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Immigrant Women in the Land of Dollars (Excerpt)

This excerpt from Elizabeth Ewen's Immigrant Women in the Land of Dollars describes the economic relationships of working-class immigrant families at the turn of the century. The female head of the family played an important economic role, often being the recipient of pay envelopes from an entire family of workers, which may have included husbands and children as well as boarders. However, as Ewen notes, this arrangement was not without its tensions.

Immigrant families, by necessity, had to create a composite income based on the wages of the father and older children, income from boarders, and the earnings of women from work done at home. Louise More, in her study of wage-earning budgets in New York City in 1909, made a crucial observation about the family economy of immigrant and working-class families:

The number of families entirely dependent on the earnings of one person is small when compared with the number whose incomes include the earnings of the husband, wife, several children, some boarders. . . gifts from relatives, aid from charitable societies, insurance money in the case of death—several or all of these resources may enter into the total resources of that family in a year. Perhaps this income should more accurately be called the household income, for it represents the amount which comes into the family purse and of which the mother usually has the disbursement?

In most working-class families….the older children were required to [turn over their wages]. It was the “general custom for all boys and girls to bring their pay envelopes unopened and (the mother) had the entire disbursement of their wages, giving them 25 cents to one dollar a week spending money according to the prosperity of the family.” The unopened pay envelope was a sign of responsibility and respect for the work of the mother.

Amalia Morandi, an Italian garment worker, restated this pervasive theme: "I gave my pay envelope to my mother. . . I wouldn't dare open it up. . . I'd give it to my mother because I knew that she worked hard for us and I thought this was her compensation."

Mollie Linker articulated another aspect of this relationship: "I gave it all to my mother. It was the respect to bring and give your mother the money."

In the Old World, daughters were expected to support the work of their mothers in the home. But in America, to do this they had to leave the house and go into the factories. Yet mothers expected their daughters to respect the economic priorities of the household, and the sealed pay envelope was a new form of an old responsibility.

* * * * *

Having money to spend on oneself was closely connected to breaking out of the family circle. Amalia Morandi, and Italian garment worker, was a “good girl”—she always brought her pay home and stayed close to her mother. But her sister was different:

She used to open the envelope and take a few dollars if she needed it. They (her sister and friend) would have costume balls and she would come home at 2 o’clock—that was terrible, especially for the Italian people. That was awful, when a woman, a girl at her age, which was 18 or 19, when they came home at 12 o’clock the neighbors would gossip, would say look at that girl coming home by herself. My mother would talk to her, it did no good. It went in one ear and out the other. And then one day she came home and she says to my mother, she wanted to give her board. And my mother says whatdaya mean by board—my mother knew what she meant. She says, oh I give you so much a week, and then the rest is for me. So my mother says alright, go ahead, do what you please.

* * * * *

This transformation of traditional values created particular problems for women. Caught between the desires of their children and devotion (and obedience) to their husbands, called on to reinforce the patriarchal wishes of their husbands, the women found themselves in the middle of emotionally explosive family situations. In addition, traditions of patriarchy demanded that female children be subordinate and inferior, and immigrant daughters were allowed little leeway in their desire for independence, schooling, and sexual freedom. Since these demands frequently also challenged the mother’s standards of proper female behavior, she had to steer a course between the authority and discipline of her husband, the wishes of her daughters, and her own sensibilities.

Source | Elizabeth Ewen, Immigrant Women in the Land of Dollars: Life and Culture on the Lower East Side 1890-1925 (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1985).
Creator | Elizabeth Ewen
Item Type | Book (excerpt)
Cite This document | Elizabeth Ewen, “Immigrant Women in the Land of Dollars (Excerpt),” HERB: Resources for Teachers, accessed December 17, 2018, https://herb.ashp.cuny.edu/items/show/624.

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