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Laywomen Reformers in the Progressive Era

When one envisions women reformers of the Progressive Era, movement leaders come to mind; women who established settlement houses, like Ellen Gates Starr and Jane Addams, or those who advocated for a women’s right to vote, like Alice Paul. These women were inspired by their religious beliefs and the principles of the Social Gospel which originated in Victorian Britain and contributed to the third Great Awakening of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when evangelical Protestants sought to transform America into a “city on a hill,” an earthly Kingdom of Heaven through social action and moral campaigns. They worked within and against existing governmental structures to advocate for legislative changes for the betterment of society. These women sought socio-political and socio-economic changes to reform society to create a more just and equal America. Catholic women, like Agnes Regan and Dorothy Day sought socio-political and socio-religious reformation and employed some of the same methods as traditional reformers and Progressives, but they have either been excluded by scholars who write about women reformers or have even been referred to by historians of the mid-twentieth century as anti-Reformers.

The question, then, is why have Protestant women been readily identified by historians as reformers, while Catholic women have not. What is it about the work that each accomplished, that included, in the case of Ellen Gates Starr and Jane Addams, or precluded, in the case of Dorothy Day and Agnes Regan, them from being identified as Progressive Era reformers?This review will compare and contrast the approach of four scholars who focus on reformers of the Progressive Era: Deborah Skok, who presents a “state of the field” study of Catholic laywomen and Progressive Era reform; Mina Carson, who provides a cultural history of the origins of the Social Gospel, its influence on the settlement house movement, and the important contributions that Ellen Gates Starr and Jane Addams made as reformers and social workers; John McGreevy, who acknowledges the contributions made by individual Catholics, like Agnes Regan and Dorothy Day, in socio-political and socio-religious reform; and Nancy L. Roberts, who argues that Dorothy Day was most definitely a reformer through her study of the alternative journalism of the Catholic Worker newspaper.

Deborah Skok, Associate Professor of History at Hendrix College, Arkansas argues that the scholarship surrounding Catholic laywomen is incomplete in her article, “The Historiography of Catholic Laywomen and Progressive Era Reform.” She acknowledges that although many historians have written about Catholic laywomen of the Progressive Era, more scholarship is needed to bring these women to light. Skok further argues that Catholic lay women have historically been defined as anti-Reformers, who tended to be more socially conservative and constrained by Catholic clergy and the hierarchy, while Protestant women have been more readily categorized as Reformers, who, following the principles of the Social Gospel, advocated for reform at all levels of government.

Skok tracks the trends evident in this field of study noting that early works, like in Richard Hofstadter’s Age of Reform, in which he “defined Progressive reformers as old-stock Yankee Protestants” and quotes from Allen Davis’ classic, Spearhead for Reformwhich focused on Progressive women, especially those involved in the settlement house movement, and noted that he dismissed “the Catholic settlements in particular as ‘more like missions than settlement houses’,” he further argued that they ‘contributed very little to social reform’.”[1]Skok defines reformers as those who worked for political change within existing governmental structures. She notes that Catholic lay women advocated for welfare reforms, and a minimum wage, but argued that “compared to non-Catholic women, Catholic laywomen appear to have been more dependent on men – especially politicians and liberal bishops – for the survival of their institutions, for their reform work, and for their roles in government.”[2]

She argues that “by the 1970s and 1980s mainstream scholars demonstrated increasing skepticism that there even was such a thing as a unified Progressive Movement, which ultimately helped to make room for the inclusion of people from nondominant groups as reformers in their own right.”[3]This deconstructionist view of the Progressive Movement helped to change the narrative from ‘old stock Yankee Protestants’ verses traditional ‘Catholic corrupt political bosses,’ and helped scholars map out a more comprehensive history of Catholic laywomen and the reforms and campaigns they championed. As the institutional Catholic Church grew in the United States, laywomen were involved in temperance movements, as public-school teachers, suffrage and anti-suffrage activists, writers and editors of Catholic publications, and even as settlement house workers.[4]

Modern Catholic historians are beginning to bring these women reformers into the mainstream narrative about American history. Skok cites James Kenneally’s scholarship in The History of American Catholic Womenin which he stressed the contributions made by Catholic women through their participation in organizations such as the Catholic Lay Congress and the National Council of Catholic Women.[5]Influential women, such as Agnes Regan, who in 1923 spoke before Congress to champion an amendment to the constitution banning child labor, was supported by liberal clergymen like Rev. John A. Ryan.[6] Since the advent of women’s studies, more scholars are paying attention to these Catholic women, and their contributions are being studied. Skok argues that more work is needed in this field where Catholic women are often ignored by mainstream scholars.

