When examining immigrant history, scholars usually first look at things like changes in immigration law, population and demographical statistics, economic developments and implications, and the social impact of the changing ethnic makeup of our country. Rarely when studying immigration history, do we stop to examine the individual lifestyles of these immigrants, aside from studies pertaining to work. Recently I noticed that this is especially evident when looking at the lack of time and effort put into the study of immigrant women, so today we will to take a brief look at the roles of immigrant women throughout American history.
While the husband plays the role of the breadwinner of the family within an immigrant household (at least financially), the role of the immigrant woman is equally, if not more important. The immigrant wife is in charge of forming social ties in the community, which as newcomers in a society is especially helpful in finding one’s way around and getting help when needed. These communities were unique in that they were formed organically through genuine care and kinship, rather than through institutions such as schools, churches, or workplaces and helped to tie entire families together, not just the women. Immigrant women often formed these close-knit communities to help each other to plan events, exchange materials and services such as childcare, and other activities essential to the upkeep of the community. One example of an especially productive immigrant community is that of a small group of Jewish women who rallied together to effectively protest against high Kosher meat prices, organized a successful rent strike, and created a movement to control gang violence in their city.
It is also important to recognize the shortcomings in the history of immigrant women. Immigrant women did not share nearly as many opportunities as their male counterparts or really any other group within American society. It was all too common in the past for boys in immigrant families to be sent to school much longer than girls, with girls being sent to work early or kept at home instead to complete housework. It was also common practice that if both children were earning a wage, sons were allowed to keep their entire paycheck and only pay their mothers for rent and supplies, while daughters were expected to give up their entire paychecks and receive a small allowance of said paycheck in return. In general, immigrant sons were privileged with a bit more freedom and leeway for personal choices and expression, while immigrant women were very limited in both opportunity and resources.