The "Progressive Movement" in the United States spanned from approximately 1890-1914. There was much change that took place during this era, on both personal and governmental levels. Although the period was not truly a "movement" by definition, enough individual and unrelated actions took place that created the same result as if it was organized and intentional. There were changes in philosophy and action that touched almost everyone living during that era in one manner or another, some in a positive way and others in a negative way. I believe we are experiencing a rebirth or the Progressive Movement today, although it has none of the helpful qualities as the original did.
The "Progressive Movement" blossomed from the "Populist Movement." This was the period from about 1890 until 1893. The farmers were in a financial crunch, as was much of the nation after the 1893 stock market crash. This created a depression on a smaller scale than the subsequent crash of 1929, but still left a national unemployment rate of more than 20%. The farmers felt like social outsiders with no guarantee of financial safety. Hence, they found it necessary to organize into organizational alliances. Under one such alliance, the "Texas Alliance", a system called the "sub-treasury system" was formed. In this system, farmers would store their crops in public barns, basically using them as collateral for loans taken against the crops. When the crops were sold, the loans would be repaid and the balance would go to the farmers. It is important to note that these loans were guaranteed or "underwritten by the U.S. government. These alliances went on to become politically active, separate and apart from the recognized two major parties, giving birth to the "Populist Party." The Populist Party played a silent but essential role in the Women's Suffrage Movement under strong female Populist speakers like Mary Elizabeth Lease, who was also provocative in encouraging farmers to raise their voices for their rights. From the Populist Party came the "us vs. them" philosophy. Simply stated, the famers, factory workers and tradesmen were "us" and the money holders were "them. " Since the factory workers and tradesmen also wanted to be able to rise against "them", there was a strong quid pro quo between the agrarians and the producers. In fact, people like Henry Demarest Lloyd actually tried to create such a unity movement between the two factions.
The foundational philosophy of the Populists was a rudimentary Socialism/Communism combination; the government should be the people and their responsibility is to care for everyone's needs. Utilities and transportation should be nationalized, corporations should be kept in check and money and precious resources should be freely minted into coinage and distributed. This desire was a huge conflict in their philosophy, since it was the money holding silver mines that the Populists hoped would finance their party; welcome to the world of lobbyists. It was also the end of the Populist Party as an independent movement; they suddenly wanted what the other parties wanted; more silver and more money. The liberal minded Populists ultimately melded into the Democratic Party, since that was the party that took over the "free silver" drive.
The raucous debate over "free-silver" vs. "gold standard" enveloped the entire nation during the presidential campaign of 1896. By compromising their usually stringent and unsuccessful moral convictions and taking a more liberal social attitude, the Republican candidate, William McKinley won the election. This sweeping electoral victory became the catalyst for the reform politics of the Progressive Era.
I have gone this far back to establish a foundation for the "Progressive Movement." According to Webster's Online Dictionary, the pertinent definition of "Movement" is "A group of people with a common ideology who try together to achieve certain general goals." As stated above, although this was not a "movement" per se, enough relative actions to place to have the same effect. After McKinley's election, the government and society itself turned their focus on solving the social ills that were plaguing the nation. Concern by the middle class for the working class was beginning to take hold among the children of the middle class elders and the church. There began to be a feeling that a lack of spiritual substance could be made up for by good deeds, such as the creation of "settlement houses" in the middle of slums where people could come for food, medical care or hygienic relief. Their belief that they needed to help bring social if not financial equity to the working class was exacerbated by the realization of the middle class that they were just that; in the middle. When the upper class above them and the working class below them went to blows, the middle class would suffer equally.
This desire to help bring social comfort to the masses bore a philosophy of exhorting the importance of knowledge; with knowledge of facts, the solutions would come. This created the first wave in the United States of statistical studies in areas such as child labor, immigration, and economic practices by the federal government and privately funded commissions investigating the vices and social degradations of the urbanites. Interestingly, it was during this period that the field of psychology took an explosive growth in the United States, following a similar growth in Germany and Austria. As many Americans traveled overseas to learn about economics and political science, some picked up the teachings of such well known psychologists as Wilhelm Wundt. This "psychology explosion" factored in very well with the explosion of "academic experts." Working in tandem, these two fields created Frederick W. Taylor's concept of "scientific management", a term created by Louis D. Brandeis, when he was still practicing law, before he became a Supreme Court Justice. Brandeis was a champion of the workers and consumers, working incessantly against monopolies, large corporations, public corruption and mass commercialism (Source: Wikipedia.com).
