Early Lebanese Immigrant Women to the USA
by Dr. Najwa Nasr, Professor of English Linguistics, Department of English Language and Literature, Faculty of Arts and Humanities, The Lebanese University
This paper focuses on the early Lebanese immigrant woman into the USA on the turn of the twentieth century, traces her contributions in all the phases of life, and the changes in her status. The American culture demanded change from the immigrant woman in more than one respect, and the mother culture demanded adherence to tradition. Thus, the immigrant woman, men as well, was caught in this dilemma of polarization. It was a dangerous dynamic in which there was both a clash and a compromise of the old and the new.
The status of the woman in the homeland
A woman’s home duties included processing foodstuffs, both for daily consumption and for storage. Though she participated in the local celebrations and rituals, the most important recreation for her was visiting among relatives. Such visits were among the few activities open to women without a male companion. A woman’s sexuality, married or not, encompassed the honor of the family. Females were not allowed to freely intermingle with males. Naff asserts that “unchaperoned premarital courtship was strictly forbidden [and] matchmaking … was a village preoccupation. For the family, considerations of mates [was] interwoven with considerations of honor and status as well as economic ones (Naff, 72). ” The best way to safeguard the honor of both the girl and her family was early marriage; age differences did not matter, and a girl could be married to a man old enough to be her father.
As far as work was concerned, men did not accept that their wives needed to work; it was an insult; the man was the sole provider. Yet, in many villages, many women and girls of low-income families helped by their labors to improve the economic condition of their families and parents. It was acceptable for women to work in the fields and tend the animals. Many made products for sale, such as baked goods, processed foodstuffs, and handiwork, and tended the silk worms and reeled the silk threads from cocoons in factories. This untraditional role in the homeland, which allowed the woman to work outside her home prepared her for the more demanding and effective economic role she had to handle in the USA.
Percentages of immigrants
Women, of course, were part of the earliest Lebanese migration. Before 1899, they constituted about 27 percent of the available immigration figures. Between 1899 and 1910, women, motivated by the same economic desire as men, as well as by their marriage possibilities (since villages were emptied of single men), raised the percentage to 32. It was pushed upward markedly to 47.5% from 1919 to 1930 by the arrival of wives, brides, and mothers who came to live in more settled…communities (Naff,115-116).
Life in the New Land
The reasons for immigration oscillated between the push factors at home and the pull factors in the USA. America represented to the immigrants the land of opportunity and freedom of the individual; it emphasized equality and facilitated social and economic mobility; status was based on achievement rather than heredity.
Lebanese immigrants starting from the turn of the 20th century were mostly pack peddlers, then rig peddlers, then shop owners—where the shops where part of the residence; hence, a family business; and finally big business men. The Lebanese woman was at the side of man in all aspects of life; the economic, the social, the religious, and the cultural.
The peddling profession was not a very demanding one; no experience or expertise was needed, no capital, no advanced language skills, no office hours, no worries about losing the job, no pressure from the boss. It was a job which provided fast profit and was open to all sorts of new enterprise. However, it had its hazards: The roads were not always safe. Peddlers suffered bitterly from scorching heat and bitter frost; their clothes were drenched; their limbs were numbed; they were starved and beaten with fatigue; they had to spend their nights in the open or tied on to tree boughs; they were attacked by robbers and chased by beasts; yet, they survived and told their stories with pride and joy. Pack peddlers were men and women with a strong will, they carried their notion cases on their shoulders, and packs in their hands crossing the states in all directions. Their packs were well-equipped mobile stores containing scissors, razors, pins, buttons, ribbons, threads, needles, combs, soap, voile and muslin, lace and crotchet crafts, perfume, scarves, picture frames, pictures of saints, religious notions from the holy land, etc. and of course, whatever the customer needed could be supplied in the next visit. The tales told by the peddlers became part of the American folk tradition. They even participated in village national festivals by exhibiting their crafts.
Figure 1 Peddler Wagon. Aossey and Albone. Early 1920s.
The woman actively participated in this kind of business; started off in the early hours of the morning, with a scarf on her head—back and hands laden with suitcases. Carrying her ‘kashe’, she canvassed her neighborhood and the near-by towns and cities, she went from door to door trying to sell her wares. Her tour was one day long. But, whenever she crossed the borders of a state, she was accompanied by her husband or a close male relative in order to safeguard her honor and self-respect. The woman peddler was quick to win the compassion and the trust of her customers who became permanent clients; specially during the next stage of business which was the transfer from pack to rig peddling, then to shops.
