The Progressive Era was a period of rapid social and political reform in the United States during the early 1900s, that ushered in comprehensive labor laws, a ban on the sale of alcohol and women’s suffrage. Progressive political leaders, such as President Theodore Roosevelt, also aimed to reduce political corruption and curtail monopolistic business practices, a complete reversal from the late 19th century’s prevalence of political and corporate exploitation. During the Progressive Era, Congress established federal laws regulating the meat-packing, railroad industries, strengthened anti-trust laws and enacted constitutional amendments, such as the 16th Amendment that established the income tax and the 17th Amendment that allowed for the direct election of senators.
Reformation of Child Labor
Child labor was a common practice during the Industrial Revolution, and children were often forced to forgo an education to work long hours for little money. In 1900, the beginning of the Progressive Era, an estimated 18 percent of all American workers were children under the age of 16. State legislatures, at the behest of child labor reform committees, began restricting child labor between 1902 and 1915. Although federal child labor restrictions passed in 1916 and 1918 were declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court, the child labor reform movement continued to gain momentum. The employment of children under the age of 16 in dangerous positions such as manufacturing and mining was finally prohibited by the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938.
Prohibition of Alcohol
Although the temperance movement, which discouraged the consumption of alcoholic beverages, was active in the United States during the 19th century, the movement called for an outright ban on alcohol in the early 1900s. According to the Library of Congress, the prohibition of alcohol had several characteristics of progressive social reforms: It emphasized the importance of social morality, it was primarily supported by the middle class and it aimed to control the corporate and political corruption associated with the liquor industry. In 1918 Congress passed the 18th amendment, banning the manufacture, transportation and sale of alcoholic beverages within the U.S.
Women’s Voting Rights
The creation of the National American Women’s Suffrage Association in 1890 cemented the renewal of the women’s suffrage movement, which gained prominence in the 1850s but then faded during the Civil War. Some states in the West – such as Washington, Kansas, Nebraska and Arizona – extended the vote to women between 1910 and 1912. After the end of World War I, during which women contributed significantly to the war effort, women were officially granted voting rights with the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution in 1920.
Exposing Corruption and Election Reform
Muckraking journalists in the early 1900s exposed the harsh of realities of government corruption and faulty labor practices to the American public. For example, the publication of Upton Sinclair’s novel “The Jungle," which detailed horrifying sanitary conditions and labor exploitation in meat-packing facilities, sparked the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Acts passed in 1906. The era’s emphasis on public political participation also led to a number of election reforms, such as the creation of the recall, referendum and direct primary elections.
- PBS: Progressive Movement
- Digital History: Overview of the Gilded Age
- Digital History: Overview of the Progressive Era
- The History Channel: Child Labor
- Library of Congress: Prohibition - A Case Study of Progressive Reform
- The History Channel: The Fight For Women's Suffrage
- National Women's History Museum: Women's Suffrage Timeline
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