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Immigration Archives - The Economic and Social Value of Immigrant Woman


What becomes of the ever-increasing number of immigrant women who come to this country ? Do they enter the ranks of laborers or of drifters ? Do they rise in the scale of human life and friendship, or deteriorate ? The labor and vote of immigrant men are so valuable to the business interests of this country, that there is much available information as to what becomes of them, but no corresponding data for immigrant women.

The Inter-Municipal Research Committee, in cooperation with others, has set out to gather this information, particularly for the young and unmarried women during their first three years of residence. This is the critical period, and their life and work during that time constitute a great social, economic, and moral factor in the progress and development of this country and its people.

As these studies are in process, and the space limited, these questions cannot be answered exhaustively nor finally.

Immigrant women, quite as much as immigrant men, belong to the exploited and disinherited group, and though we flatter ourselves that women are better protected than men, immigrant women upon their arrival have no advantage in laws or trade over men, and are at a. disadvantage politically.

The Problem of Immigrant Women

The problem of immigrant women is not entirely that of immigrant men, for two main reasons. First, the labor, housing, and wages of women are more complicated by questions of sex and morality; and second, the field of domestic service, which takes great numbers of them, has an influence unlike that of any other occupation.

It is a mistake to attempt to understand or solve the social, industrial, and moral questions arising from immigration without considering the women. Yet this is the most common of mistakes, as is illustrated by the recent three-day conference, held under the auspices of the National Civic Federation. There "the whole question was discussed," but there was no mention made of immigrant women.

For the year ending June 30, 1905, 301,585 women, nearly one-half of the number of men, came to this country. The great majority of these came here for work. 19 out of every 100 native American women are engaged in gainful occupations; but 32 out of every 100 foreign-born women are so engaged, and the percentage is increasing.

In my investigation of several thousand unmarried immigrant women, and married immigrant women without children, who had arrived within three years, fully 90 per cent were found at work or looking for work. Furthermore, among sueh nationalities as the Poles, Lithuanians, Hungarians, and others, young women are banding together and coining over in small gangs, without connections of any kind on this side, for the purpose of working.

The Value of Immigrant Women

The chief value of women immigrants to this country at the present time is industrial. They are a greater industrial factor than is generally reeognized. They bear as important a relation to households, factories, and shops, as contract laborers do to the business, commerce, and transportation interests of the country. The demand fully equals that for men.

The nature of their employment, their means of obtaining work, conditions of work, and effect upon industry, are therefore of the first importance. By far the greatest number are found in domestic service. The household industry is literally dependent upon the immigrant, and a famine of labor would result should this supply be cut off. This is in a scarcely less degree true of the factories.

For the year ending June 30, 1905, 84 per cent of all women entering the port of New York gave domestic service as their occupation; of Philadelphia, 65 per cent; and of Boston, se per cent. The last available statistics for Massachusetts show that 16,694 women were engaged in domestic service in Boston, and of this number 80 per cent were foreign-born.

In Chieago there are many agencies entirely for foreign women. In New York city there are 169 agencies run for the purpose of distributing immigrant house-workers, chiefly women. Many others also supply immigrants. This dependence upon immigrants is proportionally true in most of the cities where the negro is not the main source of supply. The small town also has increasing numbers of foreign-born houseworkers.

Notwithstanding the constant increase in immigration, under the present conditions of prosperity, the demand far exceeds the supply. The first problem which faces the immigrant is the need of work which she can do.

The Type of Immigrant Woman

The American housewife is depending upon the immigrant to solve her domestic problem, while the great number of immigrants come to America to be free, and especially from all badges of servitude. To them America is something beautiful, and represents a great opportunity. Ordinarily they are unskilled and may be willing to be household workers while learning English and American ways and acquiring training; but housewives who are looking to the immigrant as a means of establishing a trained servant class in this country, will be disappointed, for opportunities are open to them to enter any trade, profession, or home for which they fit themselves.

The immigrant then is a transient, not a permanent, domestic worker. The privilege of the American housewife is to train the green immigrant, not for her permanent or even long service, but to give her knowledge, efficiency, culture, and a democratic spirit. When she has acquired these, the power of choice becomes hers, and she leaves for a trade or public house where the conditions are better, hours regular, duties definite, and social isolation and discrimination not so pronounced.

Because of her greater knowledge and efficiency, and recently acquired higher standard of living, these have become essential to her happiness. The number who enter housework and desert it within a year or two is alarming from the point of view of the industry. Many many young, but many others desert to the trades.

Of 300 Jewish girls who were placed at household work on their arrival, when visited at the end of the first year fully two-thirds of those not married had gone into factories, stores, millinery, or other sewing trades. In Philadelphia, out of 500 girls traced, less than 10 per cent were in household industry. In Chicago many desert to the stock-yards, and in Massachusetts to the mills.

The Nationalities of Women Immigrants

While the number of all nationalities is increasing, there were in 1905, 78,136 women immigrants from Austria-Hungary, — three times as many as came from Ireland, Germany, or England, and nearly seven times as many as from Sweden or Norway.

From Russia there were 51,883 women, or more than from Sweden, Germany, and England put together. From Italy 38,761 women, or more than from Germany and Sweden. To meet the increasing demand for household workers, the increase has not been among the Germans, Swedes, English, Irish, and other hitherto considered most desirable aliens, but among races more or less untried and more difficult to assimilate. The following table of persons who gave domestic service as their occupation on entering America shows where the increase has come: --

1000. 1905.
Bohemian 8 % 17 %
Bulgarian —1 1
Slavonians 2 6.1
nutth andhouseworkers 30 5
English 7 S
Finns 18 17
French S 13
German 4 15
Hebrews 1.5 6
Irish 4.3 4.2
Italians 4 6.8
South Italia= 4 4.6
Japanese 1.7 1.8
Lithuanians 1 13
Magyar 1.3 11
Polish 2.8 16
Ruthenian, Russian —1 17
Scandinavian 27 or

There are increases in Dutchrench and German, but the employers of general houseworkers will find small consolation, for the increasing demand for ladies' maids, companions, nurses for children, and personal attendants, is necessarily met chiefly by these and kindred nationalities.

The bulk of immigrant women represent races having wide language variations, and not only a different standard of living, but variations from the American social standard —all serious matters where a worker becomes a part of the home.

Two civilizations meet in intimate tinily contact under one roof. The one often represents experiences, traditions, superstitions, and suspicions of a middle-age progress and opportunity, together with a different language and religion. The other often represents an advanced civilization which has little sympathy with or understanding of the other.

The transition of the peasant from Russia or Austria or Hungary to the American home is, at its very best, difficult and perplexing. Even where the worker goes, as many thousands do, into the home of one of her own nationality, who has been here one or more generations, the transition is not an easy one.

The question of difficult adjustment is also complicated by that of limited supply. Few Italian women are found in household work. In New York, where the greatest majority enter, there is but one agency which furnishes Italian girls and that one "only once in a while "

The Italian girls are, however, attracted by the light and music and color of the cafés and restaurants, and are entering them to such an extent as to present a grave moral situation. The Italian man is opposed to menial work for women, and the Italian feeling of the "impropriety of their going about unaccompanied " prevents to any degree their isolation as household workers, which would remove the guardianship now maintained.

The home ties of the Jews are proverbially strong, and there also exists a prejudice against personal service, The difference in food and in its preparation is an obstacle to their working in Christian families or for unorthodox Jews. The Jewish girl prefers to return to her home at night, and to marry young, and she is consequently found in the restaurant, hotel, and boarding-house, or in factories and shops.

There are more than 75 agencies in New York city run by Jews for the purpose of placing Jewish girls in households, hotels, restaurants. and similar places. They are well patronized, but not so much by girls who have been here several years. Domestic training-schools started for Jewish immigrant girls have failed utterly.

Germans, French, Scandinavians, English, Irish, and Canadians are found in large numbers in domestic work, and are much in demand. The difficulties are that they come in small numbers, and many prefer mills and factories and are quite as much in demand by business men.

Housewives can well complain to their husbands that their competition has depleted the homes of its domestic workers. The tendency of the Scandinavians to colonize withdraws many from the cities. The rapid assimilation of American standards and customs and freedom by Germans and Irish makes them train their children for occupations other than housework.

Classes of Women Immigrants

Roughly speaking, there are three classes of immigrants who arc coining to America.

  1. Those who come because the way is made easy and who do not intend to work. They hope to live off their friends and relations, or marry. They are the drifters, and contribute to the immorality among foreign-speaking peoples.
  2. Those who come on promises of high wages and easy work. They mean to work, but at something they like, and they mean to be free. They are independent and demand good wages in domestic work from the start. They frequently leave for the shop.
  3. Those who have been poor beasts of burden, and are driven to this haven by persecution, taxation, wretehedness, starvation, oppression, and the great desire to better their condition. They are willing to learn, will do anything that comes to hand, and in their generation, barring marriage, rarely leave domestic work or get beyond the factory or sweat-shop door.

These last two classes, who constitute our present and future domestic workers, include ever-increasing numbers of Jews, Hungarians, Poles, Bohemians, Lithuanians, and Portuguese. In their racial, industrial, historical, social, and political life, they are not closely allied with the Anglo-Saxon race. Their language is another bar.

Assimilation of races from Northern and Western Europe, that at one time constituted the greater part of immigration, is an easier matter than of these races. The standard of living is also radically different. Many are peasants unused to any other than field work. They frequently have lived in one or two room huts and have crude ideas of food and its preparation, housing, sanitation and cleanliness, and have no idea whatever of the methods, appliances, or utensils in use in American homes.

Influences are also at work that are changing the moral fibre of the immigrants. Formerly they came for some strong political, religious, or economic reason. They meant to win their way by hard work. They had to suffer many privations in order to come, and they came to stay — to make this their home, and not to earn as much money as possible and then go back and live in case.

Strong characters equal to these privations came, and they made equally good citizens. Now the desire to emigrate is artificially stimulated, and this is more successful in countries from which undesirable workers come. In Ireland and Sweden there are anti-emigration societies which prevent many young girls from coming to America, and these countries, including Germany, have a knowledge of the lack of protection given young women in our cities, and prevent many from coming.

The Causes of Misguided Immigration by Women

Steamship ticket agents offer cheap rates and present alluring and misleading pictures of ease. Friends and relatives send them the money. Employment agents lure them on and are their only friends and advisers when they arrive. Two ignorant immigrant girls came over here because they had been told gold could be found in the streets. They were found in an agency, without food, refusing work, because they daily expected to find gold.

This is the immigrant girl who becomes the prey of idlers and procurers in cities, for they promise "easy work and high wages." Other promises equally preposterous are the cause of their leaving home. When they come under such inducements they are easily discontented and fall into the casual labor class, working a short time here and there and not content anywhere. Domestic service is well at the head of the list of casual labor industries.

There are other explanations of the prevailing inefficiency. Not only have American standards advanced, but formerly the employer went to Castle Garden or to the immigrant home for her employee. Now she resorts to the employment agency. The employment agencies in the cities are the first, chief, and only training-schools for thousands of immigrant women yearly, and the whole country is affected by their training, for the women go from them to all parts of the country.

The agency is a net essary means of distribution, but the employer makes a great mistake in tolerating it as a training-school and as the sole interpreter to immigrant women of the standards, requirements, and wages in American homes. Legislation is powerless to change this condition. Household employers will do well to bear in mind that they provide no better training-schools. Several agencies, started in the employer's interest, by intelligent persons, have failed because the employers have not supported them.

The agent is frequently foreign-born, knows little or nothing of the American household standards, or if so, ignores them, works for a fee, and his sympathies are with the immigrant. If the immigrant is too old for the position, the agent starts her American career by teaching her to lie, a step made necessary, in his judgment, by the false standard of age instead of efficiency, on which the employer insists. Next she is told that she can get high wages for what she can do, and so he teaches her a few replies to questions which will make her appear efficient.

She thus starts with an erroneous idea of her own worth, and when discharged for incompetency the agent immediately gets her another place and labels her "experienced." What is she to think of our wonderful country, where she is offered two dollars more a month when she has just been discharged as "incapable" ? She must be "neat, clean, and industrious," and the agent tells her what this means in America, and it is difficult to make her understand afterward that he has misrepresented.

She asks for a "steady job." The agent prefers to place her for a month and then call for her for another patron, thereby making another fee. Sh.e does not know this is his object, but in a short time she likes changing about, and her idea of a steady place becomes half a dozen in a year.

These arc only instances of the kind of training given by the agent, for he really eontinues her education. She visits him frequently, goes to him for advice or when out of work, and sees much of American life as he represents it.

But his influence does not end there. The household worker, unlike any other worker, when she loses her position loses her "home," and it may be at an hour's notice. The immigrant homes will take such a worker in, but these are unknown to the great majority, and the house-worker, if known as such, is barred from most working-girls' clubs, homes, and hotels. So the agent and his boardinghouse friend take her in.

The boardinghouse keepers, anxious for the lodging fee, frequently refuse to let the immigrant girls work anywhere but in hotels and restaurants, and they become the active competitors of household employee. The surroundings of these agency lodging-houses and boarding-houses are such that the employer would hesitate to employ a woman coming from them; and the woman used to the sociability, intemperance, associations, glare, and crowd, becomes ill adapted for isolation in a private family. These associations, which usually include seeing the sights, create impressions from which it is difficult to break away. Even after living with relatives in a tenement, the loneliness of the private family is appalling to her.

When asking the question why immigrant women do not choose housework, it is well for the housewife to remember that they come to America for a home, and that a thing which can be taken away from them at an hour's notice cannot mean that, for it is only a place. To be homeless in a great city on short notice has perils whieh even the ignorant peasant quickly realizes.