The foreign language was sometimes a barrier. A woman peddler reported how an American lady once slammed the door in her face saying, “I’m sorry.” The peddler was puzzled; she was trying to sell the lady who instead wanted from her ‘msory’ meaning money in Arabic. A woman trying to convince a customer was heard mixing English and Arabic saying: “Buy sumthin’, ya [Oh] Laydee wil [and the] husban’ dead. Six chil’ren, ya Laydee, oo mafish [and there is no] bread. Buy sumthin’, ya Laydee, bleeze [please] (Naff, 175). Mary A. recalled, “Those who had been here a month or two, would teach them a few words they had already learned—to knock on a door and say ‘Buy sumthin’, Ma’am’; or how to say they were hungry or needed a place to sleep.”(Naff, 165). Eventually, this daily contact with people facilitated the removal of the linguistic barrier. Very soon the peddlers picked up the foreign language, starting of course with the survival expressions and the business jargon.
Traveling and peddling led to significant changes in the status of Lebanese immigrant women in the US and paved the way to a gradual liberation from the bonds of tradition. This new status of independence was not quite welcome by the man. On the one hand, the woman was contributing substantially to the family’s income, but on the other, this was a threat to man’s traditional role. Not much later, however, men realized “that the traditional craft at which their women were so adept could turn a handsome profit”(Naff, 171). Women prepared things at home for their husbands to sell; even contracted with relatives in the homeland and imported merchandise of different sorts
As time went by, Immigrant men appreciated and invested this natural talent of their women, and even their children. Women and children contributed actively and courageously to the family’s income. We are told that Elizabeth B. was almost ten in 1892 when she quit school and had to go out peddling with her father, people pitied her and gave her nice clothes; she did not put them on fearing that people will no more pity her and buy from her.
Moreover, women proved to be the equal of men in business and at times even superior specially in salesmanship. A woman elicited more sympathy; hence, made more money. It was easier for her to enter homes, and was more trusted by her customers. Salloum Mokarzel wrote in 1929, “…They brought in much revenue and…the woman was the greatest help to the men in their advancement and diversification”(quoted in Naff, 177). More than a quarter of a century earlier, an article in Al-Hoda, reflecting the reality of women’s participation in the family’s economic goals in America, concluded that peddling was compatible with women’s personal honor as well as their family honor (Al-Hoda, March 1899, Naff, 177).
We have no exact figures showing the numbers or percentages of women peddlers; nor the value of their monetarily contribution either to their families or to their community. Nonetheless, Naff safely makes two observations. “First, that perhaps 75 or 80% of the women peddled during the pioneer period; and even when some most gladly gave up peddling to marry and raise a family, a surprising number continued well into the thirties and forties, long after most men had turned to other pursuits. Necessity held many to it; but so did habit, ambition, and the sense of independence it provided.”(178) Some peddled intermittently stopping during pregnancies; others had to stop after having got into trouble with their husbands; some returned to the business when the family faced an economic crises. It is important to note that very few families succeeded without the help of women.
Figure 2 Wedad Naff Frenn in her father’s grocery store Ca 1931
omen contributed to the family’s economic mobility both before and after WW1. Women did the housework and cared for the children, they helped in stores and even solely operated them during the absence of men who either went to the market or earned elsewhere. Wagha S. was twenty years younger than her husband, she worked with him in their grocery store from early morning until late at night; so, she had to run all day between home and store, cooking, washing, cleaning, waiting on customers, and arranging stock. Her son, who himself served customers at the age of five, took over the store on his father’s death (Naff, 274). Even women who never worked outside the house, took up some jobs when needed. Some stories relate how women worked in hospitals during the sickness of a family member. It was an honorable work. George said that his mother “peddled, then she worked in a hospital cleaning … because father was sick and the family needed money….Mother had a lot of pride but when the family needed help she went to work because the family came first (Naff, 275).”
Marriage and the scarcity of brides
Although women had been arriving in a small steady stream since the beginning of immigration, the ratio of men to women averaged at least four or five to one until after World War 1. So, it was evident that men outnumbered the women then. Consequently, men had limited choices, and whenever a man wanted to marry, he preferred to find himself a bride in his community, mostly chosen by or approved by his parents. However, finding the right choice in America was not quite easy; marriageable Lebanese girls were few. Among the available females were the unmarried sisters and daughters of men who had sent for them as housekeepers and helpers. (Naff, 227-8)
Therefore, since marriageable girls were scarce, girls of all ages were a fair game; thus, men competed for the few brides available and their choices were limited by sectarian prohibitions. Though some girls were below the marriageable age, men waited. Other men returned to their home village to marry the girls already selected by their families, or men sent for their selected brides from the home villages. Surprises, pleasant or otherwise, were waiting for either party. Some were nicely tricked. Some girls arrived alone at the age of fifteen or below. “A cousin had arranged for the marriage of Mary S. to an immigrant, neither of her faith, family, nor village. The arrangement had included, in addition to Mary’s fare and a Maronite ceremony, five hundred dollars to purchase a return ticket should she reject the man (Naff, 228-9).”
