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Often, people call for change but fail to take action because of a lack of power or motivation. As members of the middle and upper class, the Progressives had the power to enact change, and with the ills of the government and society right in their faces, they had the motivation. For this reason, they were essential in the success of Progressivism.

Progressivism Definition and Meaning

Progressivism was a movement in America during the late 19th and early 20th centuries that aimed to improve the conditions of the lower working class. The Progressives were generally middle-class individuals who saw reform as the answer to society’s problems. However, they did not present a united front. Different individuals supported different causes, of which there were many.

The variety of causes and the lack of unity between the Progressives led to the ultimate failure of the Progressive Party.

Examples of Progressives

To get an idea of Progressivism's different causes, let’s look at a few important Progressives and the movements they supported.

Examples of Progressives: Jacob Riis

Progressivism Examples Jacob Riis StudySmarterJacob Riis, Source: Wikimedia Commons

Jacob Riis was a Danish immigrant who worked to expose the reality of slums in New York City. He used photographs to document the overcrowded and unlivable conditions and published them in How the Other Half Lives in 1890. As a muckraker, Riis was essential in garnering public support for the regulation of tenement housing.


the investigative journalists of the Progressive Era that worked to garner public support for reforms

Examples of Progressives: Jane Addams

Progressivism Examples Jane Addams StudySmarterJane Addams, Source: Wikimedia Commons

Jane Addams was another Progressive interested in the living conditions of the working poor. In 1889, she co-founded the Hull House, the first settlement house and a roadmap for future settlement houses. These settlement houses not only provided housing, but a whole variety of services to aid the residents, such as healthcare, daycare, education, and counseling. There was also space for recreation.

Examples of Progressives: Eugene V. Debs

Progressivism Examples Eugene V Debs StudySmarterEugene V. Debs, Source: Wikimedia Commons

Eugene V. Debs brought Progressivism into the workplace as an important labor union leader, fighting for the interests of workers (lower wages, shorter workdays, safer working conditions, etc.). He became president of the American Railway Union in 1893, and in 1895, he stepped up as a leader of the infamous Pullman Strike. For his participation, he served six months in jail, where he developed an interest in socialism. In 1897, he founded the Socialist Party.

Progressivism differed from socialism in that the Progressives believed that they could work within the system of capitalism, whereas socialists wished to overturn it.

Examples of Progressives: Booker T. Washington

Progressivism Examples Booker T Washington StudySmarterBooker T. Washington, Source: Wikimedia Commons

Booker T. Washington was an important figure in the early civil rights movement. He sought a gradual approach to civil rights, and he worked as an adviser to both Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, two of the three Progressive Era presidents. His approach, however, was not the only approach. W.E.B. Dubois, another prominent civil rights leader, fought for immediate action and helped found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909.

Woodrow Wilson was the third Progressive Era president and served between Roosevelt and Taft. He was much less sympathetic to the plight of black citizens and actively worked against the civil rights movement.

Examples of Progressives: Robert M. LaFollette

Progressivism Examples Robert M LaFollette StudySmarterRobert M. LaFollette, Source: Wikimedia Commons

We now know the three Progressive presidents, but there were influential Progressive leaders at all levels of government. Robert M. LaFollette served as a congressman and then governor of Wisconsin. In his role, he pushed for a number of reforms to reduce the power of large corporations and improve the democratic process. Some notable political reforms were the initiative process that allowed citizens to propose new laws and the recall process that allowed citizens to remove a political leader before their term ends.

The City Level

At the city level, Progressives fought against political machines that worked to keep certain individuals or groups in office. Although these political machines were corrupt, they provided a variety of services to the community. For this reason, not all members of the urban poor were happy with the anti-corruption efforts of the Progressives.

