Efficient America: Women, Progressivism, and the New Meaning of Citizenship

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Efficient America: Women, Progressivism, and the New Meaning of Citizenship

The end of the 19th Century brought with it what Woodrow Wilson called, “a new sense of union,” a cease-fire in sectional political strife that ended a century-long conflict in the United States, but the effects of the Industrial Revolution were already ushering in a new kind of domestic debate. This one would be couched in much of the same rhetoric of rights and equality and freedom that characterized the previous conflict, but it would address not the political functions of the American government, but the scope of its economic authority and what it owed the American people by virtue of that authority. A new national obsession with science and efficiency emerged in tandem with this debate, and the old foundations of the republic began to be evaluated by scientific rather than philosophical or religious standards.

Caught in the fray of this conflict were the popular reform movements of the early 20th Century, whose causes came to be viewed in the same economic terms that characterized the major national issues of the day. The women’s movement was among those that exchanged its 19th Century rhetoric of rights based on religion, Enlightenment philosophy, and Constitutional ideals for a platform that emphasized the economic utility of increased rights and a widened sphere for women, and that fell more closely in line with the modern progressive philosophies of pragmatism and scientific rationalism. The emphasis on enhancing national economic productivity by strict scientific divisions of labor, on applying science to the routines of daily life to make it more efficient, more healthy, and more sanitary, changed the meaning of citizenship in America. With the blessings of progressives, the federal government made its first major entrance into the private lives of its citizens—regulating industry, economy, and urban life—and in doing so, became a protector of the people from the tyranny of economic power rather than just political power. A citizen became an economic unit, and productivity became linked with patriotism. Women, it came to be argued, should get the vote and should enter the public sphere not to fulfill their duty as political citizens of the United States who needed representation on the grounds that it was consistent with American political ideology, but to become full economic citizens—more efficient producers and workers within their own sections of the public sphere.

At the end of the 19th Century, the Seneca Falls approach still garnered recognition but was even then giving way to the new arguments for women’s rights.

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