Dr. Richard Fogarty
Degree Award Date
Progressive Era, women, codes of feminine behavior, political figures
History | Labor History | Political History | United States History | Women's History
Women who defy societal expectations of femininity have been labeled lesbians, whores, witches, and worse. The pattern recurs throughout American history, from the infamous witch trials in Salem, Massachusetts through the media's demonization of Hillary Clinton. Women who 'act like men,' who speak freely and confidently, especially on political issues, are often perceived with horror, fascination, and hatred. The friction between ladylike behavior and political involvement was especially prevalent during the Progressive Era (1890-1920). It was during this time that women were struggling to break into the public and political arena while still being stifled by pre-Civil War codes of feminine behavior. However, there were a few rare women who were able to shrug off the constraints of societal expectations to become full fledged political figures, equal to their male contemporaries. Mother Jones (August 1, 1837 - November 30, 1930) and Emma Goldman (June 27, 1869- May 14, 1940) broke out of the conventional roles deemed appropriate for women and became activists. Jones focused on worker's rights and child labor. Goldman spoke out on worker's rights, birth control, women's sexual liberation, and anarchism. Their reception was often mixed, some voices praised them and others damned them. Their political activism and rejection of the rules of ladylike behavior earned each of them the title of the "most dangerous woman in America," conferred by the United States government during criminal trials.
But was the moniker deserved? Did these women really pose a major threat to the status quo or were they feared because of the larger implications of their disregard for societal expectations of women? To be dangerous during the Progressive Era, one could be a threat to societal values, public policy, or both, and these women-as political 1 activists and as activist women-were certainly a threat to both. And, while there is no scale to measure quantitatively how dangerous each woman was, there is value in comparison. By profiling Jones and Goldman side-by-side, one may hope to begin to decipher why they earned the label "the most dangerous woman in America." How did they differ? Jones and Goldman made very different lifestyle choices that would influence their public personas, creating two very distinct role models. Each handled their womanhood differently, and met with different results. What made them similar? Both women believed in the necessity of violence and employed similar resistance strategies, and they were incarcerated on numerous occasions. As for their ultimate effectiveness, Jones was successful in many of her activist goals, while Goldman met with disappointments and deportation. Goldman, however, endured to become a posthumous icon for the women's movement of the latter half of the twentieth century.
This comparison will also show that the successes and failures of each woman were intricately tied to their gender. If Jones and Goldman had been men, they would not have been as dangerous or as effective. It was their rejection of the rules of ladylike behavior that made them shocking and gained them notoriety. Ladies of the Progressive Era did not support violence, did not march in the street, and certainly did not get arrested. Moreover, by studying Jones and Goldman, one may get a better understanding of the influence of societal expectations of gender that are still present today, powerfully influencing both the way women behave publicly and the way the public perceives this behavior.
Crouse, Amelia, "Defying the Norm during the Progressive Era: The 'Most Dangerous' Women in America" (2006). Honors Projects. 233.