Elizabeth Ewen, Immigrant Women in the Land of Dollars: Life and Culture on the Lower East Side 1890-1925, 1985

Published in 1985, Elizabeth Ewen’s Immigrant Women in the Land of Dollars: Life and Culture on the Lower East Side 1890-1925 illustrates many of the new developments in women’s history during the 1980s. Other works such as Joanne Meyerowitz’s Women Adrift, Kathy Piess’ Cheap Amusements, and Ruth Rosen’s The Lost Sisterhood examined the lives of single women in burgeoning urban metropolises attempting to replace traditional narratives emphasizing victimization with examples of female agency. Ewen contributes to this movement, however, rather than focus on single women, Ewen explores the daily lives of Jewish and Italian immigrant mothers and their children, extrapolating ways in which these women policed themselves, their families, and their communities, while simultaneously trying to assert their own authority among all three.

If previous generations of historians explored labor histories, workplace battles, or electoral politics for agency, Ewen and others have expanded the sources used to construct such narratives. Utilizing the working class through the eyes of reformers and immigrant women, Ewen looks wider to include the cultural activities of daily life such as mothering, child rearing, community activity, shopping, and leisure. By looking at these processes, particularly among Jewish and Italian women, Ewen reveals new aspects of “Americanization” which she argues implies “exchanging one nationality for another. But it is more than that: it is also the initiation of people into an emerging industrial and consumer society.” (15). However, this process of industrialization and urbanization affected all citizens not just immigrants. Even the native born had problems adjusting as wage labor altered family dynamics and notions of womanhood. Immigrant women balanced special responsibilities such as maintaining Old World traditions/rituals while integrating themselves and their children into the broader American economy/society.

Social reformers serve as a key factor in Ewen’s discussion. By the late nineteenth century and early twentieth, many reforms turned to environmental explanations for juvenile delinquency, vice, and prostitution. Immigrant working class homes and neighborhoods befuddled activists who saw crowded, unsanitary, and distinctly non- middle class domesticity. If the mothers of the new reformers viewed poverty as a “character flaw” and that their presence was akin to “missionaries to the poor, the daughters saw themselves as advocates for the poor.” (79) Older reformers and many “new ones”, failed to grasp the informal social networks that developed within communities between immigrant women. Ewen avoids denigrating the efforts of reformers completely especially since they settlement house movement represented new attempts to “Americanize” immigrant women which granted the new arrivals more agency and dignity than had previous reformers, “women social workers were the only people in America who had a passionate interest in the lives and problems of immigrant mothers and their daughters.”(77) Settlement leaders like Lillian Wald (Henry Street Settlement House), Mary Simkhovitch (founder Greenwich House), and Jane Adams (Hull House – Chicago) incorporated themselves much more into the daily lives of immigrant communities, however, even with these efforts settlement houses often still reflected the difficult class confusions that existed between the two. Shifting ideas of the role of parents and children further muddled relations, “The old society was patriarchal; the new society was child centered. The struggle to liberate the child from the industrial or primitive family thus became one of the most important goals of modern social work.” (85) Reformers often mistook family cohesion and unity, they “were continually amazed to find well worked out systems of neighborly support and solidarity in their new communities – forms of assistance unthinkable in their own lives, where economic stability and privacy were barriers to a vibrant community life.” (86) Indeed, the overcrowding and need to create informal support networks in working class/immigrant communities were conditions foreign to middle class activists. Reformers had thought immigrant mothers to be isolated from the community while slowly losing control of their children, however, as already noted, immigrant families did reorganize themselves to deal with American circumstances, “Immigrant women were considered incapable of transmitting the social and cultural values of American middle class family life. Consequently, they were seen as children … “ (97) However, Ewen’s examples such as the interaction of immigrant women at the local market, policing the sexual behavior of their own communities, or their participation in the 1917 “food riots” illustrate a deep level of interaction that reformers mistook for vagrancy or immigrant “passion.”

The growth of an industrial economy greatly altered gender dynamics. Wage work pulled women from the home into public areas while also forcing households to adapt the expanding consumer society/culture. Name brand products came to be status symbols, as did particular fashions. Fashion bedeviled relations between immigrant mothers and their daughters while also presenting a divide between middle class observers and working women. Daughters appropriated fashions for “its symbolic power- style above durability and comfort” (69). As well, “American” clothing might prove useful in attaining employment. However, such displays upset reformers, “some middle class moralists were upset at the displays of finery; in their minds, the poor should look poor.” (69) The home became a battleground for reformers who insisted on middle class levels of cleanliness and hygiene.

Like other writers, Ewen notes that the conservative nature of Italian and Jewish families led to more attempts to control the lives of their daughters. This led to generational conflicts. Commericialized leisure and a growing youth working class culture exacerbated these tensions. However not all commercialized leisure threatened such families. Movies both offered a sense of community allowing a wider array of people to participate in leisure while simultaneously providing relief from the same neighborhood through cinematic escapism. Again, like other historians Ewen notes the working class origins of film and its early mores.

Ultimately, the pull between Old World standards, American economic/social beliefs, and the tensions within families themselves meant “daily life became a theatre of cultural conflict.” (266). Immigrant mothers had to balance all three, depending on informal networks of family and community that “reveals a crazy quilt of custom and assimilation, of resistance and complicity, or understanding and confusion.” (266). This proved complicated as consumer culture encouraged assimilation, making Old World traditions appear “backwards”, simultaneously, social workers tried to reshape immigrant homes and family practices. Ewen reminds the reader of the complex interplay between consumer society’s hopes and its painful realities, “The hard economic realities of urban working class life demanded that immigrant families and communities retain their bonds of obligation and care. While the cultural dispatches from the consumer society lured the immigrants with promises of bounty and independence, the hardships of everyday life taught another lesson – and mothers were its primary teachers.” (267).

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License