Ellen Swallow Richards and the Progressive Women's Reform Movement

Ellen Swallow Richards’ home is at 32 Eliot Street in Jamaica Plain.

A video of a modern portrayal of Richards by Joyce Miles can be seen here


In the 1890s American women emerged as a major force for social reform. Millions joined civic organizations and, under the banner of “municipal housekeeping,” extended their roles from domestic duties to concern about their communities and environments. Their contributions were vital in civilizing and improving the horrific conditions created by the industrial revolution and the philosophies of social darwinism and unregulated capitalism.

One of the first was Ellen Swallow Richards, whose work in the decades after the Civil War set the stage for the women’s Progressive movement. Richards was the first woman admitted to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the first scientist to conduct stream by stream water surveys in the United States.

Richards never expected to be admitted to MIT when she wrote to ask if women were permitted to study there, but her former teachers at Vassar College gave her such strong references that MIT’s president gave her a provisional admission. As a student, Richards was so meticulous and diligent that she soon took charge of the lab work of one of MIT’s most important projects — analyzing the tens of thousands of water samples from all over the state.

The 1873 study of state streams led to a method for determining the “normal” distribution of chlorine in water, which was seen as an indicator of pollution from industry, and also led to the establishment of the first state experimental station for water pollution research in Lawrence, Massachusetts.

Richards believed that environment was the major factor in the quality of life and argued vehemently against “eugenic” attempts to improve “the race” of people by scientific selection of parental partners. She coined the term “euthenics” for improvement of the environment, both in and out of the household. She also used the term “ecology” in a broader sense and began the “home ecology” movement, also called the “home economics” movement.

Among her many accomplishments, Richards’ research demonstrated the need for Massachusetts factory and food inspection laws, the first in the nation. She was also involved in the development of sanitary sewer treatment systems. Richards was an early example of the many American women who adopted conservation and environmental causes in the Progressive era. Although not outspoken in the women’s suffrage or women’s rights movements, she saw improvements in scientific education as a key to the progress of women and the country.

“Municipal housekeeping,” as it was later termed, would be a direct extension of Richards’ vision of the new role for women. Within a generation, Richards’ vision became widely accepted. Women’s clubs and civic improvement groups of the Progressive era contributed immense energy to the cause of conservation, with long-lasting effects. As late as 1948, a New York Times editorial page, in an endorsement of an anti-smoke rally, would “urge housewives and others to take this opportunity.” Like Richards, many women also contributed to the sanitary movement and the reform of awful conditions in urban slums.

Another reformer with perhaps the deepest impact in the Progressive era was Jane Addams, whose 1889 establishment of a “settlement house” in Chicago, called Hull House, brought social reform to one of America’s most squalid slums. She was inspired by a visit in 1887 to an English settlement residence called Toynbee House in London’s East End.

Addams worked with city administrators on garbage cleanup, sewer installation, street lighting, clean drinking water, child labor, food inspection, health and medical service reform, fighting epidemic disease and many other slum problems. Among the residents who worked with Addams at Hull House were Alice Hamilton, a young M.D. whose experiences inspired her reform efforts on behalf of workers in dangerous trades, and Florence Kelly, an “impatient crusader” against child labor and abusive conditions in women’s workplaces.

Over a million women participated directly in reform efforts through women’s clubs during the Progressive era. Each city’s women’s clubs took up conservation and urban improvement causes in various forms. Many of the clubs were united under the General Federation of Women’s Clubs, which had national committees on forestry, waterways and rivers and harbors. For example, the waterways committee was formed in 1909 to promote water power, clean water and cheaper transportation, according to historian Carolyn Merchant. “The rationale for women’s involvement lay in the effect of waterways on every American home: Pure water meant health; impure meant disease and death.”

While their California counterparts worked to save the sequoia forests and the Hetch Hetchy valley, Progressive women in New York and New Jersey were saving the Palisades of the Hudson River from a stone quarry, and Progressive women of Colorado were saving cliff dwellings and pueblo ruins from vandalism. Middle-class housewives in New York formed the Ladies Health Protective Association in 1884 to encourage better street cleaning, while Philadelphia women formed the Civic Club in 1894 and their counterparts in Boston created the Women’s Municipal League in 1908.

In spite of their contribution, Merchant notes that women were systematically excluded from areas that became professionalized after the peak of the Progressive era. After 1913, the American Forestry Association no longer invited women to speak at its conventions, and its magazine no longer carried articles by women. Increasing tensions over the women’s suffrage movement and the split in the Progressive movement over the Hetch Hetchy dam controversy may have had something to do with the cold shoulder, but in general, areas that became professionalized tended to have fewer opportunities for women.

One public health professional who was not marginalized was the Rev. Caroline Bartlett Crane. Originally a teacher and news reporter for the Minneapolis Tribune and an editor at the Oshkosh Morning Times, Bartlett quit and entered a seminary. By 1889 she was ordained in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and installed as a pastor of a Unitarian church there. Crane organized “new and untried kinds of social service,” including discussion groups on civic problems.

When she could not find a speaker to discuss meat inspection in 1902, she began researching the subject herself. Along with members of the women’s club, she visited nearby slaughterhouses and was shocked by the grossly unsanitary conditions. She also found that the slaughterhouses made no distinction between healthy and diseased animals. Crane disclosed these conditions to the city council, but learned that it had no jurisdiction over businesses located outside the limits, as these were. The state board of health took no action either. Crane made a study of meat inspection laws in other states and drafted a proposed law that gave cities the right to regulate meat sold within their limits. Her bill became law in the spring of 1903, and a year later she founded the Women’s Civic Improvement League of Kalamazoo.

Her success also led to requests for help in other cities, and Crane became a traveling consultant for sanitary planning to at least 20 cities. A visit to Uniontown, Pennsylvania, for example, resulted in the condemnation of the public water supply; a tour of Kentucky cities resulted in the establishment of a state bacteriological laboratory.

Crane insisted that women take a share of the responsibility for the cleanliness of the city, advising: “We certainly should keep our city — that is to say, our common house — clean. The floor should be clean. The air should be clean…” Yet, as historian Suellen Hoy noted, she also saw “municipal housekeeping” as a non-partisan responsibility that should involve not only women but the whole community working in a partnership with local government.

Written by William Kovarik, PhD, an Associate Professor at Radford University, Radford, VA.


Caroline L. Hunt, The Life of Ellen H. Richards (Boston, Whitcomb & Hunt, 1912): 99.

Marcia Yudkin, “Earth, Air, Water, Hearth: The Woman Who Founded Ecology,” Vassar Quarterly, Spring 1982: 32-34.

“An Anti-Smoke Rally,” New York Times, Nov. 18, 1948: 26:3.

Jane Addams, Twenty Years at Hull House (New York: Macmillan, 1948), first printed in 1910.

Carolyn Merchant, “The Women of the Progressive Conservation Crusade: 1900 - 1915,” in Kendall E. Bailes, ed., Environmental History: Critical Issues in Comparative Perspective, (NY, University Press, 1985): 156.

Mary S. Gibson, ed., A Record of Twenty Five Years of the California Federation of Women’s Clubs, 1900 - 1925 (Pasadena, CFWC, 1927): 7.

Suellen M. Hoy, “Municipal Housekeeping: The Role of Women in Improving Urban Sanitation Practices,” in Martin V. Melosi, ed., Pollution and Reform in American Cities 1870 - 1930 (Austin, University of Texas Press, 1980): 173.