Daniel Rodgers’s Atlantic Crossings: Social Politics in a Progressive Age examines progressivism in Europe and America. Rodgers argues that “American social politics were tied to social political debates and endeavors in Europe through a web of rivalry and exchange.” (5) Looking at the 1870s through the end of World War II, Rodgers examines the origins of transnational politics and the ways they changed throughout the decades, as well as how transnationalism shaped political choices. He finds that it is “the connections between the industrializing countries of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries…that makes the differences between their policy choices historically interesting.” (5)

By the late nineteenth century, the Old World–embodied in Rodgers primarily through Germany and Britain–and New World looked remarkably similar: coal and iron industries were ubiquitous and powerful, “great cities” of over 100,000 inhabitants were springing up, economic revolutions brought new goods into households of all classes, and there was a move toward mass wage labor. The New Atlantic economy of the late nineteenth century encouraged Atlantic-wide politics, and the term “progressive” was given to those who forged new social politics. By the first decade of the twentieth century no political party system within the North Atlantic economy had not been affected by new social politics. Many parties grappled with the “labor question”, the competitiveness of market relations, and the rising populations of great cities. Americans interacted with these originally European ideas through studying abroad, the social gospel movement, the settlement house movement, international conferences, and the press. The economies and states of the North Atlantic embraced laissez faire capitalism, and the responsibility for the well-being of the economy shifted from the state to the marketplace. With the growth of urban populations, many cities in the Untied States attempted to reform their cities and make them safer places in which to live. Municipal reform focused on making cities more sanitary, establishing building codes, conducting dwelling inspections, and breaking up tenement districts. Ultimately, municipal reform in America fell short of what the Progressives wanted, partly due to corruption. Progressives also fought for insurance for workers. The American Association for Labor Legislation (AALL) was established in 1900 and fought for tighter factory legislation, and the National Consumers’ League fought to raise the standards of women’s undergarment trade. With the outbreak of World War I, emergency war measures posed challenges to Progressives on both sides of the Atlantic. Many Progressives wanted to retain certain aspects of the war economy after the war ended, including the perpetuation of wartime public employment service, the completion of war housing projects, and soldiers’ and sailors’ insurance. After the war, many Progressives chose to focus their efforts on the countryside and the effects of poverty on rural agriculture. Prior to World War I, the United States had borrowed more ideas from Europe than Europe had borrowed from the Untied States. But the end of the war brought the advent of Fordism and European markets were flooded with American goods, and Europe began to borrow American ideas. The Great Depression, notes Rodgers, was a triumph for labor and the New Deal was the height of progressivism in America. Progressives successfully pushed through many innovations, including Social Security, and helped funnel money into rural agriculture. Following the end of World War II, Europe dealt with a severe economic downturn, while America prospered. Ultimately Americans chose to embrace the notion of American exceptionalism rather than progressivism after World War II.

Linda Gordon, in Heroes of Their Own Lives: The Politics and History of Family Violence, Boston 1880-1960, uses Boston as a case study through which to study how Boston-area social work agencies dealt with family violence in the years from 1880 through 1960. Gordon identifies four kinds of family violence: cruelty to children, child neglect, sexual abuse of children, and wife-beating. Using the case records from the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (MSPCC), Boston Children’s Service Association (BCSA), and Judge Baker Guidance Center (JBGC), Gordon argues that family violence is a historical and political construction, and the definition of domestic violence and appropriate responses to it shift according to contemporary politics. Additionally, Gordon finds that domestic violence must be understood as part and parcel of family politics.

