Life of Immigrant Women in 19th Century America
Life of Immigrant Women in 19th Century America
The United States of America is one of the most diverse countries in the entire world. It has gained diversity not merely through race, but through religion, ethnic background, and through the ever-dynamic shift of America. Some of the most dramatic and rapid changes occurred in the late nineteenth century following the Civil War. As the United States began to industrialize, wave upon wave of immigrants poured into the country’s borders in search of religious, political, or, more often than not, economic freedom. To the outside world, the United States began to be seen as our Pledge of Allegiance suggests is: a land of the free.
“’America is a free country’ one Polish immigrant stated…’you don’t have to be a serf to anyone…freedom and prosperity are enjoyed by the people of the United States.’”1 Despite these immigrant hopes of freedom and prosperity, America was only just beginning to leave behind its roots of slavery; racism and prejudice were still in the air. While African-American men were being given their permission to vote, white women still struggled for that freedom. Immigrants faced dilemmas from some radical white women. “Feminists argued that native-born white women deserved the vote more than non-whites and immigrants.”
2 The struggles of being an immigrant were difficult enough, but to be a woman as well during that era was unlike any other barrier to freedom and inequality at the time. The novel Bread Givers by Anzia Yezierska, an immigrant who lived during that era, discusses what life was like for her demographic during her time through the eyes of a Jewish immigrant girl. Immigrant women in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century faced a slew of harrowing challenges as they faced a changing America.
One of the biggest challenges that immigrant women had to face was exceedingly poor living conditions. Aside from being confined to very tight knit, ethnically uniform neighborhoods and communities3, many areas had landlords or landlord-esque figures set up to enforce strict living requirements which often limited higher quality housing in the immigrant community and female demographic.4 In Bread Givers, Yezeriska’s character, Sara, experiences this dilemma.
She grows up in a tenet fit possibly for a single person or possibly even a couple, and yet she lives with her mother, father, and three other sisters. On top of cramped living conditions, they do not appear to live in an area where access to cheap, safe food is available all the time.5 Later in the novel, an adult Sara is searching for a place to live with a room to herself. She struggles to find any place other than single rooms to share with two to four other women. She often finds herself facing rejection to open rooms. “’No girls,’ snapped this one, too. ‘Why no girls?’ I dared ask the skinny tsarina.
‘I want to keep the house clean. No cooking, no washing. Less trouble, less dirt, with men.’”6 When Sara finally does find a room, it is described as being a room very common to poor immigrants during that time. “It was a dark hole on the ground floor. The only window…was thick with black dust. The bed see-sawed…the mattress full of lumps and the sheets were shreds.”
7 These living conditions often created complications in the health and well-being of these immigrant women, and access to quality health care was rare for immigrant women. Sara’s mother falls ill in the novel and has no access to such care, ultimately leading to her demise.8 These poor living conditions, however, were not the only conflict immigrant women faced. Even when these women left home for work, conditions only worsened.
Job opportunities for the immigrant woman in the United States during that era were remarkably limited. As the job market expanded, skilled labor became more desired and unskilled labor was left to the immigrants and women. These types of jobs came with low wages (some as low as $3 per week) long hours, and dangerous working conditions. Immigrant women were largely confined to low-wage factory jobs, while the job-market for native born white women expanded enormously.
9 In Bread Givers, Sara searches desperately and finds a job in a clothing factory, much like the factories who hired immigrant girls in reality, for five dollars a week. She describes the factory as small, congested, smelly, and filled with fumes with nearly no source of fresh air flow.10 A similar textile factory, The Triangle Shirtwaist Company, burst out in flames on March 25, 1911.
The factory was located on the top three floors of a ten-story building in Greenwich Village of New York City. As the fire spread, the young Jewish and Italian immigrant girls, some as young as 14, began to realize the doors to the stairwells were locked, as per usual in these factors, in order for the owner to prevent theft, “unauthorized bathroom breaks,” “outside distractions” to his employees. In the end, approximately 150 immigrant girls died in the fire, and some of the remaining survivors were arrested for forming a Union against these factories.
11 These inequalities towards immigrant women were prevalent all over the country, but especially in New York City, where a large portion of the immigrant community lived due to its proximity to Ellis Island and its high-volume of unskilled factory jobs. There were also barriers to immigrant women, however, on a smaller, more individualized scale: specific cultural practices.
Women of all cultures, but especially poorer immigrant families, often had high-priority obligations in the home that prevented them from excelling in the world. While many native-born white women were privileged enough to grow up in school and go to college, get educations, and find skilled-labor careers, immigrant girls often had obligations forcing them to stay at home rather than seek an education, find a respectable job, and start their own family at a reasonable age.
Taking into account the poor living conditions found in immigrant communities, as well as the lack of high wage employment and access to health care, women often had responsibilities to their families before pursuing their own lives. In Bread Givers, the meaning of the term “bread givers” was that Sara and her three sisters were obligated to give their earnings to the family, especially the father.12 Although not all immigrant families had patriarchal father figures who demanded all earnings for selfish reasons as the father in Yezierska’s novel did, the structure of income was very common to find in immigrant households.
One of Sara’s sisters, Bessie, was the most crucial “bread giver” early in the story, and later on a man takes interest in her for a wife. “I like a plain home girl that knows how to help save the dollar, cook a good meal, and help in the shop. I think Bessie is just fitting for me.”13 This man takes interest her the same way most men would during that time. He sees her as a woman to uphold household responsibilities and help to save money instead of earn it on her own.
Most of the daughters, except for Sara, end up marrying men for the sake of bringing money into the house in order to support their parents.14 Finally, at the end of the story, the father begins to grow old and sick and it becomes the responsibility of the daughters to take him in and take care of him without question or hesitation.15 These were some of the specific cultural barriers that imposed on the individual freedoms of immigrant women in the United States.
Anzia Yezierska, through her book Bread Givers, provided a very specific, yet realistic depiction of the challenges presented to immigrant women in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century of America. The huge influx of immigrants, especially from southern and eastern Europe, between 1890 and 1914 created a drastically new dynamic in the changing United States.
16 This new dynamic presented countless challenges to immigrants and women alike including poor living conditions, limited job opportunities, and cultural barriers. As our country continues to progress, so will the challenges presented to each individual group, culture, and demographic; therefore, it is crucial to study these past experiences so we may learn to adapt and thrive in those conditions.
Foner, Eric . Give Me Liberty! – An American History, seagull 3e. 3rd. 2. New York, NY: W W Norton , 2012. 546-713. print.
The Power and the People, episode 4 of New York: A Documentary Film, Steeplechase Films, 1999, PBS home video. Yezierska, Anzia . Bread Givers, A Novel. New York, NY: Persea Books, INC, 2003. print.