The Progressive Era: Reforms for Child Labor, Working Conditions, and Women’s Suffrage in Industrial Cities

Last Updated: 31 Mar 2023
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Progressive Era Cities grew in the late 1800s and early 1900s. As specialized industries like steel and meat-packing improved, jobs were also increased in the cities. These factories’ work lured former farmers, immigrants, and American workers moving into the cities. These people lived in tenements and ghettos. They were unable to earn an authentic living environment due to unreasonable wage cut. Progressivism is an umbrella label for a wide range of economic, political, social, and moral reforms. The early twentieth century acted as the Progressive Era, when Americans find solutions to resolve problems that were engendered by industrialization. Predicated on the documents, Progressive Era were effective because of child labor, working conditions, and women's suffrage. Factories were utilizing children to do the hard work.

They employed children as young as five to work as many as twenty hours a day. According to Document C, children worked in factories to build up muscles and having good intellect in working rather than getting an education. They became a different person rather than conventional children. There were additionally health issues due to child labor: rapid skeletal growth, greater risk of hearing loss, higher chemical absorption rates, and developing ability to assess risks. Progressive Era reformers believed that child labor was detrimental to children and they should be protected from harmful environments, so they would become healthy and productive adults. In 1912, Congress created the Children’s Bureau to benefit children. The Keating-Owen Act was passed in 1916 to free children from child labor only in industries that engaged in interstate commerce. However, it was declared unconstitutional since Congress could not regulate local labor conditions. Woodrow Wilson won the election of 1912 and signed into law “Tax on Employment of Child Labor” in 1916. This law placed a ten percent tax on businesses that employed children under age fourteen or made them work more than eight hours a day. Even though this law was declared unconstitutional later, a number of working children between ages ten and fifteen declined by almost fifty percent. On the other hand, there was still some opposition against child labor. As it was stated in Document G, a father brought a suit to “enjoin the enforcement of the act of Congress intended to prevent interstate commerce in the products of child labor.” He wanted his sons (one under age of fourteen and the other at the age of fifteen) to continue working in a cotton mill at Charlotte to fortify the family. Nevertheless, Children’s Bureau and National Child Labor Committee (NCLC) worked to end child labor. During the Progressive Era, large business owners demanded long hours for very little pay.

These workers typically worked seven days a week, twelve hours each day, some enduring 24 straight hours of intense labor. After looking closely at Document B, Neill-Reynolds, a muckraker who investigated and gave nationwide publicity to accidents and unsafe condition, reported about the conditions in meat-packing industry. The report was basically about poor conditions in the meat-packing industry and violation of international agreements promising a safe workplace. The factory conditions were deprived: light source was natural light, few windows, dangerous machines, few break times and poor sanitation. These conditions could affect the workers’ health by giving them diseases, physical problems, deformities, and malnutrition. Since workers were viewed as interchangeable parts, owners would not care if there were any death. Many Progressives responded to industrial America's deplorable working conditions by endeavoring to make life better for workers. The American Federation of Labor (AFL) was established to help workers with their problems. The AFL made it possible for the workers to go on strike by paying them enough money to live on or give them year-round health benefits to work their job. The AFL helped the workers to go on strike to improve their working conditions and get better hours. During the late 1800s and early 1900s, women organizations worked to gain the right to vote and worked for broad-based economic and political equality and for social reforms. The National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) was organized to fight for a constitutional amendment, while the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) was organized to work on a state level to win voting rights. The NAWSA undertook campaigns to enfranchise women in individual states and lobbied President Wilson and Congress to pass a women's suffrage amendment. Although they won many rights (such as married women could buy and sell property, etc.), they failed to win suffrage. The third group, Congressional Union (CU), under leadership of Alice Paul, was a more militant organization.

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She called for an aggressive, militant campaign for the constitutional amendment, by bypass existing stage suffrage organizations and set up new ones in each state. The leader of NAWSA opposed this idea because it would alienate moderate supporters. After CU got expelled, they went on to state militant protests. Based on Document H, the militant protests happened in front of Washington D.C. and the women comparing the President Wilson to Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany to demand that President reverse his opposition to 19th amendment. Besides the comparison, CU also set aflame a life-size dummy of Wilson, burned copies of Wilson’s speeches, and went on hunger strikes when got sent to prison. Newspapers printed stories about women’s treatment in jail to gain public sympathy to support women suffrage. By 1918, President Wilson has no choice but to announce his support for suffrage. Thus, victory for women suffrage happened in 1920. After looking closely at all four documents, the Progressive Era ended child labor, improved working conditions, and brought victory to women suffrage. Many organizations, laws, and amendments were created to end these issues. They also highlighted the last major reform of the Progressive Era.

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The Progressive Era: Reforms for Child Labor, Working Conditions, and Women’s Suffrage in Industrial Cities. (2022, Nov 09). Retrieved from

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