Immigrant Women as Domestic Workers

I have tried to make clear that immigrant women constitute the main source of supply of domestic workers in cities; that they are transient -workers; and that their inadaptability and inefficiency require more patience, training, and adjustability on the part of housewives in order that they may become good workers. Nevertheless, with al.i of these disadvantages, they make it possible for the housewife to care for her home properly and to have leisure and time to participate in other occupations. But for these conditions she gives much more than do most other employers.

If the immigrant worker is not able at first to meet the complex demands of the American home, one of two things results. The first is — and it is the great reason why immigrants should be encouraged to go into domestic work that in no way can the immigrant learn so quickly and so well the American customs and standards. There is no greater help to assimilation than work in the American home.

All of the culture and advantages of the Lome are placed at her disposal. She leans to do things for her own home, and stores up many things for a wise training of her children, which she could not learn in many years if she went directly into the factory. This is her opportunity. The races whose women go into household work are more Americanized than those who do not. Not only does the worker profit, but she carries to her friends and relatives the knowledge and habits and customs and new things that she has learned. But it is the employer's responsibility to see that she learns good standards and customs and real culture.

The life which some American homes place before their employees, and which to these employees is typical of America, is more misleading and pernicious than the training in employment agencies. These employers do not realize that they are poor patriots in holding out such standards to the eager immigrant.

Every housewife who takes a green immigrant woman into her home is largely responsible for her impressions of American life and belief in American ideals. In the alternative of receiving such good standards lies the real danger. Where the standard of the American home is not superior to that of the immigrant worker, the employee gradually lowers the standard of the employer.

Where supervision is lax, intelligence low, and the housekeeping neglected, the employee gradually adopts the standards of sanitation, hygiene, and conversation which she was taught in the crowded tenement. The housewife now tolerates it where she at first rebelled against it. The care of the children is entrusted to the servant, and they are taught things and do things that are ignored in order to "keep the maid." Thus the whole tone is lowered and the home ceases to be a means of culture or advantage to the worker.

'The housewife almost invariably has the selfish point of view: she objects to training green immigrant girls because they leave her for some one else, and says her "effort is wasted." It may be wasted in so far as her own home is concerned, but not only is some other home benefited, but the immigrant is a great gainer, and household employers become direct contributors to the public welfare.

One main justification for the existence of domestic service, which is not a productive trade but economically parasitic, is that culture may be diffused, and that the homes of immigrant women who marry may be patterned after those of their former employers, and their children be reared according to American standards.

From this brief discussion of immigrant women in domestic work, it may be said that domestic service is preferable for them when they first arrive, especially for races which do not readily assimilate. Since the demand exceeds the supply, and the industry is dependent upon foreign-born workers, and their children, this supply should be increased in the following ways: —

  1. Greater supervision of work, and training by housewives, and a higher home standard, so that the immigrant will realize more quickly its advantages in making her a better citizen.
  2. Establishment of training-schools or transition schools for newly arrived immigrants, instead of leaving all of this training to employment agents. These schools eannot be entirely for training in domestic work, for the girls will not attend them. They need to offer courses in English, American standards of living, personal hygiene, sanitation, information about rights, wages, conditions of work, etc. Folk dances, games, amusements of their nationalities, to lessen the isolation in a new country, will attract them.
  3. Friendly visiting of young immigrant workers in their own homes when they first arrive and are looking for work, so that they may become interested in the right kind of work and be directed to fair employers to whom they will make fair representations.
  4. A cooperative movement on the part of employers, with agents abroad, to bring in desirable workers. This is being done by various states and employers for other kinds of labor.
  5. Effective competition with other industries by placing housework on a business basis and making the conditions compare favorably with those in shop and factory.
  6. Patronage of agencies which maintain good standards. Most employers never inquire about agency conditions or the relation of the agent to the girl, so long as they are treated satisfactorily.
  7. Treatment of the green immigrant worker as a human being. Many leave housework because of impositions made by employers. This question of domestic service is not one of what immigrants shall do to get work in houses, but what employers must do to obtain enough immigrant workers for their homes.
  8. Protection of young immigrant women who come here, so that they may find honest work. Business men are interested in obtaining laws to prevent the exploitation of their employees and in movements to make them efficient. But in many cases housewives permit, without apparent interest, the exploitation and demoralization of young women who would have become honest workers had they been protected upon arrival. The cafe, disorderly house, amusement den, massage parlor, and other places which have a bad or doubtful influence, have little difficulty in obtaining a corps of workers, and the household employers' superficial treatment of the causes of the insufficiency of workers aids them.
  9. Some provisions for lodging household workers when out of employment. Household employers will find a great field for work in improving lodging conditions for domestie workers.

The Atlantic Monthly, VOL. 100 - NO. September 1907


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