Gordon begins her case study in the 1880s, when child protection grew out of larger child-saving charitable activities that formed part of the upper-class reform movement. From the 1880s through the 1900s, the main efforts of MSPCC and BCSA were to establish themselves as credible agencies of support and to identify cruelty to children. MSPCC case workers spent much of their time in the streets and calling upon families in their homes. MSPCC gained the authority to arrange adoptions, cild support, custody, and guardianship agreements. In exercising these new rights, the MSPCC challenged patriarchal relations. Agents tended to blame the mistreatment of children on the “depravity” of “inferior” nationalities. Between 1900 and 1920, child protection changed in response to and along with the Progressive movement. Social and charity work professionalized as a field, and the new methodology of casework was instituted and employed. Caseworkers chose to focus more heavily on child neglect rather than abuse, and mother-blaming became more prevalent. Workers sought to rehabilitate families into their traditional organization rather than working to reform the families themselves. During the Progressive Era, single mothers were viewed as a social problem: they were overrepresented in family violence cases–single mothers headed one quarter of all households Gordon studied–and had the greatest difficulty in conforming to the ideals of domesticity. Child protectors identified four main problems connected with single mothers: desertion, illegitimacy, women’s employment, and mothers’ pensions. The most common type of family violence throughout Gordon’s frame of study was child neglect. Difficult to define because of its ambiguity, neglect cases generally fell into one of two categories: physical neglect or moral neglect. World War I escalated child-welfare activism and hastened the feminization of child protection work. During the Depression and World War II, child protectors emphasized physical neglect at the expense of other forms of family violence. Child abuse, on the other hand, was precipitated by either punishment, children’s labor, misbehavior, adolescence, prejudice, or being an unwanted child. Gordon’s chapter on incest is particularly fascinating, and Gordon emphasizes how incest victims were characterized, oftentimes blamed, and seen as “ruined” and capable of “polluting” other girls. Instead of focusing on fathers initiating and perpetuating incest, child protection agencies instead focused on attacks perpetrated by strangers and “dirty old men.” Gordon ends her case study by examining battered women and the various ways in which they resisted their abusers, including threatening to leave, responding to violence with violence, or defending themselves with a weapon. Agencies typically avoided intervening between husbands and wives, although many battered wives sought out help from the agencies when their informal networks of family and neighbors could not protect them.

In Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate over Science and Religion, Edward Larson provides a narrative history of the intersection of science and religion and their culmination during the Scopes trial. In the early twentieth century, theories of evolution gained more traction in America, and the ideas of Lamarck, Cuvier, and most importantly, Darwin, were taught in public schools. All four strands of fundamentalist Christianity rejected the teaching of evolution in schools, and believed that Modernism was the culprit. Williams Jennings Bryan opposed Darwinian ideas of evolution as well as students learning such theories in public schools. Beginning in 1921 with Kentucky, states began banned teaching evolution in schools. The American Civil Liberties Union viewed Tennessee’s statutes banning evolution in public schools as a threat to liberty and freedom, particularly to free speech. The ACLU advertised for a teacher to test the Tennessee law, and Scopes was chosen to be that teacher. The ACLU only wanted to test the constitutionality of Tennessee’s statute, but when William Jennings Bryan was hired for the prosecution, the potential impact of the outcome of the case changed completely. Clarence Darrow was hired to defend Scopes, and he described the case to the press as honest science versus fundamentalism. The middle chapters of Larson’s work are dedicated to narrating the events of the trial. Ultimately, Scopes was found guilty and issued a ten-dollar fine. Newspapers portrayed Darrow as a mean agnostic and Bryan as an ignorant fundamentalist. Following Bryan’s death, he was mythologized for his role in the Scopes trial. Scopes moved away from Dayton, Tennessee in an attempt to regain privacy. In the South, the Scopes trial became a symbol of pride, while in the North it weakened anti-evolution sentiments. In the 1960s, high courts began overturning laws that barred the teaching of evolution in public schools, and the memory of the Scopes case continued to be prominent in numerous cases in the later decades of the twentieth century.

Discussion questions

  1. What forms did reform take in Rodgers, Gordon, and Larson?
  2. Which reforms had the longest lasting impact on American society, and why?
  3. What are the central conflicts of power in each of these works? How do those conflicts of power affect the resulting reforms?
  4. Which author had the most sophisticated writing style? Which author’s writing style was most effective in getting his/her argument across to the reader?

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