The Progressive Era was a time that also saw the birth of "tabloid reporting" by magazines such as Colliers and McClure's. They investigated and reported on topics such as government bribery, corporate corruption and atrocities in labor situations, such as unsafe worker and child labor conditions. The reporters and contributors to this genre of magazine became known as "muckrakers", but were instrumental in bringing forward corrective actions as demanded by the people. Such corrective actions included the formation of Josephine Shaw Lowell's National Consumer's League which, with the assistance of Louis Brandeis, helped establish the first welfare system for women with children, minimum wage schedule for women and other social programs for women and children. The actions of such groups re-animated the women's suffrage movement and began the long march of feminism.
For all the good that came from the Progressive Era, this, in my opinion, was just one of the negative affects to occur; not the recognition of women as equals, but the beginning of the demise of traditional gender specific jobs and of the core family. As with progressive philosophy, the government, in this case the judiciary, wanted to extend to women special privileges because they perceived, God had given them a raw deal and it was society's obligation to right that injustice. However, the feminists' position was more of wanting to break the mold of their perceived inequality and instead took these judicial efforts as an offense and in fact, as a condescending slap at their cause.
It was the Woman's Movement, in tandem with the horrific Triangle Shirtwaist fire that actually finished the transformation from Populism to Progressiveness. Out of this movement was born Urban Liberalism; the philosophy or actually, the action of government intervention on behalf of the working people, specifically in the urban or city areas. This actually came out of political necessity; with other factors engaging such as the rise of legitimate government concern and Socialism, the corrupt political power brokers knew their only chance of surviving politically was to assuage the concerns of the working class, thereby protecting the majority of their voter block.
Conflicting with the motives of the corrupt politicos, newly branded under the Urban Liberal moniker, was a heavy predominately strict Christian anti-immigrant faction. Specifically targeted were the southern and eastern Europeans, who were seen as dangers to society as the "progressive reformists" knew it. Immigration restriction was for the first time in America being sought, as well as alcohol prohibition.
Organized labor, such as the AFL was quickly developing as well, but with tragedies such as the Triangle Shirtwaist fire and exposure of the draconian conditions suffered by many factory workers and other laborers, the unions began to turn to the Urban Liberals for support in order to keep their membership and powers of worker advocacy.
Although many of the programs created during the Progressive era have devolved into government trough-filling through the twentieth and into the twenty-first centuries, there were some changes made that benefit us to this day, although career politicians have begun to find ways to circumvent even the best of those changes. Among the best of those changes that benefit every citizen were the creation of the direct primary, which took the power of candidate designation out of corrupt hands and instead placed it into the hands of the citizenry, the initiative and recall options (although they were and remain economically impractical for the little guy) and the creation of the NAACP, although it has moved so far from its admirable cause at creation that it now does more damage than good for the cause of equality and good will among people.
The champions of the "antitrust" movement made major changes in the way big business worked, but just as they are today, these anti-business movers like Theodore Roosevelt were not above making closed door deals to maintain a false appearance of their actual position. Roosevelt's dealing with U.S. Steel is a prime example. This was a huge step toward government control in America's everyday business. It was the actions of the Progressive administrations and their policy makers that opened the door for today's nationalization of companies like GM and rabid use of the Executive order. Oddly enough while the government was injecting itself into the world of free enterprise, it was also giving up one of its Constitutional obligations. Under Article I, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution, The Federal government held the right "To coin Money, regulate the Value thereof, and of foreign Coin, and fix the Standard of Weights and Measures..." However, they delegated that duty over to the Federal Reserve, a privately held banking corporation that was given the right to print money, establish its value and determine the interest rates for the citizenry. This same Federal Reserve has today established itself as an inept, corrupt and dismal failure, having contributed largely to the economic hole we as a nation and as individuals find ourselves in today.
Overall, the improvements made during the "Progressive Era" were very beneficial to society; they made working conditions safer, they brought more equality to every human being in America and they established an overall better standard of living for society. However, in so many ways as I have pointed out, today's government and society have morphed the "Progressive Movement" into a system more closely aligned with the Soviet Union's pre-Cold War (and current) system than the free enterprise, free Republic system we have in the past enjoyed. The American citizenry today is in danger of losing more freedoms and more properties under the "Progressives" than they are able to anticipate gaining under them. The pendulum is certainly swinging back the other way for America.