The Progressive Era in the United States, which lasted from about 1890 to 1920, was a period of incredible political change. It’s the time when things such as women’s suffrage, reproductive rights, and general social and economic justice were fought for, and won. Labor reform and increased wages took hold, and the movement eventually won a number of important concessions, from the elimination of child labor to the establishment of the 40-hour workweek, but not every battle ended in conclusive success. Many of the same points raised more than a century ago remain hot-button topics even today.
10. Health Care
As demonstrated by The Affordable Care Act, more commonly known as “Obamacare,” health care is still a highly contentious issue in the U.S. However, the country’s history with universal healthcare goes back all the way to 1915. Observing that the loss of wages as a result of illness or injury was a major cause of poverty, the American Association for Labor Legislation proposed a system of compulsory health insurance designed to protect workers against lost wages and medical costs in the event that they become temporarily unable to work.
Modeled on existing healthcare systems in Germany and England, the AALL plan enjoyed considerable support from workers and the suffrage movement. Although the plan’s test run as legislation passed in the New York Senate, the bill died in committee thanks to the efforts of state congressman Thaddeus Sweet. Americans are still searching for ways to take care of themselves and their families, but it still doesn’t appear a universally accepted system is any closer now than it has been in the previous century.
9. Reproductive Rights
The idea that women have the right to control whether or not they have children did not begin with Roe v. Wade, but rather started to gain traction in the Progressive Era. As late as the 1870s, new legislation banning contraceptives, as well as literature advocating their use, still passed into law in some states with the express intent of restricting access to birth control.
This changed in the early 20th century when the suffrage movement began to demand access to safe and legal birth control. Although today it’s certainly not illegal to walk down to Walgreens (you’re welcome for the plug, and take that, CVS!) and pick up a pack of condoms, the status and security of access to women’s reproductive health is a point of constant debate among social conservatives and liberals.
8. Immigration Reform
Immigration reform enjoyed widespread support during the progressive era, but the reforms that passed weren’t really of the sort that we would typically consider “progressive” today. In fact, immigration reform at the turn of the century was generally of a more aggressively nativist and racist persuasion.
Out of fear that new immigrants, largely from Eastern Europe and Asia, would steal American jobs and overwhelm the country, immigration laws passed between 1917 and 1924 severely curtailed access to new arrivals, restricting or even outright banning immigration by certain ethnic groups. While we have since largely accepted Eastern European and Asian people into American society, the contemporary anti-immigrant sentiment directed at people from Latin America is very comparable to attitudes common a century ago. Sadly, despite America being considered a cultural melting pot, many citizens still find themselves in uproar over the topic.
7. Fighting Trusts and the Robber Barons
Trust-busting was really the hallmark of the Progressive Era. In response to massive corporate conglomeration and trust formation in the late 19th century, which concentrated huge amounts of power in the hands of a small group of individuals (known as “captains of industry,” or more derisively as “robber barons”), progressives demanded government intervention to break up the big trusts.
Progressive Era presidents like Roosevelt, Taft, and Wilson enacted plenty of antitrust law, but that body of regulatory law largely unraveled in successive decades, opening the door for everything from widespread mergers and liquidations in the 80s and 90s to the collapse of the housing market in 2007 and 2008.
6. Alcohol and Drug Abuse
The 18th Amendment took effect in 1920, instituting alcohol prohibition throughout the US. Less than 15 years later, the 21st Amendment repealed prohibition, acknowledging that “the noble experiment” was ultimately a terrible idea.
Despite the failure of alcohol prohibition, the DEA and the Justice Department have yet to even consider ending the prohibition of other intoxicants like marijuana, and although support for legalizing pot is rapidly growing nationwide (including limited legalization in states like Washington and Colorado), our approach to addiction remains generally geared toward criminalizing and incarcerating users. Where alcohol prohibition gave us gangsters like Al Capone, marijuana prohibition continues to funnel untold billions of dollars into the pockets of drug cartels each year.
5. Providing a Living Wage
The U.S. did not institute a federal minimum wage until 1938, and the average pay for a railroad worker around the turn of the century was about $0.10 per hour. One of the major struggles of the Progressive Era and the labor movement was the fight for a living wage for workers, but what once seemed plausible has again fallen out of reach for many people.
According to an MIT study on contemporary living standards in the U.S., the federal minimum wage is roughly two-thirds of what is necessary to earn a comfortable living. By their calculations, three members of a four-person household would need to work roughly 68 hours a week at minimum wage in order to provide a sufficient standard of living.
4. The Role of the Federal Government
Many of these contentious issues can ultimately be traced back to a core ideological debate – the role of the federal government in the lives of Americans. The constitutional role of the government was a matter of intense discussion before the U.S. even had a constitution; however, it was during the Progressive Era that the discussion started to take on its modern shape.
With the Civil War several decades in the past, American national identity was clearly codified by the turn of the 20th Century, and many people felt that the national government should take a more “hands on” approach in the administration and regulation of the country, as was practiced in other modern nation states. At the same time, many other individuals held the exact opposite sentiment – that the government had already grossly overstepped its boundaries. The debate over how much power the federal government should hold and what they should or should not be providing for us seeps into nearly every discussion in modern politics, from healthcare and drug policy, to the environment and civil liberties.
3. Protecting the Environment
Popular legend holds Teddy Roosevelt as America’s first great conservationist. Well-known as an outdoorsman, he greatly expanded the national park system, campaigned for the protection of at-risk animals and even serves as the namesake of the ever-popular teddy bear. Not all of Roosevelt’s fellow statesmen shared his concern for nature, though – commercial interests such as timber and oil companies were furious at Roosevelt’s practice of setting aside land as protected forests, and there are many modern day parallels.
Timber and oil companies want access to old-growth forests in the Pacific Northwest and the Florida Coast respectively, politicians debate renewable energy subsidies versus extending existing subsidies to oil companies, and opponents of hydraulic fracturing (or “fracking”) fight to keep gas companies out of their towns. Above all though, the Keystone XL pipeline stands as the most high-profile environmental issue of the last decade. Progressive conservationists warn that the pipeline will be an environmental disaster with little real payoff, while pro-business conservatives write off the dangers as negligible.
2. Gender Equality
Discussions of cross-demographic equality and privilege in society reached a new threshold of prominence recently, and while many people look toward an increasingly egalitarian society, it is also worth looking back to evaluate our progress over the last century.
The suffrage movement represented a major constituency within the greater Progressive Era. Though the suffragettes won the right to vote in 1920, the movement lobbied for much more than just that one right – many worked alongside organized labor to fight for better conditions for both male and female workers, as well as greater and more secure employment opportunities and better pay for women. Things are very different than they were a century ago, but the still nagging gaps in pay and job security attest to the limitations of that progress.
1. Public Education
While many states already had compulsory public education systems by the beginning of the 20th Century, the progressive movement aimed to bring about a new level of standardization to public education in the U.S. Guided by Frederick Taylor’s idea of scientific management, commonly known as “Taylorism,” progressives advocated new schooling models designed to eliminate waste and make schools more efficient and centrally managed.
The current debate over Common Core education in schools strongly echoes the goals of this movement. Proponents of the new national education standards argue that it will set clearly defined and measureable standards for what students in the U.S. should know, while opponents argue that Common Core is wasteful, allows less flexibility in dealing with individual students’ needs, and is merely an exercise in big government further overstepping its boundaries.