Immigrant Women in the Land of Dollars

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Elizabeth Ewen.Immigrant Women:Life and Culture on the Lower East Side, 1890-1925, New York: Monthly Review Press. 1985. pp. 303. $15.00. Paper: ISBN 0853456828 .

Contents

Summary

Immigrant Women in the Land of Dollars is the story of Jewish and Italian women and the often closed world that they inhabited. Written in 1985 as American Studies and exploded and social history was mushrooming, this work draws on oral history, archival records and contemporary periodicals to explain how complex life was at the turn of the century. The years bracket an almost inconceivable amount of change and Ewen captures this in many ways as seen through the eyes of women. This is women’s history written to help paint a more complete picture of social life and choice. Starting with the draw of America and then looking at the old country, Ewen moves through the story of confrontation with American culture, the difficulties with the children and then Americanization all the while giving a good sense of the lonely nature of these women. This is not to say they were not surrounded and supported by those near them, rather, they felt alienated from American culture in dress or language.

Much of the story is told by the social workers and others who encountered these women in settlement houses or as part of social reforms, this is an important and well documented part of urban history. Immigrant Women takes us more towards their feelings and struggles while showing the various ways in which they were able to negotiate the system to their advantage. This does not in any way negate the disease, poverty, deplorable living conditions, instead it shows us that these women were able to survive a hostile world. The role of ethnicity should also not be overlooked as these Jewish and Italian women were both culturally bound and as such had strict ideas about marriage, dating, foodways, etc. Nowhere is this more evident, according to Ewen, than in the role of the daughter. These young women needed to be protected and insulated and often they found themselves trying to get their parents to adopt American culture. While none of this seems new, it is important to remember that this first generation of social historians really helped define the questions and introduce the consumer culture questions that Lizabeth Cohen and others would explore 20 years later.

Immigrant Women is peppered with first person accounts and examples of how women were able to strike, protest at home and in the streets and how they were committed to the family to the point of great self sacrifice. The movies, funerals, restaurants, sweatshops, and shopping were all opportunities for women to express themselves and to encounter a new American culture. Ewen wants the reader to take away a sense that these women lived as members of an imagined community and each day were confronted with reminders of difference. In the face of these odds, “daily life became a theater of cultural conflict” (p. 266) It is this approach that we take away from this work along with the idea that mass culture could also be an area of contestation between generations.

Commentary

Alan S. Brody, Spring, 2011

This work reminds me of Eleanor Flexner’s 1972 Century of Struggle: The Woman’s Rights Movement in the United States (ISBN 0674106539) as an attempt to bring forward the role of women’s studies in the historiography in a way that presents some of the complexities and foundational questions. As Ewen herself sees them, the Lower East Side was the site of economic conflict and was an, “amalgam of old and new, it contained vital old world institutions and the most modern cultural offerings.” (p. 16) This is not new, however, the desire to look for these linkages and ask the essential questions were helping to push the field forward at the time. During this same time, the terms ‘modernity’ and ‘imperialism’ were in vogue, although the former seems especially troubling to some today and hegemony seems in some ways to have replaced the framework of the latter. What this tells us is that women and their relationship to mass (read American) consumer culture was a fertile ground for starting to think about history from the point of view of the least privileged.

There is a meta narrative of admiration in this book and while it doesn’t lessen the work, it also speaks to the style which has the feel of a more popular narrative. While there is a solid mix of narrative and interpretation, it reads easily and quickly, and gives a good sense of the chaotic and frenetic life these women lead. This is a survey of many aspects of American life from the schools to the movies to cooking and cleaning and working in many ways. Throughout these women continue to sacrifice and be caught in their duality. Despite the odds, they manage to survive and prosper and build community. There are many small aspects of life that receive mention and one is struck by how much and how little life changed for these women, some of the informants report great upheaval and others seem content to continue in the rhythms of the old country. Life on the Lower East Side had a certain nomadic quality and the day to day existence was tenuous at best.

