Clubwomen Progressive Era Essay

When one considers the typical Progressive Era (1890-1930) reformer, figures such as Jane Addams, founder of Hull House, John Dewey, educational reformer, or political progressives, like Robert La Follette or Teddy Roosevelt come to mind. All of these progressive reformers were committed social and political activists. They are also all white and upper middle class or affluent. If pushed to consider some African American Progressive Era reformers, one might name W.E.B. DuBois, Booker T. Washington, and maybe Ida B. Wells. The purpose of this digital collection is to broaden our understanding of the Progressive Era by looking at the reform activities and accomplishments of African American clubwomen in Chicago.

Women’s Clubs, generally formed by wealthy elite women, focused on a variety of social and political issues, such as suffrage, juvenile justice, legislation to protect women and children, the formation of kindergartens, education of immigrants, and public health. Middle and upper-middle class African American women were also active participants in the Women’s Club Movement. African American clubwomen in Chicago responded to the needs of African Americans who had relocated to the North during the Great Migration, during which at least 50,000 African Americans moved to Chicago between the years of 1916 and 1920. Encouraged by the positive stories of good jobs and better living conditions published in the Chicago Defender, African Americans fled the violence, discrimination, and segregation of the South, only to find similar conditions in the North. The middle class African American women that were already established in Chicago responded to the need of these rural migrants much like other progressives responded to the new immigrants arriving from Southern and Eastern Europe. Progressives working with immigrants created programs to assist newcomers assimilate to respectable American society. They also wanted to help produce informed citizens with an understanding of American civic values. Similarly, African American women reformers were concerned with the respectability of the “Race” and created programs that focused on literature, the arts, and civic values. African American women, like their white counterparts were also concerned with suffrage. African American women’s suffrage clubs were very active and were able to successfully organize for the election of Chicago’s first Black alderman, Oscar Stanton de Priest in 1914.

Although African American women’s clubs had similar causes and concerns to their white counterparts, they were also concerned with protecting and advancing the image of “the Race,” as well as tackling issues like lynching and racial injustice. African American progressives were motivated to respond to the conditions of their day. A violent race riot in Springfield, Illinois in 1909 which displaced more than 2000 African Americans prompted W.E.B. DuBois, Ida B. Wells, and other reformers to found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, NAACP. This early civil rights organization sought to use legal means to win battles of injustice, especially by promoting anti-lynching legislation and an end to legal segregation. Ten years later, the industrial North was plagued with more race riots. The Red Summer of 1919 began in Chicago, after an angry white mob killed a black teenager for accidentally venturing near a white beach. The three subsequent days of rioting ended with 500 injuries, 48 deaths, and the destruction of 1000 black homes . It was within this racially tense era, that African American women organized themselves to improve their own lives and strengthen the African American community.

The idealism and zeal of the African American women despite difficult conditions, reveals a new insight into the historical agency of African American women during the Progressive Era. This collection introduces some of the leaders in this movement, their goals, obstacles, and accomplishments, while highlighting the complicated intersectionality of race, class, and gender. It also complicates our understanding of racism and segregation in the North during the Progressive Era.

Please keep the following questions in mind as you review the documents

  • How did the work of African American women’s clubs compare and contrast to the work of white women’s clubs?

  • How did class shape the goals and strategies of African American women’s clubs?

  • Were African American women’s clubs top-down reformers or grassroots organizers?

  • How does the work of African American clubwomen deepen our understanding of the Great Migration and the Progressive Era?

This is a piece on history of women in the United States since 1776, and of the Thirteen Colonies before that. The reliable sources on the topic were thin before the 1960s. Since then the study of women's history has been a major scholarly and popular field, with many scholarly books and articles, museum exhibits, and courses in schools and universities. The roles of women were long ignored in textbooks and popular histories. By the 1960s, women were being presented as successful as male roles. An early feminist approach underscored their victimization and inferior status at the hands of men. In the 21st century writers have emphasized the distinctive strengths displayed inside the community of women, with special concern for minorities among women.

Colonial era[edit]

Main article: Colonial history of the United States

The experiences of women during the colonial era varied from colony to colony, but there were some overall patterns. Most of the British settlers were from England and Wales, with smaller numbers from Scotland and Ireland. Groups of families settled in New England, while individuals came to the Southern colonies. The American colonies absorbed the thousands of Dutch and Swedish settlers. After 1700 most immigrants to Colonial America arrived as indentured servants—young unmarried men and women seeking a new life in a much richer environment.[1] After the 1660s a steady flow of black slaves arrived, chiefly from the Caribbean. Food supplies were much more abundant than in Europe, and there was an abundance of fertile land that needed farm families. However, the disease environment was hostile in the malaria-ridden South, where a large portion of the arrivals died within five years. The American-born children were immune from the fatal forms of malaria.[2]

In New England, the Puritan settlers from England brought their strong religious values highly organized social structure with them. They believed a woman should not be subordinate to her husband and dedicate herself to rearing God-fearing children to the best of her ability.

There were ethnic differences in the treatment of women. Among Puritan settlers in New England, wives almost never worked in the fields with their husbands. In German communities in Pennsylvania, however, many women worked in fields and stables. German and Dutch immigrants granted women more control over property, which was not permitted in the local English law. Unlike English colonial wives, German and Dutch wives owned their own clothes and other items and were also given the ability to write wills disposing of the property brought into the marriage.