Girls were brought up with one sole goal in life which was marriage and eventually motherhood. But in the New World, they were caught up between the traditions they grew up to value and abide by and the new demands of family life in the new environment. They were caught up in a dilemma of a sense of obligation, obedience, and guilt. As a result, quite a few females postponed their marriages. Nellie B. said that her family even discouraged her from getting married because they wanted her to work (Naff, 276). She started work at her father’s shop at the age of 14, on weekends and after school, then took over after his death, married for a short while at 33, she said she couldn’t earlier. Another one, Najla S. reported that her dream was to continue education, but she had to give it up very young and help providing for an ill mother and her young brothers. Her father was a blacksmith and ‘too proud to do anything other than his craft’. Others had to quit school and work at the store because their father needed help at the store and couldn’t afford to hire one. Some parents believed a girl’s education lowered her chances of marriage; the family then chose to educate the sons instead. So, females sacrificed their personal goals to avoid alienation caused by defying tradition.
The changing social role of women
The authoritative and disciplinary role of the father gradually eroded due to his long time absence from home. Still, relations at home were regulated by tradition, and fathers did not easily and willingly relinquish their authority. The internalized traditional restraints could not be quickly altered; mothers assumed the responsibility only after a father’s death. It was the immigrant woman, more than the man, who was caught between the “heritage of the past and the demands of the modern world.” As peddlers and shopkeepers, women’s economic role boosted their confidence and self-esteem, “they found new strengths to meet new circumstances and developed skills of strategy and execution that sometimes exceeded those of their men (Naff, 283).” Their perseverance and patience and skill, all combined, helped at times save the business and avoid bankruptcy.
Figure 3 (NAAC) Two Lebanese immigrant ladies preparing "kebbe" in marble mortar according to tradition.
owever, in this promotion of her status, the woman moved very cautiously so as not to overstep the bounds of the traditional conventions; she held back because “people talked.” This new situation eventually roughened the edges of male dominance. “Letters written to the daily newspaper, the Syrian World, in the second half of the twenties by American-born and American-raised daughters, ventilated their resentment and revealed the breadth of the cultural chasm opening between daughters and their parents (Naff, 285).” Yet, girls were still prohibited from unchaperoned encounter with the other sex; they nonetheless followed a more liberated attitude in fashion—shorter skirts, rouged faces, styled hair, uncovered heads and unveiled faces for those who were used to the practice, new mothers began to have fewer children and cook less time-consuming meals.
Another shift in the position of the woman was participation in community gatherings and social clubs. They founded their welfare societies, and social clubs. The woman was not only an active participant in social work but and initiator as well. WW1 forced the woman to be in charge of activities restricted earlier to men as men went to war. Women took charge and also initiated social and welfare activities. Mrs. Abboud wrote and directed plays, recitals, and other programs to raise funds to build a community church. Many were members of theater groups, and even took up dancing and singing professionally.
Women in the press
According to Naff, in the year 1930, there were about fifty daily, weekly, and monthly Arabic publications in the US. The woman had a very important role to play in the world of press; not only was she a reporter, but also owned and published magazines. This is a clear evidence of the level of her liberation and equality. It is important to note that the woman used her real name, never a pen name in all her writings. An outstanding figure in the world of the press was Afifa Karam, who was born in Aamchit, Lebanon in the year 1883. She traveled with her husband to the US in 1897. In 1899, she wrote in Al Huda. In 1912, she bought The New World, published and edited it under the new name: The New World—A Ladies’ Monthly Arabic Magazine. In her articles, she defended the rights of women and criticized the social and economic factors that delay a woman’s progress, and analyzed the progress of women in all phases of life in the challenging conditions of the New World, correcting prejudices and suppressing rumors. After WW1, she wrote in Al-Akhlak in NY and The New Woman in Beirut. She wrote a number of novels and translated a few into Arabic. A contemporary of Karam was another journalist called Victoria Tannous.
In conclusion, the Lebanese immigrant woman to the USA at the turn of the century proved worthy of the heritage she carried over to the New World. She stood beside the man in front of the Statue of Liberty and both chanted Gibran’s words:
“Here I am, a youth, a young tree, whose roots were plucked from the hills of Lebanon, yet I am deeply rooted here, and I would be fruitful.
I am the descendent of a people that builded Damascus, and Biblus, and Tyre and Sidon, and Antioch, and now I am here to build with you, and with a will.”
Naff, Alixa. 1985. Becoming American. Southern Illinois UP.
------. 1988. The Arab Americans. New York: Chelsea house Publishers.
“Gibran’s message to young Americans of Syrian Origin”. The Syrian World. First Issue, July 1926
The Naff Arab American Collection. Archives Center. National Museum of American History. Wa., D.C
Picture credits: All photographs from the (Naff Arab American Collection at the National Museum of American History).
A longer version of the article, with more pictures, is available on-line at www.americansc.org.uk/Lebanese_women.htm
5/14/2016. 3059 words