Gilded Age and Progressive Era

Women in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era

Clock 90 minutes

This lesson explores the experience of women during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era.  Students will explore the changing and different experiences of women in American society, and the fight for equal voting rights for women through a historical narrative, primary sources, and student activities.  Students will better understand the experience of women in American history as a basis for other historical eras and today.

Founding Principles

Due Process image

Due Process

The government must interact with all citizens according to the duly-enacted laws; applying these rules equally among all citizens.

Federalism image


The people delegate certain powers to the national government, while the states retain other powers; and the people, who authorize the states and national government, retain all freedoms not delegated to the governing bodies.

Majority Rule / Minority Rights image

Majority Rule / Minority Rights

Laws may be made with the consent of the majority but only to the point where they do not infringe on the inalienable rights of the minority.

Rule of Law image

Rule of Law

Government and citizens all abide by the same laws regardless of political power. Those laws respect individual rights, are transparently enacted, are justly applied, and are stable.


Women’s Rights Convention in Syracuse New York

“We ask only for justice and equal rights—the right to vote, the right to our earnings, equality before the laws.” - Lucy Stone (September 8, 1852)


In the late nineteenth century, American suffragettes continued the decades-long struggle for the equal right to vote. Although the movement split into disparate elements with differing strategies, the movement united again in 1890 to fight for a women’s suffrage amendment to the U.S. Constitution. After continuing struggle, in 1920, the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified. Meanwhile, women reformers engaged in a number of lesser-known movements to ban alcohol, provide better working conditions for women and children, and improve the lot of immigrants. Women also increasingly began to work outside the home in factories, department stores, and offices. Therefore, women began to enter public life politically and economically in a fundamentally new way to break with the past in which they were primarily confined to the domestic sphere of the home.


  • Students will examine the causes, struggles, and successes of various forms of civic engagement by women, including efforts toward economic, social, and political equality.
  • Students will understand the extensive array of reform movements in which women took the lead as part of the broader reform effort of the Progressive Era.
  • Students will compare and contrast the goals of the social reformers fighting for protective legislation with the goals of reformers who wanted an Equal Rights Amendment to the United States Constitution.


  • Handout A: Background Essay: Women in the Gilded Age
  • Handout B: Women in the Gilded Age Graphic Organizer
  • Handout C: Timeline of Women’s Suffrage
  • Handout D: Images of Women’s Suffrage
  • Handout E: Protective Legislation for Women
  • Handout F: Comparing and Contrasting Women’s and African-American Suffrage Movements

Key Terms

  • “Separate spheres”
  • Temperance
  • Settlement houses
  • Americanization
  • Protective legislation
  • Suffrage
  • Constitutional amendment
  • Federalism
  • Social Darwinism

Essential Virtues

  • Contribution
  • Courage
  • Integrity
  • Initiative
  • Justice
  • Perseverance
  • Respect
  • Resourcefulness
  • Self-government
  • Vigilance


National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS)

  • 1) Thematic Standards
    • II. Time, Continuity, and Change
    • VI. Power, Authority, and Governance
    • VII. Production, Distribution, and Consumption
    • VIII. Science, Technology, and Society
    • X. Civic Ideals and Practices
  • 2) Disciplinary Standards
    • 1. History
    • 3. Civics and Government
    • 4. Economics

Center for Civic Education

  • 9-12 Content Standards
    • V. What are the Roles of the Citizen in American Democracy?

UCLA Department of History (NCHS)

  • US History Content Standards
    • United States Era 6: The Development of the Industrial United States (1870 – 1900)
    • United States Era 7: The Emergence of Modern America (1890 – 1930)

Background 15-20 minutes

Have students read Handout A: Background Essay: Women in the Gilded Age and answer the review questions.

Activities 75-80 minutes

Activity I » 20 minutes

  1. Have students read Handout A: Background Essay: Women in the Gilded Age and complete Handout B: Women in the Gilded Age Graphic Organizer to compare and contrast the different reform movements in which women in the Gilded Age took the lead.
  2. De-brief the activity and lead a discussion of the following questions:
    How did the nature of moral reform efforts encourage women to leave the home to engage in civic life?
    To what extent and in what ways were the reformers successful in changing society or the lives of women?
    To what extent and in what ways did the movements strengthen civil society? How did they contribute to the growth of government power?

Activity II » 20 minutes

  1. Students can work individually or in groups to complete Handout C: Timeline of Women’s Suffrage. They should use Handout A and conduct other research as directed by the teacher.
  2. Prior to the discussion, the teacher might appoint one or more recorders to use appropriate technology in making a timeline for display in the classroom reflecting student participation.

Activity III » 15-20 minutes
Assign students to work in groups of three to complete the assignment in Handout D: Images of Women’s Suffrage. Students should analyze the pictures and make connections with the information presented in Handout A.

Activity IV » 20 minutes

  1. Assign the students to work individually or in groups to read the primary sources on protective legislation and the Equal Rights Amendment. Have the students complete the brief writing assignment comparing and contrasting the primary sources in order to spotlight the main issues of the women’s rights movement.
  2. The de-brief should include an analysis of the two approaches of state-level protective legislation and an amendment to the U.S. Constitution for equality and how the two contradicted each other. Have the students briefly debate which approach they prefer.

Wrap-Up 15 minutes

Conduct a discussion with the class on the following questions to wrap up the study of women’s engagement in civic life during the Gilded Age.

  1. What were the causes of the transformation for women from the private, domestic sphere to the public sphere as workers, reformers, and voters?
  2. To what extent and in what ways did women’s leadership in reform movements contribute to their success?


  1. Assign your students to write a brief essay or create some form of graphic organizer comparing and contrasting the path to African-American men’s suffrage and that of women.
  2. The student products should include analysis of both suffrage movements and should examine the methods, challenges, and successes of both groups.

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