The first English people to arrive in America were the members of the Roanoke Colony who came to North Carolina in July 1587, with 17 women, 91 men, and 9 boys as the founding colonists. On August 18, 1587, Virginia Dare was born; she was the first English child born in the territory of the United States. Her mother was Eleanor Dare, the daughter of John White, governor of the Roanoke colony.[3] It is not known what happened to the members of the Roanoke colony; however, it is likely that they were attacked by Native Americans, and those not killed were assimilated into the local tribes.[4]

New England[edit]

Main article: History of New England

The New England regional economy grew rapidly in the 17th century, thanks to heavy immigration, high birth rates, low death rates, and an abundance of inexpensive farmland.[5] The population grew from 3000 in 1630 to 14,000 in 1640, 33,000 in 1660, 68,000 in 1680, and 91,000 in 1700. Between 1630 and 1643, about 20,000 Puritans arrived, settling mostly near Boston; after 1643 fewer than fifty immigrants a year arrived. The average size of a completed family 1660–1700 was 7.1 children; the birth rate was 49 babies per year per 1000 people, and the death rate was about 22 deaths per year per thousand people. About 27 percent of the population comprised men between 16 and 60 years old.[6]

The benefits of economic growth were widely distributed, with even farm laborers better off at the end of the colonial period. The growing population led to shortages of good farm land on which young families could establish themselves; one result was to delay marriage, and another was to move to new lands further west. In the towns and cities, there was strong entrepreneurship, and a steady increase in the specialization of labor. Wages for men went up steadily before 1775; new occupations were opening for women, including weaving, teaching, and tailoring. The region bordered New France, which used Indian warriors to attack outlying villages. Women were sometimes captured. In the numerous French and Indian Wars the British government poured money in to purchase supplies, build roads and pay colonial soldiers. The coastal ports began to specialize in fishing, international trade and shipbuilding—and after 1780 in whaling. Combined with a growing urban markets for farm products, these factors allowed the economy to flourish despite the lack of technological innovation.[7]


Tax-supported schooling for girls began as early as 1767 in New England. It was optional and some towns proved reluctant. Northampton, Massachusetts, for example, was a late adopter because it had many rich families who dominated the political and social structures and they did not want to pay taxes to aid poor families. Northampton assessed taxes on all households, rather than only on those with children, and used the funds to support a grammar school to prepare boys for college. Not until after 1800 did Northampton educate girls with public money. In contrast, the town of Sutton, Massachusetts, was diverse in terms of social leadership and religion at an early point in its history. Sutton paid for its schools by means of taxes on households with children only, thereby creating an active constituency in favor of universal education for both boys and girls.[8]

Historians point out that reading and writing were different skills in the colonial era. School taught both, but in places without schools reading was mainly taught to boys and also a few privileged girls. Men handled worldly affairs and needed to read and write. Girls only needed to read (especially religious materials). This educational disparity between reading and writing explains why the colonial women often could read, but could not write so they used an "X" to sign their names.[9]

Hispanic New Mexico[edit]

Hispanic women played a central role in traditional family life in the Spanish colonies of New Mexico; their descendants comprise a large element in northern New Mexico and southern Colorado. Gutierrez finds a high level of illegitimacy, especially among the Indians who were used as slaves. He finds, "Aristocrats maintained mistresses and/or sexually exploited to their slaves but rarely admitted to fathering illegitimate children."[10]

Colonial personalities and activities[edit]


The American Indian woman has been seen as a symbolic paradox. Depending on the perspective, she has been viewed as either the civilized princess or the destructive squaw. A highly favorable image has surrounded Pocahontas, the daughter of the Native American chief Powhatan in Virginia.[11]John Smith himself said she saved him from being clubbed to death by her father in 1607. She was taken hostage by the colonists in 1612, when she was seventeen. She converted to Christianity and married planter John Rolfe in 1614. It was the first recorded interracial marriage in American history.[12] This marriage brought a peace between the colonists and the Indians. She and Rolfe sailed to England in 1616, where she was presented at the court of King James I; she died soon after. Townsend argues that Pocahontas was not a powerful princess, but just one of many of the chief's daughters. She was assertive, youthful, and athletic; she returns Rolfe's love while also observing the Algonquin practice of constructing alliances through marriage, and she accepts Christianity as complementing her Algonquin religious worldview.[13] Many leading families in Virginia to this day proudly claim her as an ancestor. There were many tales about her in Virginia and England, reflecting myth, culture, romanticism, colonialism, and historical events as well as narratives of intermarriage, heroic women, and gender and sexuality as metaphors for national, religious, and racial differences.[14]


Jamestown, the first English settlement in America, was established in 1607 in what is now Virginia.[15] The first women to arrive in Jamestown, (known in the ship's manifest as) Mistress Forrest, wife of Thomas Forrest, Esq and her fourteen-year-old maid, Anne Burras, arrived in late 1608.[16] In December 1608 Anne Burras married a carpenter and laborer named John Laydon in the first wedding ceremony held in Jamestown, and in 1609 they had a child named Virginia Laydon (not to be confused with Virginia Dare), who was the first child born in Jamestown.[17][17][18][18] The first American slaves since those in Lucas Vasquez de Allyon's unsuccessful colony in 1526–1527 were brought to Jamestown in 1619.[19] These slaves were from the Caribbean, and there were twenty of them, including three women.[19]

A stamp honoring Virginia Dare, who in 1587 became the first English child born in what became the U.S.

0 thoughts on “Clubwomen Progressive Era Essay

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *