Women in Modern America Critical Essays

Lois Wendland


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

From the outset of her narrative, Banner stresses that progress for American women occurred when pressure from women compelled changes in male attitudes. Men sometimes yielded portions of their privileged status, but the surest course to meaningful change was for women to assert themselves in politics, in the professions, and at home. Banner’s assessment of the record for women during the 1890’s indicates the mixed results that came from a reliance on male willingness to move in the direction of greater gender equality.

In dealing with the turbulent years between 1900 and 1920 that brought so many important changes for women, Banner first draws a historical profile of the condition of females in the United States during these two decades. This strategy enables her to examine the diversity of women’s experiences in a chapter that blends equal parts of economic and social history. The section on prostitutes is notable for its sympathetic treatment of these women and for its dispassionate analysis of the forces that led them into that profession. Banner both anticipated and stimulated the growing body of feminist scholarship that treats prostitution and society’s response to it as a means of understanding more general attitudes toward women.

The suffrage movement of the Progressive Era presents Banner with an occasion when women made up a significant element in the mainstream of national reform. While discussing suffrage activities in detail, she also shows how women became involved in myriad other social justice campaigns. Organized women, especially club women, sparked efforts to beautify cities, to create better conditions in schools, and to improve the quality of municipal government. Banner devotes particular attention to the importance of settlement houses such as Hull-House, operated by Jane Addams, in this reform process.

Amid this ferment, radical feminist ideas received a hearing. Banner examines the whole spectrum of opinion among the most advanced feminist thinkers, including Margaret Sanger, Emma Goldman, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman. In the...

(The entire section is 856 words.)