Working Women in the Progressive Era

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At the start of the Progressive Era around the 1890’s there is a jump in the number of working women and as the centuries change into the 20th, the number rapidly increases. With the help of documents and primary sources, a first hand experience is able to be shown and women’s voices are able to be heard. The growth in working women can be seen through their experiences on the types of jobs they had, what is was like for them especially being female, and how they felt about their place in society and their response.

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Women of the early 20th century were not all housewives. Many had jobs and became apart of the working class America. In the 1900’s, 25% of women worked for wages; hard work, long hours and poor working conditions (Lecture, Wage Labor, 9/12/18). Women worked in textile/garment factories, bottling plants, and many other low pay jobs accessible within walking distance. The conditions of these places were far from a safe environment but the money was a necessity. Women were sexually assaulted, injured and mistreated by their foremen. Factory jobs were not the only jobs women had. They also worked as educators, settlement workers and even prostitutes. Prostitution was a dangerous profession. Reasons for it include: Low wage labor pay, Man abandoned family and temporary work (Lecture, Prostitution, 9/14/18). While many women went to school to become teachers or worked in factories, some were involved in prostitution as a form of income. This was very dangerous as many risks such as STD’s, pregnancies and even abusive men all were a problem in the industry. Contraceptives were not easily obtainable and the prevention of diseases were weak. Some women had to choose this to be able to provide for their family. These issues were faced daily and women had no choice but to push through with it until many decided it was time for change.

This led to reform for better working conditions and improvement in quality of life. In a report from The International Council of Women, Leonora Barry states, I have instituted what is known as the Working Women’s National Beneficial fund. It gives protection to every woman,for it is the duty, the aim, and the object of the Knights of Labor to elevate woman, no matter what her nationality, her creed, her color, or her position in life (Boylan, Barry, 1888, p. 108). The Knights of Labor was formed to combat the hardships working class women and men had to face and they spread awareness of the issue inequality and helped improve the work environment. Women had lower wages for the same job as compared to men. They were also treated like dirt and even prostituted themselves to their foremen for better pay. The Knights of Labor was putting an end to that to ensure the safety and equality of women and men. In a 1906 speech from Emma Goldman, she states As to the great mass of working girls and women, how much independence is gained if the narrowness and lack of freedom of the home is exchanged for the narrowness and lack of freedom of the factory, sweatshop, department store, or office? (Boylan, Goldman, 1906, p. 127). Goldman is advocating for woman’s emancipation and freedom by explaining how it is hard to achieve that when women are working long hours at their jobs then come home to care for the house and family. She is speaking out against the working conditions and pushes for equality and suffrage. Emma Goldman along with many other women are demanding reform in the work environment and the social restraints outside of the workplace.

Women in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s were starting to get into the working class and as the Progressive Era started in motion, a growth in working women was increasing. Their experience in the many jobs they had including factory work, teaching, and even prostitution are documented and shows their working conditions, how they were treated being female, and how they acted in response to the inequality they faced at the turn of the century.

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Working Women in the Progressive Era. (2019, Jul 15). Retrieved February 1, 2023 , from

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