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Throughout the Reconstruction era, the lives of women in the North and South progressed economically, politically, and socially. Women were becoming part of the emerging consumer culture while becoming more active in a political sector. Given how the ideal of “true womanhood” began losing its eminence in U.S. society, the New Woman began gaining popularity with their higher levels of education, leisure time, working for a wage, and participating in politics. With women gaining personal freedoms, restrictions were still placed upon them to look and act a certain way amongst through the previous model of true womanhood, though its representation varied given the woman’s race and social standing.
During the 1860s and the nineteen-teens, new opportunities for higher education were available. However, those who benefitted from it most exclusively were wealthy white women. With their higher education, women were able to have better opportunities for jobs not believed to be fitting for women: administration, clerical, law, and political positions (Dubois and Dumenil 302, 327). Wealthier women also were able to run their own settlement homes; one such woman was Jane Addams. African-American women could become shopkeepers and teachers, but complicating their new freedom was the establishment of Jim Crow laws and public lynchings under often false charges. In Ida B. Wells’ autobiography, Crusade for Justice, she described the lynching of friend, Thomas Moss, as “an excuse to get rid of Nergoes who were aquiring wealth and property…keep the race terrorized.” Her testimony, as well as her involement of further investigating the charges brought on by lynching victims, led to her being driven out of Memphis in 1892 (Dubois and Dumenil 314, 316). Sadly, working- and lower-class women were not offered the same opportunities for further advancement in U.S. society. They were sequestered in factory jobs and their stays in settlement homes only provided temporary relief in their situations, though their way of life was respected (Dubois and Dumenil 368-9). In contrast to immigrant women’s education, the education young Native girls received in government-run boarding schools was designed to assimilate them in the dominant American culture given how American felt there was a need for non-Americans to become civilized. For the Native girls, it meant settling into domesticity and receiving harsh punishments—whippings or being tied up—if they “reverted back to their Indian ways” or tried escaping (Dubois and Dumenil 349). To receive funding, Indian boarding schools would present pictures of Native girls before and after their “Americanization.” A pair of photos taken of three young Native girls before and after their assimilation shows their hair being cut, dressed in American clothing, and sitting at a table. The only commonality is the look of sorrow on their faces. Given their low status, it was rare for Native children to progress in society when very few achieved basic English literary skills.
With women having more free time for leisure, there was an expectation of women to be seen as presentable and beautiful when outside of the home. Cosmetics, previously worn by prostitutes, were sold and presented to women as something to cover their flaws, attract future husbands with, set themselves apart from other women, and to set the standards of beauty for other women especially young girls. Further boosting the sale of cosmetics and formation of salons was the monitoring of a woman’s appearance by men and other women, advertisements, the private selling of makeup door to door, and cosmetics expanding to be sold in local drug stores (Peiss 373-4, 378). Wearing makeup and keeping up appearances was an indication of a woman’s wealth and how highly she valued herself. If a woman of lower class was seen without makeup in the public sector, she was deemed as inferior as opposed to middle and working-class women who bought makeup and would wear it while working. During the Progressive era, wealthy women outside the home had the freedom to become philanthropists and activists. One of the most prosperous philanthropists was Madam C.J. Walker, the daughter of slave parents, who acquired wealth and status in the cosmetics industry aimed for African-American women (Dubois and Dumenil 421).
The growth of women wage earners increased during the Progressive Era. By 1920, twenty percent of the workforce was female with over half of the labor consisting of immigrant and/or non-white women. After the Civil War, the profession of nursing was no longer seen as a “domestic service”. Even the profession of teaching evolved to where women could be professors. Despite segregation being enforced in the North and South, black women were able to form their own schools in local communities to educate young children during the professionalization (Dubois and Dumenil 408-9). Despite these changes, women were still expected to become mothers and put aside their professional carriers while the children were young. Immigrant women, wives and daughters, were expected to become wage earners while trying to maintain old world customs. Their way of earning money was through domestic housework for the more leisured White upper-class women. Given the surge in immigration, many lived in cramped and poorly kempt rooms. A photo taken by Jacob Riis for the New York Tribune shows five women staying possibly temporarily in a police station with clothes drying and their only means of furniture and heating is a stove. Riis’s photo reveals the extent of homelessness, collapse of a working-class family, and why many immigrant women and why immigrant women felt the need to contribute a wage for their families (Dubois and Dumenil 392).
With more women working outside of the home, women began to voice their opinions more publicly and politically. The newest wave of the suffragist movement gave middle-class women voices in political settings while drawing attention from the wealthy and working-class women. However, the funding for marches and attention came from the wealthy women’s husbands. During what would be the Women’s Era, women’s organizations such as Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) and National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) granted women voices in politics through demands of fair wages, the establishment of a maximum workweek, and ending child labor (Dubois and Dumenil 286, 309-10). In addition, their alliance would bring more attention to women’s suffrage, especially with an endorsement from Susan B. Anthony and a shift to have women’s votes be amended. Some immigrant women joined the women’s movements under the promise of gaining freedom for themselves, and possibly for their daughters (Dubois and Dumenil 363). Yet no black woman was invited to attend women’s movements and organizations, nor was there Native American women involved in women’s organizations known to have occurred. African-American women had their own organizations, but they were segregated from movements founded by white women.
The change of the American women’s role in life began in the middle of the nineteenth century and continued into the first decades of the twentieth. During that time, women had gained more influence and prominence politically and socially (Dubois and Dumenil 441). However, women were still expected to achieve the goal of motherhood. What differed was now they had the greater possibility of working outside of the home while being a mother or not becoming a mother at all. With vast amounts of freedom, women challenged social expectations while still being expected to maintain a form of decorum and femininity. In the long run, the degree of freedom women had was evident in comparison to the early nineteenth century, but their independence was reliant on their class and race. More opportunities and means of social advancements were available to the privileged and leisured classes, but non-white women were limited in job prospects and faced segregation, discrimination, and violence. In spite of everything, improvements women made paved the way for a new era of women’s rights and liberties.
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