(The UNITED STATES to 1914 – continued)

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The UNITED STATES to 1914 (2 of 11)

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Morality, Feminism and Class

At the turn of the century, three-quarters of the states forbade married women to have property in their own name. In these states a woman's property became her husband's upon marriage. In a third of the states a woman's earnings belonged to her husband. And in all states except Wyoming, Utah, Colorado and Idaho, women were not allowed to vote. Frontiers were less conservative on the woman's suffrage issue than the older, metropolitan areas – similar to Australia being ahead of England on this issue. Women active in the suffrage movement were described as neurotic, as suffering from an urge to imitate men, as hysterical or as homosexuals. It was argued that with their big sleeves, women would be able to hide numerous ballots and vote more than once.

Widespread among Americans was a desire for self-improvement – to be continuous through the twentieth century. Since 1890 the number of students attending high school had been rising an average of around thirty percent per year, and high schools were increasing in number at an average of nineteen percent per year. The number of college graduates was also increasing: from a mere one percent of the population in the 1870s and on its way to eight percent by the 1920s.

A part of the striving for self-improvement was religion. Many Americans gave credit to Christianity for the nation's prosperity, and they saw their own material successes as God's reward for their virtue, industry and thrift. While church attendance was declining in some of the more technologically advanced European societies, in the United States the number of churches being built increased and church memberships were growing. It was common among middle-class parents to try to put the fear of God into their children, and God and morality reached the children in the schools through the McGuffey Readers, with titles such as "Respect for the Sabbath Rewarded" and "The Bible the Best of Classics." These books suggested that to succeed one had to be sober, frugal and energetic, and they suggested that prolonged poverty was a sign of God's disapproval.

Suburban middle-class and Urban Ethnics

People whose lives improved economically moved to the suburbs, bringing a decline in religious devotion in urban centers. Urban centers were peopled more by immigrants who worked twelve or more hours a day. These people were less inclined to accept the claim that God had ordained the order of things, and they were unimpressed by the piety of those with more wealth than they – people they saw as greedy, soft and with too much leisure. middle-class suburbanites were inclined to look upon the inner-city immigrants as more morally challenged than they, but the inner-city workers had less time than the affluent for any of the deadly sins – except envy.

Anthony Comstock

Anthony Comstock (1855-1915)

Margaret Sanger

Margaret Sanger in 1922

What little leisure inner-city men had away from home was likely spent having a beer in a local saloon – frowned upon by the middle-class, who did most of their drinking with their dinners at home or at clubs. In some inner cities, saloons were community centers where workers picked up their mail, left messages, had access to a telephone or learned what work was available. The saloons provided water troughs for horses and a free newspaper, and the saloon often cashed a check or lent money. Some sold cigars, cigarettes, headache powders and bonbons nicknamed wife pacifiers. In the immigrant sections of working-class Chicago, saloons outnumbered grocery, meat or dry-goods stores. Fraternal organizations met at saloons. And in some saloons, union meetings, ward and precinct politics and even weddings were conducted.

Feminine Virtue

At the turn of the century, to appear morally decent a woman had to wear dresses that went to the ankles, even when playing tennis. A short skirt was one that exposed the shoes. Women who wished respect remained virgins until marriage, while the common age for marriage among the middle-class was around 22. Men and women of blue-collar families found it more difficult to scrape together enough money to leave their parents, and it was common for them to wait until their early thirties before marrying.

A well-known fighter for morality at the turn of the century was Anthony Comstock, who opposed all forms of contraception. Because of Comstock's influence, it became illegal for people to discuss birth control, including a doctor with a patient. It became illegal for a library to have a book on contraception. Comstock drove the word pregnant from books, and he campaigned against the works of Margaret Sanger. Sanger was twenty-one at the turn of the century, a nurse in New York who began advocating birth control, which was available to the affluent but not to the poor, and Sanger was arrested for sending birth control literature through the mail.

Billy Sunday, Carrie Nation and Biblical Debate

By the turn of the century, many Christian scholars were analyzing the Bible in great detail. Some of them were siding with what was known as Higher Criticism. Evolution had become an issue – a view that rivaled the theory that everything had been created at once just a few thousand years before. Some Christian theologians accepted the theory of evolution as God's way of doing things while some others who considered themselves common sense Christians remained convinced that the Bible was absolutely accurate word for word.

A vociferous debate was taking place among Christians, with some Christians denouncing those who no longer believed in taking the Scriptures literally. Among the denouncers was Billy Sunday – born William Ashley. He had been a farm boy from Iowa and a hard drinking, woman-chasing outfielder for the Chicago White Stockings. He was the country boy awed and tempted by the big city called Babylon, and he continued to describe himself as brawling with the devil. "Hitting the sawdust trail" with his revival specialists and huge choir, he liked to preach the gospel wearing a good suit and expensive shoes. He preached with emotion and a rapidity of words, mixing wisecracking, slang and baseball terms, attacking rum, prostitutes, card playing and gambling. He railed against science, Galileo, Plato, Darwin, intellectuals in general and the modern world. He admitted that he knew nothing about theology, but he felt qualified to denounce Christians who no longer believed in heaven and hell. He was quick to proclaim his patriotism, and he announced that immigrants complaining about working conditions should "go back to the land where they were kenneled."

Churches, meanwhile, were expressing their passion for humanitarianism. Males, they believed, were inclined to have more moral defects than females and to be in greater need of religious instruction. There were fallen women to save, but men, the more aggressive of the sexes, had to be saved from drunkenness, from straying from God's word and from seducing innocent women. Churchmen, meanwhile, were joining educators, social scientists, and writers in fretting over what was called the youth problem. Concern over boys turning bad through idleness was motivating the trend toward the passage of compulsory education laws.

Churches might maintain a house for the homeless, send flowers to a local hospital or support missionaries in Africa. One evangelical crusader was Carrie Nation, doing what she called the work of the Lord. With Billy Sunday she fought for prohibiting the drinking of alcohol. She and five hundred of her followers invaded taverns, breaking bottles of liquor, mirrors and wooden kegs of beer. One of Carrie Nation's motives was to stop men from beating their wives, done mainly when they were drunk. For many women the prohibition movement was their only hope against such beatings, except for choosing the economic hardship that went with walking out on their marriage.

Despite all the efforts at morality, unwanted pregnancies were numerous, and abortions were common – the Michigan Board of Health in 1898 estimated that one-third of all pregnancies were artificially terminated. Abortions were inexpensive: ten dollars being the standard rate in New York and Boston. Divorces were also on the rise. By 1915, the United States would have the highest divorce rate in the world, with one in seven marriages ending in divorce. In Los Angeles the rate was one in five, and in wicked San Francisco one in four. The United States was experiencing the results of a sense of freedom greater than many other nations.


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