Mina Carson, a professor of history at Oregon State University, traces the origins of the American settlement house movement from Victorian Britain, which interpreted poverty as a failure to transmit the positive values of Christianity to those who were affected. In Settlement Folk: Social Thought and the American Settlement Movement, 1885-1930, she argues that it was Protestant women like Ellen Gates Starr, Jane Addams and others, were pioneers in the field of social work and served as reformers because of their commitment to the principles of the Social Gospel. She confirms the conventional view put forth by Skok, that historians have primarily characterized Protestant women as reformers while ignoring the contributions made by Catholic women to the settlement house movement and socio-political reform.

The settlement house movement, imported from Britain, and spearheaded by middle- and upper-class women in the United States, was designed to bring the rich and poor of society together in social connectedness and physical proximity. These houses provided services for immigrants and their native neighbors alike, and included day care, educational opportunities, and healthcare. They were intended to improve the lives of the poor, share knowledge of the culture and advocate for the alleviation of poverty conditions through minimum wage campaigns, anti-child labor laws, immigration policy and improved living and working conditions. Arguably the most well-known settlement house, Hull House, offered equally beneficial advantages for the middle- and upper-class women who came to live and work within the House as they did for the poor women served. These women received “great personal autonomy, an active role in pursuing a personal life, personal fellowship which had often been experienced in college,” in short, freedom and empowerment. Carson argues that this idea was doubled sided:

On the one hand, it was part of an assertion of human brotherhood and spiritual equality: one aspect of the beneficent humanitarianism of the nineteenth century, pointing toward increasing political and social democracy. On the other hand, the organic metaphor offered a kind of license to philanthropists and politicians to exercise far-reaching social control over those large and threatening segments of society outside the pale of the moral law and social codes that nominally governed the behavior of the middle and upper classes.[7]

Carson downplays the influence of any religious affiliation for the founders of Hull House, Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr, although she recognized that they were most definitely influenced by the Social Gospel. Like other Americans involved in the settlement house movement, they shied away from a fixed program of cultural or religious mission.[8]As Skok noted, Catholic settlement houses had been identified as places of “mission” and settlement house founders purposefully avoided this distinction. Carson notes that Churches were “suspicious of these ‘secular missionaries’ who eschewed religious teaching and practice because of the risk of alienating communicants of other faiths.”[9]

Carson argues that settlement house workers lived with and among the poor in order to understand the environmental, economic, and political causes for this poverty. They established face to face relationships with the poor which were based on mutual trust and support. They sought to counter the prevailing societal assumptions which blamed the conditions of poverty on the poor themselves. They had three related goals in entering city politics; to secure the sympathy of city officials, encourage democratic participation amongst their neighbors, and to counter the corruption they encountered in the political machine.[10]Settlement house workers used “the new social scientific approach to social problems that stressed the empirical investigation of living and working conditions and carried in its wake and emphasis on the environmental causes of poverty.”[11]Additionally, these women “held positions of genuine equality with men in leading the movement and became influential spokesmen on public issues that had previously been the domain of men.”[12]Carson argues that this is the area in which the settlement house had the greatest impact; in the empowerment of these upper- and middle-class women.[13]

John T. McGreevy, professor of history at Notre Dame University, argued in Catholicism and American Freedom, that, like their Protestant counterparts, Catholic women had become concerned with the social question in the late nineteenth century, but that their response was a spiritual, rather than, a political response. Contrary to reformers who approached the problem of poverty from a scientific point of view and used empirical evidence as a means to advocate for reforms, Catholics responded from a standpoint of communal morality and responsibility. They witnessed the suffering of industrial workers and responded by establishing private charities, like those established by the laity, St. Vincent de Paul Society and Catholic Worker Houses, which attempted to ameliorate suffering.[14]In addition, he notes that “Catholic laywomen began a modest settlement movement in various locations across the country” and had established a system of hospitals, orphanages and schools in collaboration with religious orders, which by 1920, ninety thousand women served in, or had established as a way to help the poor, immigrant and minority communities of the United States.[15]

