the black store owners’ actions. As she wrote, “When the white man . . . knows he runs as great a risk of biting the dust every time his Afro-American victim does, he will have greater respect for Afro-American life.” Subsequently arrested for their armed resistance, the three men were snatched from jail and lynched.

In response to Wells’s articles about the Memphis lynching, a white mob burned down her newspaper’s building. She fled to Chicago, where she continued to investigate the issue of lynching. In a report she published, she refuted the myth that the rape of white women by black men was the leading cause of lynching and asserted that evidence of such crimes was scarce. She concluded that racists used this brand of extralegal violence to ensure that African Americans would not challenge white supremacy. Wells took her campaign throughout the North and to Europe, where she gave lectures condemning lynching. She also joined the drive for women’s suffrage, which she hoped would give black women a chance to use their votes to help combat racial injustice.

W. E. B. Du Bois also rejected Washington’s accommodationist stance and urged blacks to demand first-class citizenship. In contrast to Washington and Wells, Du Bois had not experienced slavery. His ancestors were free blacks, and he grew up in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. Educated at Fisk University, a black institution, he transferred to Harvard and earned a Ph.D. in history. In 1899 he published The Philadelphia Negro, the first scientific study of the plight of blacks in urban America—a scholarly counterpart to the emerging investigative literature that fueled progressive reform. Du Bois agreed with Washington about advocating self-help as a means for advancement, but he did not believe this effort would succeed without a proper education and equal voting rights. In The Souls of Black Folk (1903), Du Bois argued that African Americans needed a liberal arts education, in the tradition of Fisk and Harvard, rather than the manual training and industrial arts curriculum at Tuskegee. Du Bois contended that a classical, humanistic education would produce a cadre of leaders, the “Talented Tenth,” who would guide African Americans to the next stage of their development. Rather than forgoing immediate political rights, as Washington advocated, African American leaders should demand the universal right to vote. Only then, Du Bois contended, would African Americans gain equality, self-respect, and dignity as a race.

Du Bois was an intellectual who put his ideas into action. In 1905 he spearheaded the creation of the Niagara Movement, a group that first met on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls because participants could not find accommodations open to blacks in Buffalo, New York. The all-black organization demanded the vote and equal access to public facilities for African Americans. By 1909 internal squabbling and a shortage of funds had crippled the group. That same year, however, Du Bois became involved in the creation of an organization that would shape the fight for racial equality throughout the twentieth century: the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). In addition to Du Bois, Ida B. Wells, and veterans of the Niagara Movement, white activists played leading roles in forming the organization. They included Jane Addams; Mary White Ovington, a settlement house worker in Brooklyn; and William English Walling, a social worker, socialist, and cofounder of the Women’s Trade Union League. The descendants of white abolitionists also contributed significantly to the birth of the group. Of the fifty-two white signers of the document calling for the creation of the NAACP, fifteen were former abolitionists or their descendants. Beginning in 1910, the NAACP initiated court cases challenging racially discriminatory voting practices and other forms of bias in housing and criminal justice. Its first victory came in 1915, when its lawyers convinced the Supreme Court to strike down the grandfather clause that discriminated against black voters (Guinn v. United States).

African Americans also pursued social justice initiatives outside the realm of politics. Southern blacks remained committed to securing a quality education for their children after whites failed to live up to their responsibilities under Plessy v. Ferguson. Governor James K. Vardaman of Mississippi, who served from 1904 to 1908, expressed the prevailing racist sentiment: “Education only spoils a good field hand and makes a shyster lawyer or a fourth-rate teacher. It is money thrown away.” Black schools remained inferior to white schools, and African Americans did not receive a fair return from their tax dollars; in fact, a large portion of their payments helped subsidize white schools. To raise money for books, buildings, and teacher salaries, blacks voluntarily taxed themselves in addition to the property taxes they were required to pay the county to support schools. Du Bois calculated that black Mississippians paid 113 percent of the costs of their own schools through double taxation.

Black women played a prominent role in promoting education. For example, Charlotte Hawkins Brown, born in North Carolina and educated in Massachusetts, returned to her home state in 1901 and set up the Palmer Memorial Institute outside of Greensboro. In these endeavors, black educators received financial assistance from northern philanthropists, white club women interested in moral uplift of the black race, and religious missionaries seeking converts in the South. By 1910 more than 1.5 million black children went to school in the South, most of them taught by the region’s 28,560 black teachers. Thirty-four black colleges existed, and more than 2,000 African Americans held college degrees.


• What role did women play in the early-twentieth-century fight for social justice?

• How did social reformers challenge discrimination against women and minorities?

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