How significant was the Progressive Era for Oregon’s women?
One way to answer that question is note the huge effort put forth by those in power to try to stop it.
“Our sense of their struggle can be informed by the backlash against them,” said Kimberly Jensen, professor of history at Western Oregon University, Monday evening to a crowd of about 150 people at McMenamins Kennedy School in Northeast Portland.
Jensen’s presentation was part of the History 101 project, sponsored by the Oregon Historical Society with help from McMenamins. Her talk was titled “Social Movements, Citizenship and Civil Liberties: Oregon Women and Progressive Era Reform and Reaction, 1890 to World War I.”
Her presentation touched a wide variety of circumstances that combined to create the ideas and the change that came out of the era. Among them were suffrage, the increase in diversity of the population of the state, Oregon’s initiative and referendum system, and the importance of women entering the workplace.
Not every movement was successful. But that’s not the most important thing, Jensen said.
“The era needs to measured not by accomplishments but the ways in which people wanted to bring about the changes,” she told a group that relaxed in the Kennedy School theater.
Earlier, she had delivered that same message in a different way. She showed the group an old political cartoon of a woman trying to climb a ladder while two demons – one labeled injustice and one labeled prejudice – jabbed at her and tried to impede her climb toward “progress.”
“This is a very important image to keep in mind,” Jensen said of the cartoon. “We know that the dream did not come true but there are many people who believed that the dream might be possible.”
While the initiative and referendum system has a bit of “checkered past,” it played a very important role during the Progressive Era, she said. For example, the effort to give women the vote went to the ballot five times before finally passing in 1912 with 52 percent of the vote.
What was important about the system was that “It was a way of empowering people. Women’s suffrage was the first big test of the initiative and referendum system.”
Making waves also made sure that those in power would watch closely and do what they could to stop those wanting change. Jensen cited several examples in which the traditional power structure did what it could to keep women in their place, whether it was to defame them, jail them or even physically harm them.
Despite setbacks, women of the era continued to push back against tradition. For example, she said, after years of women being unrepresented in electoral office, 56 women sought statewide office across all parties between 1914 and 1920.
She talked about African American women such as Hattie Redmond and Lizzie Weeks and Asian women who pushed for the vote and representation – and about Native American women, who were for years denied citizenship.
And Jensen discussed the increase in the number women’s organizations, which often banded together to push for change, whether it was in health care, education or workers’ rights.
There were some specific incidents that were benchmarks of the era. Among them was an appearance in Portland in June of 1916 by Margaret Sanger, controversial because of her advocacy of birth control. Sanger had been in Portland several days when she was taken into custody on June 29, 1916.
Sanger was arrested with three other women because they were advocating for something that went against what those in power, people like Mayor Russell Albee, believed in. At the time, the term was “family limitation,” which was considered obscene.
The arrest became national news and illustrates, Jensen said, the impact that the Progressives were having in Oregon and elsewhere.
Near the end of her presentation, she projected a copy of a letter written by Elva Calkins, a Portland homemaker, to Mayor Albee. In it, Calkins challenges the mayor’s right to arrest Sanger, points out that she is a voter, asks how he thinks he could know what it was like to be a woman and writes that he can’t tell her what to do with her body.
What was significant about the letter, Jensen said, is that Calkins would feel empowered enough to write it.
That alone, she suggested, was a sign that times were changing.