As Carson noted, generally, some Protestants attributed the conditions of those living in poverty to the individual, although settlement house workers acknowledged the environmental factors at play. McGreevy argued that Catholics held the opposite view and recognized that there were larger societal problems that were the source of this inequality. Shifting political, economic and social conditions for those of Europe and the United States, which were precipitated by the Industrial Revolution, necessitated revised teachings by the churches. Whereas Protestant theologians had proposed and promulgated the Social Gospel; Catholic theologians, at roughly the same time, began putting forth what would become the principles of Catholic Social Teaching. The foundational document of the social justice doctrine of the Catholic Church was first put forth by Pope Leo XIII in Rerum Novarumof 1891. In this document, Leo highlighted five key issues of the day: the role of the state, the worker’s right to a just wage, private property, the right of the Church to speak on social issues, and the importance of workers’ associations. All of these issues had surfaced as a result of the Industrial Revolution where workers were seen as merely commodities to be used in order to enrich industrial capitalists. This document was not only influential for the content, but also for the deductive methods Pope Leo XIII used to arrive at his conclusions which were used to counter the forces of modernity.

Some Catholics sought reforms through political systems and others through social reforms. McGreevy argues that “the Democratic party remained an unlikely vehicle for Catholic reform” but that there was a shift, and social welfare reforms were enacted by New York state Democratic assemblyman and later governor, Al Smith in the early 1920s until a wave of anti-Catholic sentiment that swept through America in the 1920s impacted the Democratic party and Catholic political influence. Oregon state enacted laws which prevented Catholics from enrolling in parochial schools and a rise in Ku Klux Klan anti-Catholicism was evidenced in most of the country.[16]He notes that “sympathy for Catholics” rose out of a more “tolerant American intelligentsia” which produced a Catholic liberal alliance by the 1930s.[17]Although Catholics disagreed with many social issues, they agreed that a liberal economic system based on laissez faire principles was bad for society. He notes that philosophical differences did not prevent political cooperation between Catholics and others. As “Father John A. Ryan explained to a group of New York social workers, ‘Since we are all working for the common good, we should aim to emphasize those elements that are common in our social doctrines, and to minimize all differences that are not based on essential principles.’”[18]

In addition to Al Smith and Father John A. Ryan, McGreevy argues that women, such as Dorothy Day and Agnes Regan, were reformers as well. Day approached social problems from a moralistic standpoint and took collective responsibility for the plight of the poor. McGreevy acknowledges that this approach, which was used by the Catholic Worker movement is contrary to Father Ryan’s more political approach when he advocated for more government assistance and programs for the poor.[19]Day specialized in writing about “the human costs of unemployment, poverty and despair” with the purpose of personal transformation.[20]She and other Catholic Workers focused their coverage on labor issues and sympathetic coverage of the strikes to raise awareness and encourage economic reforms. In the first issue of the Catholic Worker newspaper, she chose to print, verbatim, Pope Pius XI’s encyclical Quadragesimo Anno, written forty years after, Rerum Novarum, which “stressed that ‘the right ordering of economic life cannot be left to a free competition of forces. For from this source, as from a poisoned spring, have originated and spread all the errors of individualistic economic teaching’.”[21]Day regularly wrote about and advocated for cooperation between workers and employers and for improved labor policies and conditions.

McGreevy explained that Catholics were committed to the immutable laws of God and maintaining tradition gendered roles. He argued that even liberal Catholics like, Fr. Ryan upheld “a family ideal” which remained at the heart of Catholic social thought. He advocated for just wages for male workers because it was “imperative that the wife and mother should not engage in any labor except that of the household.”[22]When Alice Paul and the National Women’s Party demanded an end to legislative which restricted women from working outside the home and advocated for an Equal Rights Amendment, Agnes Regan, representing the National Conference of Catholic Women, responded before a congressional committee. She said, “To demand identical rights for men and women is absolutely unreasonable…The differences of function – the result of natural law – imply essential differences in rights and duties. The preservation of these rights justifies special legislation.”[23]

McGreevy argues that the fundamental difference between Catholic and non-Catholic reformers was that, “the Catholic vision of social reform, unlike the dominant non-Catholic alternative, saw no connection between social reform and individual autonomy. Employers should pay a living wage because it was just, John A. Ryan explained, and because such an ideal derived from the ‘received doctrines of the Church’.”[24]Protestants, according to Catholics, relied on a ‘perverse individualism’ which allowed rich and powerful men to do as they please. Catholic reformers then, had a strange dichotomy in their beliefs which led them to favor “the minimum wage andbarriers divorce, economic planning andfilm censorship.”[25]McGreevy argues that many viewed Catholic believes as incompatible with democratic principles of freedom and liberty. These inconsistencies, characterized by economic and social conservativism, perhaps explains why Catholics were precluded from being considered reformers by mainstream historians of the mid-twentieth century.