For urban historians, this book helps lay out the foundation for thinking about the ways in which a particular group of people inhabited and used city space in a particular time period. It is not the micro study that would come in to fashion later, nor is it the political history that dominated the traditional historiography. This is a wonderful transitional book, important for its place in the American Studies canon as much as the contribution to women’s and social histories. My edition contains the tag ‘ethnic studies’ and one wonders of all studies are not ethnic studies? Elizabeth Ewen meets her stated goal of reminding us that a more complicated and ‘textural’ history is needed to fully understand and embrace these women and their culture.

Sheri A. Huerta, Fall 2012

Ewen’s work articulates the complex interplay of many voices and concerns during this period of urban growth. As such, her work does provide a solid foundation of sources and methodology for later social historians such as Kathy Peiss and her work Cheap Amusements: Working Women and Leisure in Turn-of-the-Century New York (ISBN 9780877225003) to investigate the relationships between gender, culture, and space. A narrow reading of Ewen’s goal of defining “what it meant to be a woman” emphasizes the challenges to Jewish and Italian mothers and daughters as they reconciled to various degrees new expectations for behavior and work with traditional values and customs (30). This question also alludes to the parallel search for identity among the middle-class social workers who entered ethnic neighborhoods as they faced similar tensions between the “family claim” and the “social claim,” an interesting point alludes to, but marginalized within the greater narrative of immigrant experiences (78).

The role of Americanization as part of creating an efficient, modern urban environment presents a primary avenue for cultural contact between the groups of women. The use of contemporary social worker magazines like Survey and statistical studies on urban living conditions and cultural perspectives from works like Charities and the Commons pulls out major themes from progressive goals and surveys, adding critical details to the work. Ewen presents viewpoints from both immigrant and social worker perspectives, but the interaction between the groups of women always appear to be cordial or impersonal, yet accepted to some degree, even if the scientific approaches advocated by social workers seemed incongruous to the demands of motherhood and to the logistical limitations of an urban tenement. Ewen claims the tension between the groups “was not over the need to change the external conditions of motherhood in an urban slum environment, but over how and what knowledge was to be incorporated into the rhythm and patterns of daily life” (139).

Ewen also uncovers examples of immigrant mothers organizing collections of money or food in the face of economic or personal crisis to support neighbors as an ad hoc welfare system, an aspect of community life often neglected in other works for more sensational examples of despair and poverty faced in isolation. The ability of women to recreate close village-like ties among new social groups demonstrated an adaptation of old world customs in a new world urban setting, a theme that runs counter to narratives that focus solely on the adverse effects of Americanization. While the process of Americanization often resulted in the loss of certain traditional customs, Ewen also uncovers evidence women transferred their domestic authority, financial skills, or labor organizing abilities to advantage in the Lower East Side, a perspective that often goes unnoticed. Ewen uses this tension between old and new as examples for how mothers “preserve[d] those features of tradition that were essential to survival” as a measure of immigrant ingenuity, adaption, and power, not subordination (267).

These examples of collective action as a form of social welfare rather than case studies of desperation portray urban life worthy of the title of a “land of dollars.” This view of urban life appears a little too rosy, perhaps tainted by the overly nostalgic views of childhood experiences gleaned from fictional literary sources and oral interviews conducted after decades of time eroded or faded the harsher edges of memories. Yet, the ability to reconcile multiple sources provides the scholar the ability to broaden the scope of interpretation and explore further avenues of research. Ewen’s work articulates the complexity of integrating old world Jewish and Italian cultural traditions into an urban American environment focused increasingly on consumerism and concepts of progressive modernity, especially for a new generation growing up without the traditions of the previous life or community structures of the old world. Yet she also suggests that these changes also affected members of the middle classes seeking ways to identify and justify their “American” culture and values through social work, settlement houses, and Americanization programs. This dynamic shows that the push to Americanize also reveals something about the motives to justify that culture as much as the motives to change other cultures. As such, Ewen provides a foundation for exploring the tenacity of cultural principles and values from multiple sources that demands attention to many voices from the perspective of generation, culture, gender, and class.

Sheri A. Huerta-- 16:05, 3 September 2012 (UTC)

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