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America in a New Age, Political Conservatism

Sheppard-Towner Act, presidents Harding, National Origins Act, federal child labor laws, patriotic organizations

Many Americans of the 1920s endorsed conservative values in politics and economics. Republican presidents stood for these values, or what President Warren G. Harding called “normalcy … a regular steady order of things.” Under presidents Harding and Calvin Coolidge, tariffs reached new highs, income taxes fell for people who were most well off, and the Supreme Court upset progressive measures, such as the minimum wage and federal child labor laws. Both Harding and Coolidge tended to favor business. “The business of America is business,” Coolidge declared. “This is a business country, and it wants a business government.”

Republican presidents shared isolationist inclinations in foreign policy; the United States never joined the League of Nations. Harding and Coolidge also endorsed pacifist policies. In 1921 Harding organized the International Conference on Naval Limitation, known as the Washington Conference, a pioneering effort to reduce arms and avoid an expensive naval arms race. Attended by the United Kingdom, Japan, France, Italy, and other countries, the conference proposed destruction of ships and a moratorium on new construction. In 1928, under Coolidge, the United States and France cosponsored the Kellogg-Briand Pact, which renounced aggression and called for the end of war. As a practical instrument for preventing war, the treaty was useless. However, it helped to establish the 20th-century concept of war as an outlaw act by an aggressor state on a victim state.

While remaining aloof from international concerns, the United States began to close its doors to immigrants. Antiforeign sentiment fueled demands for immigration limits. Protests against unrestricted immigration came from organized labor, which feared the loss of jobs to newcomers, and from patriotic organizations, which feared foreign radicalism.

Efforts to limit immigration led to the National Origins Act, passed by Congress in 1924. The law set an annual quota on immigration and limited the number of newcomers from each country to the proportion of people of that national origin in the 1890 population. (In 1929 the basis for the quotas was revised to the 1920 population.) The law discriminated against the most recent newcomers, southern and eastern Europeans, and excluded Asian immigrants almost entirely. Latin American immigration, however, was unlimited. Immigration from Mexico surged in the 1920s, abetted by the Mexican Revolution and by the need of southwestern businesses for agricultural labor. More than 1 million Mexicans (10 percent of the Mexican population) arrived in the United States from 1910 to 1930.

What happened to more critical voices in the conservative era? Radical political activism waned, dimmed by the Red Scare of 1919. Social criticism appeared in literary magazines such as The Masses; in newspapers such as the Baltimore Sun, where journalist H. L. Mencken published biting commentary; and in popular fiction such as Sinclair Lewis’s novel Babbitt (1922), an assault on provincial values. Some intellectuals fled the United States and settled in Paris. Progressivism faded. Its most enduring vestige, the post-suffrage women’s movement, faced its own problems.

Enthused by winning the right to vote, women of the 1920s pursued political roles as voters, candidates, national committeewomen, and activists in voluntary groups. But the women’s movement still encountered obstacles. Women’s organizations did not agree on supporting the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), first proposed in 1923. The amendment would have made illegal all forms of discrimination based on sex. The National Woman’s Party, led by Alice Paul, pressed for passage of the amendment, but most women’s organizations, including the newly formed League of Women Voters, did not support it, and the ERA made no progress.

Women reformers also suffered setbacks in national politics. The Sheppard-Towner Act of 1921, a pioneering health-care measure aimed at women voters, provided matching funds for prenatal and baby-care centers in rural areas, but Congress repealed the law in 1929. Other important goals of women reformers, such as a federal child labor law and the minimum wage, failed as well.

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