Immigrant Women in the Land of Dollars I. Introduction: Background
A. The Varieties of the Immigrant Experience
Want to sketch out the lives of east coast immigrant women to give you a background for Yezierska's Breadgivers. If you read Alice Kessler-Harris' introduction, you will have gotten some sense of this. Remember, that Breadgivers is a novel, not historical fact. Yezierska wants to lay out broad themes about immigrants relationship with American culture, and immigrant women's relationships with men. Sara Smolinsky was not a real person—however, the character of Sara and others were drawn from real life experiences, and through these characters we can learn a lot about one woman's interpretation of life among immigrants in America.
In this lecture, will focus on immigrants along the Eastern seaboard, those who came largely from Europe. But during this period—1880-1920—also many immigrants from China, Japan, Philippines, and Latin America. For Mexican-Americans, there was a tragic irony in being labeled immigrants, because they were essentially immigrating to a land that they had once claimed as their own. Immigrants’ experience of coming to America and negotiating the roles within the new mainstream culture while also trying to make sense of their parent culture—which was also their parents’ culture—differed greatly depending on which culture they were a part of and where in America they ended up. Being a Mexican-American in Illinois, where small pockets of your compatriots lived surrounded by white Americans with long roots in the country was quite unlike being Mexican-American in Los Angeles, where recent immigrants mingled with Hispanic families that had lived their for several centuries, where few of the Whites had lived prior to the 1880s, and where many other immigrant groups lived as well. The New York City experience was singular as well, although it is often thought of as the “typical” immigrant experience because of the sheer numbers of people involved. And it’s important to remember that some groups that came as immigrants and lived and experienced their first years in America as outsiders, sometimes through the entire first generation and into the second, are now considered uncritically as part of the mainstream. For example, consider Norwegians and Swedes in the Puget Sound.
This is a land of immigrants. Original inhabitants probably came from Asia, although note that American Indian creation myths claim connection to their land in America. Next wave came from Europe—Spanish in Southwest, Russians and British in Alaska, French from Louisiana up the Mississippi and into Canada, and most prominently the British along the Eastern seaboard and then into the interior. Smattering of Dutch, German as well.
Ability to practice religion freely was one motivating factor, particularly in New England with the Puritans, Maryland with Catholics, and Pennsylvania with Quakers. But most important causal factor was need for cheap and plentiful labor and desire for greater economic opportunity. Need for immigration by those in power usually intense, because of the large tracts of land that could be developed once the native populations were displaced, with a lot of labor-intensive raw materials to be processed. Willingness of speculators and owners of large tracks of land to underwrite voyages or use a variety of arrangements to swap immigrants labor for some form of economic support to get the immigrants started.
Also, movement towards slave labor to guarantee cheap labor. Growth largest where need for labor largest, in productive but unhealthy areas of the South. As industry in North grew after 1800, greater need for inexpensive labor. First, young Anglo-American women from New England as men headed West due to lack of productive land. But when these women started to organize unions and strike, turn towards newly available labor particularly from Germany and Ireland in 1840 and 1850s. Like earlier Europeans, pushed by economic insecurity and political upheaval. Railroads and manufacturers began seeing immigrants as source of cheap labor who’s presence made union organizing differently, because of the difference of languages, their suspicion of becoming involved in American institutions, and the tendency of unions to reject immigrants in their organizations. Also, immigrants willing to work for less since they made so much more than in their home country. Basic process of globalization that continues today.
After Civil War, the second industrial revolution required great numbers of new workers as well as consumers of the cheap products being created. Between 1880 and 1920, huge numbers of Europeans crossed the Atlantic in hopes of bettering themselves in "the land of milk and honey" by finding jobs in the newly expanding industrial sector. While people continued to emigrate Germany and Ireland, more came from Eastern and Southern Europe—Italy, Hungary, Checkslovakia, Serbia, Croatia, Poland and Russia. A third group came from Japan and China, although most Japanese stayed on the West Coast and were involved in agricultural labor. Most immigrants were fleeing crushing poverty and political unrest; most came without much money. The lives they built in America was in many ways shaped by the interaction between their visions of America as a land of opportunity and the reality they found once in America.
