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The Story of Progress: Women, African Americans and Industrial Workers from 1865 to 1938

The history of the United States is a story of progress. Over a relatively short period of time, the country passed almost all stages of growth and decline to create equally favorable life conditions for all population groups. The period between 1865 and 1938 in America was marked with numerous successes and failures. From the remarkable victory in the Civil War of 1865 to the growing global political tensions just before the Second World War, the country succeeded in strengthening its economic, social, and cultural position nationally and internationally. Certainly, the road to democracy was not smooth. Women, African Americans, and industrial workers faced considerable challenges on their way to better life. Despite the considerable difficulties surrounding the life of Americans in 1865-1938, women, African Americans, and industrial workers made a substantial progress towards equality, justice, and the legal protection of their fundamental rights.

The life of Americans between 1865 and 1938 was surrounded by difficulty. However, it was also related to numerous positive shifts. Since the end of the Civil War of 1861-1865, the American nation had been struggling to improve the lives of its people. With the growing diversity of the U.S. population, the country was troubled to address the needs of different social groups. Among others, women, African Americans, and industrial workers were bound to comply with the norms, traditions, and behavioral patterns that the American society imposed on them. However, they were also determined to break the established discrimination patterns and increase their presence in the social, political, economic, and cultural life of America. The period between 1865 and 1938 resulted in a series of dramatic transformations, which empowered women, African Americans, and industrial workers to become more powerful players of the American socioeconomic landscape. Yet, before that happened, all of them were fated to live through numerous failures and sorrows, which only made them stronger.

Speaking about women, their lives between 1865 and 1938 were not easy. Since the end of the Civil War, women had been struggling to acquire a better and more pronounced role in all political, social, and cultural affairs in the U.S. For years, suffrage had been the key concern articulated by American women. Beyond voting rights, women also wanted to have more decision making power and expand their regular presence beyond their households. The beginning of the 20th century, which coincided with the industrialization of unprecedented scale and magnitude, opened new venues for the professional, career, and personal self-realization of women. Between 1870 and 1900, the number of women participating in the national labor force outside their homes almost tripled. That was the time which, in the words of Mary Elizabeth Lease, was grand and wonderful for the country and its people. It irradiated huge hopes for a better future, encouraged women to break the outdated beliefs and traditions, and presented them as mighty warriors and full participants of the nation’s politics. Yet, it would be wrong to believe that women’s way to self-empowerment was plain and uninterrupted.

Between 1865 and 1938, women found themselves in a troubling position. During the First World War, their call for equality became much louder. However, beyond gaining the right to vote, the wartime did little to improve women’s social and economic position in America. At the end of the 1920s as the Great Depression was looming ahead, women experienced a serious decline in feminist activism. Many of them were blamed for defining liberation and equal-rights ideals in communist terms. Nevertheless, even though women failed to achieve all their goals, their position was incomparably stronger compared with that at the end of the Civil War. During a relatively short period of time, women succeeded in making a substantial progress towards equality and justice in America. Similar successes made by African American activists greatly contributed to women’s social position in the American society.

The lives of African Americans at the end of the Civil War could hardly be described in positive colors. The rise of the nationalist moods created a huge barrier on the way of racial minorities towards equality and justice. Violence against Blacks persisted. The Ku Klux Klan represented the triumph of the white supremacy, which transcended all aspects of life in America at that time. Elias Hill, a black teacher and preacher from York County, South Carolina, shared his experiences of the encounter with the Ku Klux Klan. The violent offenders who came to his house in the middle of the night demanded that the man quit preaching to preserve his life. That was just one of the many examples of discrimination African Americans were destined to experience because of their race. Lynching was a pervasive reality for them. However, those sufferings empowered African Americans to become more decisive in their struggle for equality. By the end of the 1930s, they would have everything they needed to translate their achievements into greater social power.

The period between 1865 and 1938 gave birth to numerous prominent black leaders. Those leaders shaped a new atmosphere of activism in all parts of the U.S. Booker T. Washington gained prominence with his decisiveness to change the nature of racial relations in America. He said, “the wisest among my race understand that the agitation of questions of social equality is the extremest folly, and that progress in the enjoyment of all the privileges that will come to us must be the result of severe and constant struggle.” By the end of the 1930s, African Americans would still be in the middle of their road to equality, but their position would have been much stronger than in 1865. A couple of decades later, they would have celebrated the victory of democracy and justice with the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Meanwhile, their fight for democracy continued, turning them into equal members of the multicultural society in the U.S.

Here, the story of industrial workers between 1865 and 1938 deserves particular attention. At all times and under all leaders, Americans praised hard work. Unfortunately, for the most time, industrial workers took an inferior social and political position against their employers. They could not enjoy the financial and social benefits promised by the industrialization and the rapid growth of corporations at the beginning of the 20th century. At the end of the 1800s, the demand for unskilled labor rapidly increased. However, most workers received little or no protection against the perilous hazards of the technology-dominated workplace. As Henry Demarest Lloyd said, ordinary workers in America were too poor to provide even for their basic needs. The spirit of liberty was wandering across America, making it wealthier but promised little to the workers, who stood at the very front of the country’s economic progress. Industrial giants, monopolists, and business owners acted like barbarians, gradually destroying the existing system from within. Simultaneously, employees in the U.S. were among the first to taste the advantages of legal protection at the federal scale. The period between 1865 and 1938 witnessed the emergence of a new image of the factory worker, whose rights were legally protected by the government.

The progressive movement at the beginning of the 20th century set the pace of the new movement to protect worker rights. The creation of labor unions marked the emergence of a new, collective worker identity that had to secure employees from the risks of further discrimination and workplace abuse. Certainly, not everyone readily accepted the value of labor unions in protecting employee rights. While some appreciated the new opportunity to protect workers, others perceived it as the greatest menace to the social stability and economic growth in America. Nevertheless, the New Deal Era saw the implementation of numerous laws and reforms, which substantially improved the socioeconomic and political position of workers, providing them with decent salaries, comprehensive social benefits, and a greater voice in policy decisions. Even though their status was far from ideal, by the end of the 1930s most workers knew that they would continue their movement towards equality to create a better future for themselves and their children.

To conclude, the period between 1865 and 1938 was one of the most difficult ones in the history of the U.S. It was full of falls and upheavals. Despite the controversies surrounding the historical development at that time, almost all population groups in the U.S. succeeded in improving their social, economic, and political standing. Women, African Americans, and industrial workers were able to make a tangible progress towards equality, justice, and effective legal protection of their basic rights. Women won the right to vote and started to enjoy greater presence in all areas of social life in America. African Americans were able to overcome the challenges of open discrimination and used the emerging opportunities to set a new political agenda of equality in the U.S. Industrial workers witnessed an unprecedented evolution of employment legislation aimed to protect them from the major workplace hazards. Even though the status of all those groups was far from desirable, by the end of the 1930s they acquired enough power and strength to continue their struggle for equity.

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