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Through clubs and volunteer associations and as individuals, many Alabama women moved from the private sphere of the home into the public arena and contributed to what has become known as the "Progressive Movement" of the early twentieth century. These women were surrounded and constrained by the images of the southern belle and expectations for the lady. Literary clubs and church missionary societies were often the first step into organized group activities with specific goals and activities outside the home.
During an era of rapid change, an increasingly industrialized and urbanized society suffered islocation and social problems. Reformers, like Alabamians Pattie Ruffner Jacobs and Sue Berta Coleman, attempted to address and ameliorate these problems during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Recent historians have characterized the concerns and actions of women in the Progressive Movement as "social housekeeping"an extension of the traditional home-based role as nurturer and caregiver to the public sphere. The activities of Alabama women generally fit into this model.
Male progressives tended to focus on political reform, scientific management, regulation of industry and commerce, and applying business techniques to problems. Female progressives generally concentrated on social and humanitarian reforms, including child welfare, school reforms, temperance, health issues, neighborhood improvements, creation of juvenile courts, care for the disadvantaged, literacy programs, and the elimination of child labor. In the segregated society of early twentieth-century Alabama, black and white women worked on many of the same issues but in separate organizations.
Important organizations included the Alabama Federation of Women's Clubs, the Alabama Federation of Colored Women's Clubs, the Alabama Woman's Christian Temperance Union, the Alabama Child Labor Committee, and the Alabama Equal Suffrage Association.
A desire to gain more power and influence in Progressive reform issues led many Alabama women into the women's suffrage movement; however, the movement in Alabama, as well as the rest of the South, was complicated by the campaign to disfranchise black voters. Although Alabama rejected the 19th Amendment, Alabama's suffrage leader, Pattie Ruffner Jacobs, was instrumental in securing ratification nationally of the women's suffrage amendment.
By 1920, female Progressive reformers could point to the passage of the 18th Amendment (prohibition) and the 19th Amendment (women's suffrage) as major accomplishments. Although Progressive reform in Alabama was modest overall, accomplishments included educational reforms, prison reform, and industrial reform schools for girls and boys.