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Progressivism and Reform, Progressivism in the Cities and States

Ellen Gates Starr, progressive reformers, WCTU, progressive reforms, political machines

As a political movement, progressivism arose at the local and state levels in the 1890s. Urban reformers attacked political machines run by corrupt bosses and monopolies in municipal services such as electricity or gas. To address these problems, they promoted professional city managers and advocated public ownership of utilities.

The social settlement movement, which originated in cities in the 1890s, also became a force for progressive reform at the local level. Settlement houses offered social services to the urban poor, especially immigrants. Pioneering settlement houses, such as Hull House, founded by Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr in 1889, provided nurseries, adult education classes, and recreational opportunities for children and adults. Settlements spread rapidly. There were 100 settlement houses in 1900, 200 in 1905, and 400 in 1910. Settlement leaders joined the battle against political machines and endorsed many other progressive reforms.

At the state level, progressives campaigned for electoral reforms to allow the people to play a more direct role in the political process. Some Western states adopted practices that expanded voter rights, including the initiative, the referendum, and the recall. Under the initiative, citizens could sign petitions to force legislatures to vote on particular bills. With the referendum, a proposal could be placed on the ballot to be decided by a vote at election time. Using the recall, voters could petition to oust officials from their jobs. Progressives also supported the 17th Amendment, ratified in 1913, which provides for election of U.S. senators directly by vote of the people, rather than indirectly by state legislatures.

Progressive reformers used the states as laboratories of reform. For instance, Wisconsin governor Robert La Follette, who held office from 1901 to 1906, introduced progressive changes such as establishing a commission to supervise railroad practices and raising state taxes on corporations. Following Wisconsin’s example, one state after another passed laws to regulate railroads and businesses.

Progressives also focused on labor reform at the state level. They sought to eliminate (or at least regulate) child labor, to cut workers’ hours, and to establish a minimum wage. By 1907 progressive efforts had led 30 states to abolish child labor. In Muller v. Oregon (1908), the Supreme Court upheld a state law that limited women factory workers to a ten-hour day, and many states began to regulate women’s working hours. Progressives also endorsed workmen’s compensation (an insurance plan to aid workers injured on the job) and an end to homework (piecework done in tenements). In New York’s Triangle Fire of 1911, many women leapt to their deaths from a burning shirtwaist factory. The tragedy reminded people of the need for higher safety standards in factories and the need to protect workers from unscrupulous employers.

Some progressive reformers supported causes that had a coercive or repressive dimension, such as Prohibition, a movement to prevent the manufacture, sale, or use of alcohol. The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), founded in 1874, had long campaigned against alcohol. In 1895 the Anti-Saloon League of America joined the crusade. Together they worked to gain support for the 18th Amendment, which provided for Prohibition. The amendment was ratified in 1919 and remained law until 1933, when the 21st Amendment repealed it. Progressive moral fervor also emerged in campaigns to combat prostitution and to censor films. Finally, some progressives endorsed other restrictive causes, now seen as ungenerous or inhumane, such as a campaign against immigration or support for eugenics, a movement to control reproduction in order to improve the human race.

Progressive causes won support from a broad section of the middle class—editors, teachers, professionals, and business leaders—who shared common values. Progressive supporters appreciated order, efficiency, and expertise; they championed investigation, experimentation, and cooperation. Many, including some progressive employers, sought regulations to make business practices more fair and break up monopolies. To regulate business, however, progressives had to wield influence on the national level.

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