During the second half of the 19th century, women activists began to protest women’s subordinate role in American society. The roots of women’s protests reach as far back as the American Revolution, which created a new republic based on an expanded citizenry of property-owning white males, but excluded women from a political role. By the mid-19th century, some women began to challenge the gender ideology underlying that exclusion, demanding the right to vote. Women also called for access to higher education, and the right to own property. Women used arguments based on women’s superior moral values grounded in the home to attack men’s behavior such as excessive drinking that led to abuse and impoverishment for wives, and the use of prostitutes by both married and single men.

Underlying economic shifts, coupled with political changes occurring in the new nation, created the conditions for this nascent women’s movement. Before the mid -19th century, most goods were produced in self-sufficient homes or in shops of skilled craftsmen and women played major roles in household production. But as industrialization and urbanization began to transform American society, men moved into the industrial labor force, leaving married women behind in the home. Out of necessity, many young single women took jobs in textile factories and as domestic servants, but their wages were far lower than most men’s. Wages became a measure of economic worth, and the gap between men and women increased. In the mid and late 19th century, socialist ideals imported from Europe also challenged the exploitation of unskilled workers, and a male-dominated labor movement began organizing workers, with scant attention to women.  Women began to organize their own unions to demand better wages and shorter hours in the workforce.

Women responded to these shifts in work and family life by organizing women’s social reform groups that focused on different aspects of their subordination in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Several different threads of social reform activity emerged to reflect the differing needs of distinct groups of women. Middle-class women organized separately from working-class women in most cases. Middle-class women activists were predominantly those who had access to higher education, a fact that distinguished them from the vast majority of women in the US.

Exposed to ideas that supported the need for social reform, and with new skills, these educated women sought to put their concerns into action. They also could bring class privilege to bear, such as financial resources to support reform activities and access to men with political influence. Working-class women lacked these resources, but worked collectively to improve their status through labor unions. Middle-class women allied with them in some cases, struggling to improve working conditions and protect young single women from sexual vulnerability in urban areas.

A racial divide accompanied the class divide among women activists as well. The indifference and outright hostility most white leaders of the suffrage movement displayed toward potential African-American allies throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries are a well-documented part of our feminist heritage. The exclusion of African-American women by most white women’s organizations pushed African-American women to abandon hopes for an interracial alliance for social reform and to concentrate instead on concerns specific to their race.

During the late 19th and early 20th century, middle-class African-American women focused on improving the social and economic conditions that prevailed in their communities, both to improve conditions for their own families and because they understood that their status in US society was linked to that of poor African-Americans. African-American women’s clubs and other organizations opposed lynching, established community self-help projects, challenged the underlying stereotypes of Africa-American women as sexually immoral, and supported women’s suffrage

Between World War I and World War II there were several partially successful attempts at interracial cooperation among women activists in the South, including within the Young Women’s Christian Association  (YWCA), which included both white and black women in segregated community organizations.  In the North, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) welcomed a token number of African-American women into its ranks, but antiracism work was never a focus of the organization. The Communist party was one of the few predominantly white organizations with an explicit and detailed program that attacked racism in the US during the 1930s.

Religious idealism provided a powerful source of inspiration for many women activists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The Social Gospel, which insisted that Christian faith be expressed in social and political action, transformed the face of US Protestantism during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Economic justice was the primary concern of proponents of the Social Gospel at the turn of the century, with much attention paid to the low wages and long hours of working-class factory workers. Women activists who adopted the Social Gospel demanded protective legislation for women workers and for children. By the late 1930s, however, the CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations) became the primary organization to unionize women workers.

The issue of war and peace was of immense consequence to the generation of activists coming of age during and after World War I. A profound sense of disillusionment followed the war and accompanied the crescendo of international violence that led to the Second World War. Women played a major role in the groundswell of antiwar feeling that swept across US society in the decades of the 1920s and 1930s.  By the early 1930s, pacifism was firmly established within the Protestant churches, which continued to support the widespread revulsion against war during the inter-war decades.

Many individual women were heroines in social reform activities during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, devoting their energies to improving the lives of women and other oppressed groups. They formed a variety of organizations, as well as playing important roles in some mixed-sex organizations. They left a legacy of both individual activism and creation of important organizations, some of which still exist today.  Several of these organizations are honored on the Walk of the Heroines, including the American Association of University Women,  The Portland Women’s Union, the Portland Woman’s Club and the Portland YWCA.  Many of the Black women honored as “foremothers who fought for women’s rights, freedom, and dignity,” were founders of or early activists in important women’s organizations that aimed to “lift as we climb,” combining advocacy for women with their efforts on behalf of the entire African-American community. 

These early women’s organizations who fought for social reform inspired a new generation of women activists.  This generation created the modern feminist movement and, from the mid-20th century until today, participated in many other social reform movements calling for social justice and equality

Author: Susan Lynn, Professor of History, Portland Community College, retired