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Gilded Age: Struggles Threaten to Divide American Society

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During America’s Gilded Age (1877-1900), only a few had privileges and fair opportunity; however, within the context of industrialization, modern human rights emerged through keener socio-economic conflicts. Characterized by ethnic, gender and socio-economic repressions, levels of separateness and inequality were maintained. The fight for human rights grew more acute as deep, unresolved antebellum cleavages become evident following the American Civil War and Reconstruction periods. Individuals and families endeavored to realize the American dream as the ascendancy of industrialization and free market capitalism offers promising advantages— but keen societal tensions and divisions illustrated in rights-issues continue to fester. The flourishing of industrialization radically transformed American lifestyles and further shaped the human rights movement via suffrage rights, women’s rights, worker’s rights, civil rights and immigrant rights (Harvey 2008; Dean 2015).

Suffrage rights and Women’s rights

“The suffrage movement both contributed to and reflected the growing independence of American women by the turn of the century” (Annenberg 2016). During the 1877-1900 period women also begin to demand suffrage rights, although these claimed rights were reserved for and limited to White American females. Several feminist organizations such as the National Women’s Suffrage Association, the American Women’s Suffrage Association and the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union make strong calls for the emancipation of the woman, politically, socially, economically and sexually. Susan B. Anthony functioned as one of the leading figures of women’s rights as she was arrested for illegal voting and instigated several US Congress motions for women’s enfranchisement. The 1890 merger of these core female rights organizations propelled Congress to eventually sign the women’s suffrage act thirty years later (Annenberg 2016).

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Industrialization and urbanization incited the demand for women’s rights as American women desire to liberate themselves from the confines of the private sphere and function of reproduction. The feminist movement arose on the heels of the abolition of slavery, borrowing some of the liberty and equality ideology. As factories mushroomed, poor female householders capitalize on the opportunity to earn supplementary income. They remonstrate for woman’s rights to earn wages under free labor laws. Although these jobs were by nature feminized (maids, teachers, nurses, waitresses, seamstresses, laundresses etc.), they provided them with leverage in the public sphere and freedom from domestic restriction (Fraser 1999).

The feminist rights movement also conceived ideals of the socially emancipated and educated woman. Women earn education, labor in factories and learn literacy (a proficiency that was rare in the 19th century). Women’s novels also boom during this period. By procuring these skills, the woman obtains greater levels of autonomy both at home and in the workplace. At home she is competent to contribute financially to the household and in the case of spousal separation, the Married Women’s Property Acts enacted a half century earlier guarantees her survival. American urbanization during the Gilded Age also liberalized and radicalized social norms so that the women now have the power to wear men’s clothes and even smoke. Intrinsic to the Women’s Rights movement was Free Lovism or Free Love which liberated women to be mistresses of their own bodies. This concept spawned from Feminism which encouraged women to take charge of their own sexuality without the intervention or control of the State, the Church or the spouse (Battan 2004; Rosen 2013).

Worker’s rights

Although industrialization sharpened conflict among several working sectors of society, worker’s rights also start crystallizing during the Gilded Age. As mammoth corporations blossomed in the US, the desire to acquire the American dream attracted and antagonized workers on different spheres: Black workers versus White workers; native, all-American workers versus immigrant workers and female workers versus male workers. These divisions frequently counteracted the interests of the poor laborer: acrimonious and violent strikes often leading to mass arrests and massacres result such as The Haymarket Riots in Chicago (1886) and the Pullman Strike in Pullman, Illinois (1894). These strikes helped galvanize efforts for worker’s rights as workers compete for good wages and fair opportunities. Trade unions pledging to represent the interests of the worker and the common man developed a new goal to forge new employment relations between employer and employee despite rooted prejudices (Forbath 1985). Worker’s rights organizations such as the American Federation of Labor (1886) address questions of working conditions, the wages system and several other constraints and to memorialize the robust efforts of worker’s rights lobby groups, US Congress pass the first federal Labor Day in 1894 (Forbath 1985)

Civil rights

The Jim Crow system initiated in 1875 with the voiding of the Civil Rights Act (1866) and the overturning of the Civil Rights Act (1875) in 1883. The Civil Rights Act of 1875 decreed full and equal enjoyment at public accommodations but in 1883, the US Supreme Court “invalidated the 1875 Second Civil Rights Acts,” making discrimination constitutional (Schmidt 2012). During the Gilded Age, these amendments denied equal citizenship rights and liberties to inferiorized Blacks. This system approved lynching, torturing and dehumanizing of Blacks. Adding insult to injury, in 1900 Black men are formally disenfranchised. As civil rights abuses and intolerance soared in concentrated areas of the South, urbanization offered a glimmer of hope and freedom for Blacks and other ethnic minorities (such as the European and Asian immigrants).

Immigrant Rights

The large influx of immigrants in quest for employment opportunities both strengthen protective labor rights for American citizens and challenge immigrants to fight for their own rights. The Irish, Italians, Germans, Jews, Polish, Finnish, Scandinavian and Chinese immigrants caused unrest. Between 1880 -1900, this fundamental social phenomenon breaks into sharp political controversy, radically altering the composition of America and traditional American identity. As Americans become worried for their jobs, nationalist and xenophobic sentiment boiled, many exclusionary laws were implemented such as the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882); the Alien Contract Labor Law (1888) and the Immigration Act (1891). These laws set up the Bureau of Immigration, authorized the deportation of foreigners and severely constricted labor openings (Hoerder 1983). These legal provisions both strengthen national labor laws yet declines the opportunities for foreign workers. These anti-immigration laws also trigger a movement whereby immigrants lay claim to a better quality of life since America as a nation, was built on the backs of immigrants. (Barkan 2013).


In sum, the discerning observer of American history recognizes the gradual evolution and development of human rights during the Gilded Age as several gender, socioeconomic, ethnic and immigrant struggles threaten to divide American society. These late 19th century conflicts paved the way for the recognition and legalization of several contemporary rights and liberties enjoyed in the 21st century. Key figures, powerful organizations and a fighting, indomitable will played critical roles in guaranteeing liberty, equality and opportunity to minorities.


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