Nancy L. Roberts, professor of communication and journalism, argues in her comprehensive work, Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker,that the newspaper’s impact; a revolutionary union of compassionate social justice and peace work, blended with Day’s unfailing devotion to Catholicism, made a lasting impact. Through her study, Roberts argues that the Catholic Worker movement has influenced both Catholic and secular leaders, especially those involved in peace and justice work, and that Day’s movement through times of struggle and hostility, to its message of “love in action” has challenged several generations of American Catholics and non-Catholics to securitize their own commitment to peace and social justice.[26]Although Roberts does not call Day a “reformer,” it is clear that in her scholarship, she characterizes her as such.

Working outside the structures of the hierarchy, Catholic Workers maintained that the actions they took, which were often contrary to Church teaching and/or established norms, were those of “individual Catholics” as opposed to those representing the Church. However, as is so often true, the contributions made by Day were not recognized until many years after her activism and three years following her death when, as an example, in 1983, the United States Bishop’s Conference published a pastoral letter, “The Challenge of Peace,” in which they condemned the use of nuclear weapons as immoral. Roberts notes that Day’s influence is explicit in the document:

In the twentieth century, prescinding from the non-Christian witness of a Mahatma Gandhi and its worldwide impact, the nonviolent witness of such figures as Dorothy Day and Martin Luther King has had profound impact upon the life of the Church in the United States. The witness of numerous Christians who had preceded them over the centuries was affirmed in a remarkable way at the Second Vatican Council. (#117)

Day used her skills as a journalist, and radical compassion for the “least of these” to influence people. Roberts’ argues that Day was “firmly committed to effecting social change through her journalism.”[27]She sought to use her platform which reached a circulation of 190,000 at its height in March 1938, to awaken people not only to the plight of the worker, but also to their own spiritual condition.[28]She was purposeful about not chiding the Church for what it taught, only for failing to uphold the teaching.[29]Consequently, Day was banned from some parishes and faced criticism from secular and religious sources.

Roberts argues that the muckraking qualities of her journalism in which she wrote about the conditions of Arkansas sharecroppers, labor movements of the 1930s and labor priest, Rev. Stephen Kazincy, the Republic Steel Massacre, were aimed to “announce” not “denounce.” She notes that her journalism even came to the attention of Eleanor Roosevelt, who herself was a socially concerned author.[30]In addition to attempting to bring these issues to light, Day sought to challenge people to conversion, as she herself had experienced conversion because she knew that conversion provided purpose for individuals and stamped out the compliancy that allowed the abject poverty experienced during the Great Depression.

Roberts’ argues that Day rejected feminism and accepted a subordinate position to men, as a result of her traditional Catholic beliefs. Dorothy believed that it was “man’s job to argue and talk; women’s job to serve and administer,” this was why the partnership between Dorothy Day and, co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, Peter Maurin, was so fruitful.[31]Maurin gave Day creditability and opened doors for her. When she met Peter Maurin, Day said that, “he gave me ‘a way of life and instruction’.”[32]Over twelve million people were unemployed and thousands in New York City could not afford rent, food or clothing. He was a lifelong Catholic, who had been part of a religious order in France before his arrival in America. Dorothy was a radical, one who spoke truth to power and challenged the authority of the hierarchy in ways that made them deeply uncomfortable. When the hierarchy tried to pressure the Catholic Worker into leaving the Archdiocese, she worked more diligently to make herself appear as a loyalist. According to Roberts’ the impact of the Catholic Worker movement is still felt today. Together, Day and Maurin would cofound a movement that currently has 207 Catholic Worker communities in the United States and another 25 international communities in various European countries, Mexico, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Dominican Republic, Philippines, South Korea and Uganda.

A reformer is defined as someone who changes something in order to improve it. Skok, Carson, McGreevy and Roberts give us examples of men and women who did just that. They each worked in different ways, some worked within and through governmental structures to effect legislative change, others worked socially to change people’s hearts to transform their attitudes, and others used their skills as a writer to bring issues to the fore to provide inspiration for change.

