History North American History Political Science

Women and Reform Movements in the United States

Women and Reform Movements in the United States

Women became increasingly involved in a wide variety of reform movements between 1865 and 1920. What were some of these movements and what did they accomplish?

Women’s suffrage grew in popularity during the Progressive Era, beginning in the late nineteenth century.

One of the earliest movements that was largely spearheaded by women was that of settlement houses. Originally fashioned by social reformers in England, ladies such as Jane Addams, Ellen Gates Starr, and Lillian Ward established them in the United States.

These houses were built in urban centers and offered the working poor, particularly women, daycare, evening classes, libraries, gym facilities, and free healthcare.

Jane Addams Hull House, 1889
Jane Addams Hull House, 1889.

Eventually, these settlements, like Addams’ Hull House in Chicago and Wald’s Henry Street Settlement in New York, offered employment opportunities in social work for graduating women as well (Corbett et al., 2017).

Another burgeoning issue that women took on was that of child labor.

In 1904, Florence Kelley and Lillian Ward founded the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC). The committee was established on the basis of the 1900 U.S. census records that indicated that one in every six children between the ages of five and ten were working that year, a 50 percent increase over the past ten years.

Deservedly, this agency had a number of successes throughout the twentieth century. Julia Lathrop was put in charge of the NCLC by President William Howard Taft, the first woman to head a federal government agency.

In 1912, the Children’s Bureau was created within the Department of Labor.

Finally, in 1916 and 1938, respectively, the Keating-Owen Act and Fair Labor Standards Act were passed. The first of these acts prohibited interstate trade of any goods produced with child labor; though later declared unconstitutional, the Keating-Owen Act reflected a shift in the public’s manner of thinking when it came to child labor.

Gardener, Park and Catt at Suffrage House in Washington.

Yet, the NCLC experienced a victory with the second one, outlawing interstate trade of any products produced by children under the age of sixteen (Corbett et al., 2017).

Perhaps even most memorably, was the important task of securing a woman’s right to vote.

In May 1890, the National American Women’s Suffrage Association (NAWSA) was founded by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. Both of these women were responsible for the first demand for the women’s right to vote at Seneca Falls in 1848.

Within the same year of the establishment of the NAWSA, the group organized hundreds of state and local chapters to urge the passage of a national amendment to guarantee a woman’s right to vote. Even more, when Carrie Chapmen Catt took over as leader in 1900, membership grew and the focus on suffrage became priority.

Alice Paul
Alice Paul

However, Alice Paul, who had joined the movement in 1912, felt that change was not happening fast enough. Consequently, Paul created the Congressional Union for Women Suffrage in 1913. Later renamed the National Woman’s Party, this assembly became known as the Silent Sentinels.

Beginning in 1917, Paul and her following picketed outside of the White House for nearly two years. It was during this endeavor that Paul was arrested and thrown in jail where she staged a hunger strike and was forcibly fed to be kept alive.

The embarrassed President Wilson changed his official stance to support women’s congressional right to vote after this endeavor (Corbett et al., 2017).

The combined efforts of both the NAWSA and National Woman’s Party brought about enough pressure to convince Congress to pass the Nineteenth Amendment, prohibiting voter discrimination based on sex, in the summer of 1919.

Thankfully, the amendment garnered the appropriate amount of states approvals (36) by August 1920, just in time to vote in the next presidential election (Corbett et al., 2017).


Corbett, P. S., Janssen, V., Lund, J. M., Pfannestiel, T., Waskiewicz, S., Vickery, P. 2017. U.S. History. Houston: OpenStax.

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