Social Movements and Progressive Inequalities, 1850–1930

Endorsed by the Labor and Working-Class History Association (LAWCHA), the Society for Historians of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era (SHGAPE), and the Women and Social Movements in the U.S., 1600–2000

Friday, April 3, 2020, 8:00 AM - 9:30 AM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: Gender; Women's History


This panel explores the ways social reformers and progressives understood issues of equality and inequality within the context of late nineteenth and early twentieth-century social movements, focusing specifically on dress reform, coeducation, and women’s suffrage. Within each of these movements, questions about who was included extended across lines of gender, race, class, and educational status. Presenters will reflect on how reformers negotiated between different types of authority—moral, religious, cultural, or philosophical—to make their claims about equality. These papers chart the course reformers took to understand what equality meant to them and explore who was excluded from key social reforms during the Progressive era and how Progressives understood such exclusion.

Laura Ping (Queens College) will examine how nineteenth-century dress reformers believed that clothing was key to understanding gender inequalities; yet they failed to understand the inequalities within their own movement, which did not appeal to working class and African-American women. Serenity Sutherland (SUNY Oswego) will present on MIT chemist Ellen Swallow Richards’s career at MIT (beginning in 1870 and continuing to her death in 1911) as the first female student and then as the first female instructor. Through starting a Women’s Laboratory and serving unofficially as the women’s dean of students, Richards created a space for women at MIT, yet women’s education was not truly equal in comparison with how men were accepted to MIT and treated as students. Jessica Derleth (SUNY Binghamton) will present on how the woman suffrage movement capitalized on the cultural authority vested in gender norms by portraying themselves as “good women” who would bring morality and order to the public realm. In this quest for equality, suffragists positioned themselves in opposition to “bad women”—a thinly veiled reference to prostitutes and black women—and reassured the American public that these women would remain politically weak or even disenfranchised.

Each paper deals with key moments in women’s and gender history where women fought for equality with men, but failed to address additional inequalities in American society related to class and race. By exploring cases related to dress reform, education, and suffrage, each of the panelists consider how Progressive era reform agendas were primarily directed at middle-class white women, how the exclusion of poor women and women of color shaped the broad women’s rights movement of this era and how these specific movements for equality reinforced and laid bare other forms of inequality.

Papers Presented

Bad Women Will Be Disenfranchised: How Suffragists Discussed Prostitutes and Black Women as Prospective Female Voters

In the twentieth century, the woman’s suffrage movement frequently published pamphlets, articles, and broadsides that highlighted how the “good women” of America would bring honesty, cleanliness, and morality to the public realm if granted the right to vote. Suffragists designed this “good woman” icon to refute antisuffrage claims that the franchise would destroy the home, the relationship between the sexes, and the nation. Suffragists thus constructed the “good woman”—coded as white and middle class—to assuage fears about links between female enfranchisement and gender deviancy, sexual immorality, and race suicide. In defining themselves as true and “good women,” suffragists positioned themselves in opposition to “bad women”—a thinly veiled reference to prostitutes and black women—who purportedly lacked the womanly qualities of “political morality” and “official honesty” necessary to be reliable voters. At a time when imperialism and immigration threatened whiteness, many suffrage publications reassured the public that these minority women would not bother to cast a ballot, did not have enough power to sway elections, or would remain disfranchised. Thus, in the process of capitalizing on the cultural authority vested in gender norms, the mainstream movement reinforced class and racial hierarchies. As a result, suffragists sometimes supported—and even lauded—the disfranchisement of women who did not fit the model of respectable white womanhood that benefited their movement. This paper thus contributes to broader understandings about how women manipulate understandings of gender, race, class, and sexuality while engaging in politics.

Presented By
Jessica Margaret Derleth, U.S. Women’s and Gender History

"She was treated for some time as a dangerous person": Ellen Swallow Richards and Coeducation at Massachusetts Institute of Technology

In 1871 Ellen Swallow enrolled as the first female student at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Her experience at MIT as a student was one of simultaneous exclusion and inclusion. A few MIT professors, like her eventual husband, mining professor Robert Richards, were willing to work with the new female student and admired her skills in chemistry. Even still, Ellen Richards was excluded from participating in the all-male field schools in the summer, and the MIT Board also denied her pursuit of a PhD in Chemistry as they did not want a woman to receive the first advanced degree awarded at MIT. Imagining those women students who would come after her, Richards used the institutional power of MIT and her connections to orchestrate scientific and educational programs for women. She formed the Women’s Laboratory at MIT, operational from 1876 to 1883. In 1882 MIT began formally admitting female students, and Richards acted as an unofficial dean of women students. Despite Richards’s progress in creating a space for women to study science at MIT, female enrollment never achieved educational parity with men during Richards’s lifetime. Until the 1940s, the number of women enrolled remained less than 1% of the student body and no women’s dorms existed. This paper will analyze how Ellen Richards and other women students at MIT understood their unequal access to coeducation and serves as a case study of how coeducation for women students did not result in equal opportunities.