Historically, Catholic women have not been identified or characterized as reformers. In this scholarly review of female Progressive Era reformers, there are gaps and a noticeable divide. Within the last fifty to seventy-five years, historians have chosen to write about either Protestant women reformers or Catholic women who may or may not have been identified as reformers despite the contributions that they have made in socio-political, socio-economic and socio-religious reformation. One can draw the conclusion that historians have seen women such as Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr as reformers because of the contributions they made to politics and women’s rights. As Carson argued, the settlement house movement was more influential for the upper- and middle-class founders in terms of the freedoms and empowerment they enjoyed as a result of their involvement in this movement. The use of scientific evidence and an empirical approach was “modern” and thus “progressive” verses the conservative, traditional and moralistic approach taken by Catholic women like Dorothy Day and Agnes Regan, despite the fact that they all used similar methods to affect change. In short, Agnes Regan and Dorothy Day were on the “wrong side” of progress. They advocated for the maintenance of traditional roles for women, and as Dorothy Day said, it was “man’s job to argue and talk; women’s job to serve and administer,” while Addams and Starr sought greater freedoms for women through their programs of social welfare and reform. While as McGreevy reminds readers, many viewed Catholic doctrines and traditional values as anti-democratic. The conclusion can be drawn that because the settlement house movement was influential in advancing the cause of women’s rights, they have been identified by mainstream historians as reformers, while women interested in maintaining traditional gender roles are not.


Carson, Mina. Settlement Folk: Social Thought and the American Settlement Movement, 1885-1930. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1990.

McGreevy, John T. Catholicism and American Freedom. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2003.

Roberts, Nancy L. Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1984.

Skok, Deborah A. “The Historiography of Catholic Laywomen and Progressive Era Reform.” U.S. Catholic Historian, Women and Social Reform, Vol. 26, no. 1 (Winter 2008): 1–22.

[1]Deborah A. Skok, “The Historiography of Catholic Laywomen and Progressive Era Reform,” U.S. Catholic Historian, Women and Social Reform, Vol. 26, no. 1 (Winter 2008), 1, 2.

[2]Deborah A. Skok, “The Historiography of Catholic Laywomen and Progressive Era Reform,” U.S. Catholic Historian, Women and Social Reform, Vol. 26, no. 1 (Winter 2008), 16.

[3]Skok, “Catholic Laywomen and Progressive Era Reform,” 3.

[4]Ibid., 4.

[5]Ibid., 4.

[6]Deborah A. Skok, “The Historiography of Catholic Laywomen and Progressive Era Reform,” U.S. Catholic Historian, Women and Social Reform, Vol. 26, no. 1 (Winter 2008), 4.

[7]Mina Carson, Settlement Folk: Social Thought and the American Settlement Movement, 1885-1930(Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1990), 7.

[8]Carson, Settlement Folk, 51.

[9]Ibid., 53.

[10]Mina Carson, Settlement Folk: Social Thought and the American Settlement Movement, 1885-1930(Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1990), 140.

[11]Carson, Settlement Folk,196.

[12]Ibid., 197.

[13]Ibid., 198.

[14]John T. McGreevy, Catholicism and American Freedom(New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2003), 128.

[15]John T. McGreevy, Catholicism and American Freedom(New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2003), 129.

[16]John T. McGreevy, Catholicism and American Freedom(New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2003), 147.

[17]McGreevy, Catholicism and American Freedom, 148.

[18]Ibid., 141.

[19]Ibid., 151.

[20]Ibid., 151.

[21]John T. McGreevy, Catholicism and American Freedom(New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2003), 150.

[22]McGreevy, Catholicism and American Freedom, 154.

[23]Ibid., 155.

[24]John T. McGreevy, Catholicism and American Freedom(New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2003), 153.

[25]McGreevy, Catholicism and American Freedom, 155.

[26]Nancy L. Roberts, Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker(Albany: State University of New York Press, 1984), 4.

[27]Nancy L. Roberts, Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker(Albany: State University of New York Press, 1984), 67.

[28]Roberts, Dorothy Day, 68.


[30]Nancy L. Roberts, Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker(Albany: State University of New York Press, 1984), 72.

[31]Roberts, Dorothy Day, 93.

[32]Ibid., 27.

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