II. Family, Community, and Women’s Roles
About two-thirds of the European immigrants were men; many of these however, were more accurately labeled migrants. That is, they came to America for a short time, returned to their country of origin, and continued this cycle for many years. Other men saved up money in order to be able to return to the European homeland and buy land or a business there. Most women, however, came to stay. They tended to be part of extended family structures which were in turn connected to village structures that had been transported from Europe, which were in turn connected to a transplanted national community. Thus within various Little Italys and Little Polands, one could find clusters of people related to each other, whole tenement buildings from the same village, and entire blocks from the same country.
The family was the strongest cohesive unit, the structure that offered new immigrants stability in this strange land. Over 90% of immigrant Jewish and Italian women lived near their families between the ages of 15 and 35. Most of the Euro. immigrants were Jewish or Catholic, and most family-oriented cultures. It was expected children would work whenever possible, and that they would turn their pay envelopes—unopened—to their parents. Soon, however, tensions developed between first-generation immigrants, born in the old country, and second generation immigrants, raised in the new. As Kessler-Harris notes in her introduction, these tensions were often greatest for women in cultures that demanded they maintain submissive roles yet also provided the opportunity for economic independence and education.
III. Gender and Generational Conflict in the Land of Dollars
European immigrants came to the US at a time when America was changing in many profound ways. After Civil War, Industrial Revolution in full swing. Manufactured consumer goods everywhere, hand made only for the elite. Giant department stores, like Marshall Fields in Chicago and Macy's and Gimball's in New York, proudly displayed their many wares for sale in dazzling window displays. Brand names became established, and advertising was developed to promote the name recognition of these new brands. Professional advertisers began to be trained to manipulate people's insecurities or fears in order to better sell their products. Immigrants were prime targets for these new advertisers, who promoted how different watches, cereals, clothes, perfume, soap—could make one more American. immigrant women, who usually made most of the daily purchases for the family, were especially targeted.
First generation immigrants were often too rooted in their traditional cultures to respond to these enticements from advertisers. But many second generation immigrants enthusiastically answered the call to Americanize themselves. On one hand, they were being socialized through the public schools to talk and act more American—that is, more middle class Anglo Saxon. Increasingly, these younger immigrants wanted to use the money they earned for all that America offered.
Immigrant women were particularly eager to live like Americans, because it seemed to offer so much more freedom. Their own cultures were extremely patriarchal—while Reb Smolinsky is a stereotype, he is one that is based on real-life experiences. Many immigrant women saw Anglo-American middle class women as liberated. Many Anglo women went on to college, few had to work as teenagers, they married later, and they did not need their parents permission. Further, these middle-class women had fewer children, in part because of their growing use of birth control. Next week, we shall talk more about these "new Women" in the political arena. When we do, keep in mind Sara Smolinsky—and the young Anzia Yezierska, and consider what these women might have represented to her.
If you read Alice Kessler-Harris' intro to Breadgivers, you would know that Yezierska's experience were very much like her character, Sara Smolinsky. Both felt the pull between the old and the new, neither entirely reconciled this contradiction. Like American advertising, the myth of American opportunity offered more than it could deliver for young immigrant women. Bread Givers is the story of contradictions, or conflicts that don’t resolve. Later generations would largely be able to avoid these conflicts between the old and the new—but they would be unaware, like Yezierska, what they were now missing. Meanwhile, new immigrant groups up to this day experience the tensions found in Bread Givers.
IV. A Word About the Book’s Structure
(Note: These comments were delivered without written notes)
Immigrant Women in the Land of Dollars
I. Basic Background
A. Introduction: The Varieties of the Immigrant Experience
B. The Need for Cheap Labor, the Promise of Economic Opportunity
C. The Demographics of European Immigration
II. Family, Community, and the Role of Women within European Immigrant Communities
III. Gender and Generational Conflict in the Land of Dollars
IV. A Word About the Book’s Structure