FROM THE FAILED ATTEMPT in the 1850s to locate the state capital in the city to the successful bid to host the Centennial Olympics in 1996, Atlanta has consistently manifested what residents referred to as the “Atlanta spirit.”1 It is this brash self-confidence that makes the city fascinating to study. Atlanta’s nineteenthcenturyboosterismfocusedalmostexclusivelyoneconomicdevelopment.During this era, Henry Grady and other New South advocates proclaimed Atlanta the “Gate City,” inviting commerce, finance, and industry to enter the South following the Civil War. While most Atlantans remained faithful to this earlier booster creed as the city entered the twentieth century, residents rarely agreed on what path Atlanta’s expansion should follow. In the wake of phenomenal growth came significant power struggles among residents. The crises and debates of this era reveal a struggle to define moral and social order in the midst of economic growth. As Atlantans wrestled with these issues, they often invoked images of workingclass women, both black and white, as one of the dominant symbols of public order and the potential for urban disorder.
During the first two decades of the twentieth century, public culture and politics focused to a striking extent on incidents of moral panic, violence, and debate concerning the actions and bodies of working-class women. On a national level, working-class women received enormous attention during the Progressive era—as prostitutes, workers in factories and offices, immigrant mothers, and the objects of middle-class reform. In Atlanta, the seemingly sudden visibility of workingclass women illuminated a social and cultural terrain in which gender ideals often stood for competing notions of moral and social order. The common association of black and white women in the South with opposing images of defenselessness and danger made them particularly suitable to represent arguments over order. Women consequently appeared as both the linchpin of social order and its biggest threat. Far from being passive subjects of cultural debates, working-class women and their real-life activities also helped to shape these gender images. Black and white working-class women refused to be silent partners in the debates over the city’s future.