Progressivism Facts

So, we’ve covered tenement housing regulation, workplace reform, political reform, and civil rights. But that’s certainly not all. Causes included:

  • Prohibition

  • Universal suffrage

  • Reducing the power of large corporations

  • Food and drug safety

  • Environmental conservation

Progressivism Facts: Limitations of the Progressives

As you might have noticed earlier, the Progressives as a whole placed a considerable amount of emphasis on the working poor. This could be in part due to the background of the majority of Progressives. Many found an interest in Progressivism through the Social Gospel or muckrakers. The Social Gospel preached charitable works as a way to reach heaven and placed focus on the urban poor. Muckrakers tended to use cities as their subjects.

Unfortunately, this meant that Progressives often neglected rural farmers and communities that were in need. Additionally, although we did discuss the early civil rights movement, relationships between Progressives and black leaders were few and far between. Immigrants also found significantly less support, as the white urban poor blamed immigrants for their own position. In general, the Progressives seemed to have less interest in marginalized groups.

Progressivism Facts: Progressive Women

Progressivism Facts Margaret Sanger StudySmarterMargaret Sanger, Source: Wikimedia CommonsProgressivism Facts Ida B Wells Study SmarterIda B. Wells, Source: Wikimedia Commons

Women played a significant role in Progressivism. Jane Addams was just one woman among a host of notable figures, including Margaret Sanger (an early advocate for birth control) and Ida B. Wells (an anti-lynching advocate). Of course, women’s suffrage was a major unifying force for Progressive women to rally around.

In 1869, two prominent suffragettes, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony founded the National Woman Suffrage Association with the hopes of pushing the fight for women’s suffrage along. The Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 had given fire to the movement, and they wanted to capitalize on its momentum. Suffragettes ultimately found success with the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920.

Progressivism vs Populism

We know that Progressivism was a movement aimed at reforming the ills of the government and society. But as we noted when comparing Progressivism to socialism, the Progressives wished to work within the system rather than overturn it. Populism is similar in that its stated goal is to better the condition of the masses with, but it actively rebels against the system of privileged elites. In history, authoritarian leaders have used populism to rise to power by posing themselves as the change needed.

The Progressives - Key takeaways

  • The Progressives were generally middle-class reformers during the Progressive Era who wanted to help the less fortunate.
  • They were not always unified in the movements they supported. Important Progressives and their causes include:
    • Jacob Riis: tenement housing regulation

    • Jane Addams: the creation of settlement houses

    • Eugene V. Debs: workplace reform

    • Booker T. Washington: civil rights

    • Robert M. LaFollette: political reform

  • The Progressive presidents were:

    • Theodore Roosevelt

    • Woodrow Wilson

    • William Howard Taft

  • The Progressives neglected marginalized groups (Black citizens and immigrants) as well as rural citizens, focusing on the urban poor.

  • Women formed a significant portion of the Progressives and fought for a variety of causes, including women's suffrage, which found success in 1920 with the Nineteenth Amendment.

Frequently Asked Questions about Progressivism

Progressivism was a movement of reform and activism in America during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Progressives believed that reform (within the existing system) was the answer to solving society's problems. 

The main goals of Progressivism were to improve the condition of the less fortunate and put an end to corruption in the government and large corporations. 

Progressives were often educated members of the middle class. Many were Protestants influenced by the Social Gospel. 

An example of Progressivism in action is the process by which workplace reform came to be in the United States. 

Final Progressivism Quiz


Progressives were generally:

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middle class

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Progressives were united in the causes they support.

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Who founded the first settlement house?

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Jane Addams

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Which Progressive was a congressman and governor of Wisconsin?

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Robert M. LaFollette

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Which Progressive was a prominent trade union leader?

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Eugene V. Debs

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Which group did Progressives tend to focus their efforts on?

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the urban poor

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What was Jacob Riis' focus in How the Other Half Lives?

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tenement housing and slums

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Progressives wished to overturn the system.

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Which Progressive became a socialist after serving a sentence in jail?

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Eugene V. Debs

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Booker T. Washington met with which two Progressive presidents?

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Theodore Roosevelt

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