Presented By
Serenity Sutherland, State University of New York at Oswego

All Women Are Not Created Equal: Inequality within the Nineteenth-Century Dress Reform Movement

In 1851 a faction of woman’s rights activists in New York State adopted a reform dress, popularly known as the bloomer costume, that they heralded as the key to gaining rights for women. This garment included a shortened skirt and trousers, which proponents argued was both healthier than the long, burdensome skirts that fashionable women wore and symbolized women’s equality to men. Although this garment never gained widespread support, American reformers continued to adopt it for health and as a symbol of equality for the rest of the nineteenth century. Ironically, however, the outfit that represented equality for middle-class white women also highlighted the inequalities within the movement. Reformers assumed that immigrant, working-class, and African American women would also be drawn to the practicality of the bloomer costume’s design and were surprised when the garment was rejected. For these lower-class women and women of color fashion represented social mobility and not inequality. To abandon fashion for dress reform would have meant abandoning the opportunity to be considered a “proper lady.” Lower-class women were particularly unwilling to make this sacrifice for a reform movement that would give them no voice. This paper will explore these two reactions to the bloomer costume—the expectation among reformers that clothing modifications would benefit all women in the same way and the lower-class rejection of clothing that would limit social mobility—between the years 1851–1900 to analyze how the dress reform movement perpetuated inequalities. This research will contribute to a broader historical discussion on the role of nineteenth-century social reform in creating a white, middle-class narrative of women’s history.

Presented By
Laura Jane Ping, Queens College

Session Participants

Chair and Commentator: Heidi Lorraine Dodson, African American history and digital humanities
Heidi L. Dodson is the CLIR Postdoctoral Fellow in Digital Scholarship at the University at Buffalo. She received her PhD in History from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her dissertation, “‘We Cleared the Land with Our Own Hands’: Space and Place in African American Community Building and Freedom Struggles in the Missouri Bootheel, 1898-1968,” analyzes the ways that Black rural migrants shaped the landscape of the Border South in their fight for social and economic justice. Her research interests include African American history, environmental history, race and landscape, labor history, and digital humanities. She is the recipient of the Lewis E. Atherton Dissertation Prize from the State Historical Society of Missouri and was awarded a Center for Missouri Studies environmental history fellowship in 2018. Her work has been published in the journal Buildings & Landscapes.

Presenter: Jessica Margaret Derleth, U.S. Women’s and Gender History
Jessica Derleth is a PhD candidate at Binghamton University who specializes in United States women and gender history. Her dissertation, titled “‘Silence Forever the Slander’: Gender as Political Strategy in the American Woman Suffrage Movement,” documents how suffragists embraced and manipulated gender norms to argue that female enfranchisement would not unsex women, emasculate men, or destroy home life. Derleth is the author of “‘Kneading Politics’: Cookery and the American Woman Suffrage Movement” (Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, 2018); “‘These Model Families’: Romance, Marriage, and Family in the New York Woman Suffrage Movement,” in Votes for Women: Celebrating New York’s Suffrage Centennial (2017); and various book reviews, lesson plans, and encyclopedia entries. She has presented her research at a variety of regional and national conferences, including: the Berkshire Conference on the History of Women, Genders, and Sexualities; the Western Association of Women Historians; the Popular Culture Association and American Culture Association Conference; and the American Historical Association annual conference, among others. Her research is supported, in part, by the Huntington Library’s Helen L. Bing Fellowship and the Virginia Historical Society’s Mellon Research Fellowship and was awarded a 2017 Graduate Student Excellence Award in Research from Binghamton University. Derleth’s teaching interests include: modern US history; women’s and gender history; social movements and protest; home economics, food, and consumerism; gender and global empire; crime and punishment; race and immigration; and LGBTQIA+ history. Along with working in the classroom, Derleth served as a managing editor with the Journal of Women’s History and as the Graduate Research Director for the Center for the Historical Study of Women and Gender at Binghamton University.

Presenter: Laura Jane Ping, Queens College
Laura J. Ping received her Ph.D in American History from The Graduate Center, City University of New York in 2018. Ping’s dissertation, “Throwing off ‘the Draggling Dresses’: Women and Dress Reform, 1820-1900,” analyzes the cultural and political impact of the dress reform movement on the nineteenth-century woman’s movement in the United States. Ping has been the recipient of research fellowships from Winterthur Museum, Garden, and Library and the National Society of the Colonial Dames in the State of New York, and has been awarded the E.P. Thompson Dissertation Award, and the Advanced Research Collaborative Knickerbocker Award for Archival Research in American Studies. Her article entitled “ ‘He May Sneer at the Course We are Pursuing to Gain Justice': Lydia Sayer Hasbrouck, The Sibyl and Corresponding about Women's Suffrage” was published in the Summer/Fall issue of New York History Journal and Ping is currently writing a co-authored biography of education reformer Catherine Beecher, which will be published by Westview Press. Ping is an adjunct assistant professor at Queens College and Pace University.

Presenter: Serenity Sutherland, State University of New York at Oswego
Serenity Sutherland is Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at SUNY Oswego. She received her PhD in American History from the University of Rochester for her dissertation “Discovering Science for Women: The Life of Ellen Swallow Richards, 1842-1911.” She is currently working on a book manuscript about the life of Ellen Richards, as well as a digital documentary edition of Ellen Richards’s papers. Her research interests include history of women in science, women’s and gender studies, digital humanities, and media studies. Her work has been supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the National Historic Publications and Records Commission, the American Philosophical Society, and the Lemelson Center.