The Fifty Most Influential Progressives of the Twentieth Century | The Nation


The Fifty Most Influential Progressives of the Twentieth Century

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3. Louis Brandeis (1856–1941) was a crusading lawyer and Supreme Court justice. Appointed by Woodrow Wilson in 1916, he served until 1939. His writings and activism changed American attitudes and law about the need to restrain corporate power, outlined in his book Other People's Money and How the Bankers Use It (1914). As a "people's lawyer" in Boston, he fought railroad monopolies, defended labor laws and helped create policies to address poverty—an approach that is now called public interest law. He pioneered the use of expert testimony (called the Brandeis Brief) in court cases, paving the way for an approach to the law that relied on empirical evidence. In 1908 he represented the state of Oregon in Muller v. Oregon before the Supreme Court. The issue was whether a state could limit the hours that female workers could work, which employers argued was an infringement on the "freedom of contract" between employers and their employees. His legal argument was relatively short, but he included more than 100 pages of documentation, including reports from social workers, doctors, factory inspectors and other experts, which showed that working long hours destroyed women's health and well-being. Brandeis won the case and changed the field of litigation.


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4. Florence Kelley (1859–1932) was a leading organizer against sweatshops and an advocate for children's rights, the minimum wage and the eight-hour workday. Part of the first generation of women to attend college, she joined the Intercollegiate Socialist Society, was active in women's suffrage and was a founder of the NAACP. She worked at Hull House from 1891 to 1899 and the Henry Street Settlement in New York City from 1899 to 1926. In 1893 Governor John Altgeld appointed her Illinois's first chief factory inspector, a position she used to expose abusive working conditions, especially for children. She successfully lobbied for the creation of the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics so that reformers would have adequate information about the condition of workers. In 1908 she gathered sociological and medical evidence for Muller v. Oregon and in 1917 gathered similar information for Bunting v. Oregon to make the case for an eight-hour workday.

5. John Dewey (1859–1952). A philosopher, psychologist and education reformer, Dewey was an engaged activist, a prolific writer for popular magazines and the leading exemplar of American pragmatism. He founded the "laboratory school" at the University of Chicago to put his ideas about progressive education into practice. His ideas about "experiential learning" influenced several generations of educators. An early supporter of teachers' unions and academic freedom, he spoke out and organized against efforts to restrict freedom of ideas, helped found the NAACP and supported women's suffrage.

6. Lincoln Steffens (1866–1936). As a writer and editor for McClure's magazine and later for The American Magazine, he (along with colleagues Ida Tarbell and Ray Stannard Baker) was an influential practitioner of "muckraking" journalism. In The Shame of the Cities (1904), he exposed corruption by local governments, which took advantage of poor immigrants and colluded with business power brokers. After visiting the Soviet Union in 1919, he became an enthusiastic supporter of the Russian Revolution, famously proclaiming, "I have been over into the future, and it works." He later soured on Soviet-style communism.

7. W.E.B. Du Bois (1868–1963) was a civil rights activist, sociologist, historian, polemicist and editor. He was the first African-American to receive a PhD from Harvard and a founder of the NAACP. In his studies and books he challenged America's ideas about race and helped lead the early crusade for civil rights. Du Bois's intellectual and political battles with Booker T. Washington shaped the ongoing debate about the nature of racism and the struggle for racial justice, summarized in his book The Souls of Black Folk (1903), in which he described blacks' "double consciousness" and famously predicted, "The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line." From 1910 to 1934 he served as editor of The Crisis, the NAACP's monthly magazine, which became a highly visible and often controversial forum for criticism of white racism, lynching and segregation, and for information about the status of black Americans. It gave exposure to many young African-American writers, poets and agitators. Du Bois was a socialist, although he often disagreed with the party, particularly on matters of race. His writings had enormous influence on civil rights activists and on the burgeoning fields of black history and black studies.

8. Upton Sinclair (1878–1968). A Pulitzer Prize–winning author, Sinclair wrote ninety books, most of which were novels that exposed social injustice or studies of powerful institutions (including religion, the press and oil companies). His 1906 novel The Jungle, which vividly described awful conditions in the meatpacking industry, caused a public uproar that led to passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act. In 1934, in the depths of the Depression, he left the Socialist Party and won the Democratic nomination for governor of California on a platform to "end poverty in California." The state's powerful agricultural, oil and media industries mounted an expensive negative campaign to attack Sinclair and help elect his Republican opponent. Sinclair lost, but his campaign mobilized millions of voters, helped push FDR to the left and changed California politics for the next several decades.

9. Margaret Sanger (1879–1966) worked as a nurse among poor women on New York City's Lower East Side and became an advocate for women's health. In 1912 she gave up nursing and dedicated herself to the distribution of information about birth control (a term she's credited with inventing), risking imprisonment for violating the Comstock Act, which forbade distribution of birth control devices or information. She wrote articles on health for the Socialist Party paper The Call and wrote several books, including What Every Girl Should Know (1916) and What Every Mother Should Know (1916). In 1921 she founded the American Birth Control League, which eventually became Planned Parenthood. In 1916 she set up the first birth control clinic in the United States, and the following year she was arrested for "creating a public nuisance." Her activism helped change public opinion and led to changes in laws giving doctors the right to give birth control advice (and later, birth control devices) to patients.

10. Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860–1935) was a pathbreaking feminist, humanist and socialist, whose lectures and writing challenged the dominant ideas about women's role in society and helped shape the movement for women's suffrage and rights. After attending her first suffrage convention, in 1886, she began writing a column on suffrage for The People. She addressed the 1896 conference of the National American Woman Suffrage Association in Washington and testified for suffrage before Congress. She called women "subcitizens" and their disenfranchisement "arbitrary, unjust, unwise." Her semiautobiographical short story "The Yellow Wallpaper" (1892) described a woman who suffers a mental breakdown resulting from a "rest cure"—prescribed by her physician husband—of complete long-term isolation in her bedroom. In many books, including Women and Economics (1898), The Home (1903), Human Work (1904) and The Man-Made World (1911), she argued that women would be equal to men only when they were economically independent, and she encouraged women to work outside the home and for men and women to share housework. She believed that housekeeping, cooking and childcare should be professionalized. Girls and boys, she thought, should be raised with the same clothes, toys and expectations. Gilman's efforts complemented the activism of feminists like Alice Stokes Paul (1885–1977), who organized pickets, parades and hunger strikes to win passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920.

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