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Progressivism, pt 1: women's roles

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Interviewer: Women play a central role in your account of the Progressive period. In what ways were their efforts significant in Progressivism?

Eric Foner: The Progressive movement was a widely based, large-scale movement of all sorts of people: men and women, laborers, middle-class reformers, and intellectuals aiming to reform politics, democratize politics, and bring the power of the giant corporations under greater control. Even though they couldn't vote in most states at this point, the early twentieth century, women played a major role in Progressivism. Settlement houses were established in cities by women like Jane Addams, pioneer of all sorts of social services for poor immigrant families. Women moved to press local and state governments for laws regulating housing and laboring conditions. It was women who were in the forefront of these laws, in particular maternal welfare laws, laws to assist mothers in taking care of and supporting their children. Women were very active in labor organizing in this period. And of course the women's suffrage movement reached its peak during the Progressive era. So women were playing very active roles in the politics of the first two decades of the twentieth century.

Progressivism, pt 2: impact on American democracy

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Interviewer: In what ways did Progressivism both expand and contract in American democracy?

Eric Foner: Progressivism is a very contradictory movement, or set of movements. It's very hard to pin down exactly what its effect on democracy was. On the one hand, the Progressives claimed that they were rescuing democracy from control by political bosses, by big business. They introduced many measures to give power back to the people: the initiative that ordinary citizens could propose the laws, the referendum that citizens could vote on laws, the idea that citizens could vote people into office and vote them out. The popular election of senators went through at this time. Previously, state legislators had chosen the U.S. legislators, but now they were elected by the popular vote in direct primaries to choose the candidates. All these things were meant to empower ordinary citizens in a political system. On the other hand, this was also an era when blacks lost their right to vote in the South. When there was increasing concern with the quality of the citizenry, people were pushed out. The Progressive era saw the sterilization of large numbers of mentally retarded people to try to improve the nature of American citizenry. It saw a lot of opposition to mass immigration because of fears that immigrants were coming in who were not really capable of operating in American democratic society. So you had these two impulses expanding democratic political power and restricting the number of people who actually could exercise that power.

Progressivism, pt 3: battles over freedom

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Interviewer: You write that the Progressive Era battles over the right to strike and over the rights of public speech "laid the foundation for the rise of civil liberties as a central component of freedom in twentieth-century America." Could you expand on that?

Eric Foner: Even though the Bill of Rights is in our Constitution, and has been since 1791, in fact, at the turn of the twentieth century there were numerous restrictions of freedom of expression. Many communities would not let labor unions picket, would not let them distribute literature; there were many communities where you could not get up and give a speech in public, unless the mayor approved the speech in advance. That's not what we consider freedom of speech. There were laws against anarchists, there were laws against radicals, there were laws against birth control advocates. In New York City, Margaret Sanger was put in jail for distributing scientific information about human reproduction, because birth control was illegal, and any talk about it was illegal.

These battles in the Progressive Era over the right to speak made people much more aware of the need for defense of civil liberties than they had been in the past. Out in the West, the IWW—the Industrial Workers of the World—fought against these laws making it illegal to give a public speech. They would have these rallies where people would get up in a public square, like in San Diego, or Seattle, or towns like that, and start speaking. They'd be arrested, because they didn't have a permit from the mayor. As soon as one was arrested, another guy would get up and speak; he'd be arrested. They would flood the jails with people arrested simply for giving a speech. And, eventually, they triumphed. These conflicts made public opinion much more aware of the fact that freedom of speech was not universally respected in the United States, and put the issue of civil liberties on the political agenda in a way it hadn't been before.

American consumerism

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Interviewer: How did the freedom to choose and buy—consumer freedom—become a part of the American freedom industry?

Eric Foner: Consumerism, in a certain sense, had been present for a long, long time in American society, even back at some points in the colonial era. But in the first part of the twentieth century it really reached a new stage with the rise of mass production of consumer goods. The economy was shifting from heavy industry to production of consumer goods, cars, clothing, all sorts of household appliances, the rise of new department stores where all these goods were being sold in many other ways, marketing, Sears Roebuck catalogs, mass advertising. All these things were making mass consumption the hallmark of American economic life. And along with all that came a shift in the definition of economic freedom. People were still talking about economic autonomy, about power in the workplace, but increasingly they were also speaking about the ability to consume, the ability to choose in the marketplace from the cornucopia of goods being poured out by American industry. So consumer freedom, the ability to choose among the various goods available, became a hallmark of freedom and remained so all the way up to the present day in the United States.

Fight for birth control

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Interviewer: Can you talk a little bit about Margaret Sanger and the beginning of birth control?

Eric Foner: Margaret Sanger is one of the great, intrepid women of this era; she fought very hard for (a) the right to freedom of speech, and (b) access to birth control for women. At this time, it was illegal to talk about birth control, to send birth control information through the mail, to have a clinic giving out information about birth control. Sanger was arrested a number of times; she was even jailed. But she kept fighting for the principle that women should have the right to determine their own physical future, their own child-rearing. Birth control, she said, was central to women's freedom. Without the ability to determine when and whether to have children, women could never be free, she said. So Sanger was one of those who were pushing the idea of freedom into private life, personal life, not the public definition of freedom but freedom in your own home to determine your own course of action. She was one of those who were claiming such self-determination as an element of freedom.

Spiritual belief in the environmental movement

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Interviewer: You explore the role of spiritual belief in the environmental movement, especially in the career of the pioneer conservationist John Muir. Would you comment on that?

Eric Foner: John Muir was the founder of the Sierra Club, which was one of the earliest—and it still exists—organizations for protecting the natural environment. Muir had an interesting career because as a young man he was almost blinded in an industrial accident. And when his eyesight recovered it gave him a greater appreciation of the beauty of the natural world, which he thought at one point he would never see again. He was a sort of spiritual man and he began to feel that the way to think about nature was not just in scientific terms, or not even in terms of aesthetic beauty but as a divine creation. "Nature is god’s kingdom," he said. And the way to appreciate god’s work was through the appreciation and preservation of the natural environment.

And so, he imbued conservationism, which he was not the only founder of, with this very spiritual sense of man’s relationship to nature being akin to man’s relationship to god. This added a religious underpinning to what had always been—you could go back fifty years before Muir to Thoreau, who also of course said that people should cherish nature, though not in quite the same religious vein.

I think Muir added an important dimension to how people thought about and related to the natural environment in the early 20th century when the conservation movement really became a significant part of American political life.