Printer Friendly

Memories of Migration: Gender, Ethnicity, and Work in the Lives of Jewish and Italian Women in New York, 1870-1924.

Students of immigrant women in the U.S. work within an impressive array of disciplines, yet each disciplinary group remains surprisingly insular and unaware of research beyond its own methodological boundaries. In this brave attempt at interdisciplinary analysis, Kathie Friedman-Kasaba exhibits a thorough understanding of the methods and findings of world-systems analysis, women's studies and social history. One hears in the book, as well, Kasaba's desire to speak to her colleagues in cultural studies, with its postmodernist language and concerns about multi-positionality and identity. Kasaba argues forcefully that migrants are the "the central or defining figure of the twentieth century" (p. 175) precisely because their lives are so entwined with the vast, international economic, political, and social changes of our own time.

To a great degree, methodological concerns dominate Memories of Migration; the sources used to examine the lives of Italian and Jewish women immigrants are almost all published and secondary. In fact Kasaba asserts quite clearly in her first chapter that her intention is "to develop a framework for interpreting and evaluating the extent of changes in immigrant women's social position or status, by connecting it to the forces of proletarianization, sexism, and racism/nativism embedded within the developmental processes of the world system." (p. 9) Historians accustomed to scholars mining new bodies of primary sources should nevertheless take the book seriously.

One reason is that Kasaba's framework is itself a sensible one. Kasaba views women's changing work lives in relationship to economic transformations in sending and receiving countries. She considers the political relationships that structured women's lives on both sides of the Atlantic, and she explores how social and cultural ties to family, friends, and community shaped women's choices. Ultimately her goal is to shed light on "the more subjective side of self-determination," women's autonomy or - following Anzia Yezierska - their struggle "to become a person." (pp. 8, 9) In an introductory chapter, Kasaba describes her framework as an alternative to what she calls "unproductive polarizations" in the study of immigrant women - notably between micro- and macro-levels of analysis. Rather than seek what Nancy Green has called a "mezzo" level of analysis, Kasaba seeks to link micro and macro-, in an exercise somewhat different from, but in every way compatible with work by Ewa Morawska and myself. In Kasaba's work, the social historian unfamiliar with sociological thought and research gets a particularly helpful introduction to the theoretical and methodological issues raised by the study of immigrant women.

The body of the book is four chapters focused on the lives of Italian and Jewish immigrant women. Kasaba's intention - successfully fulfilled - is to understand what is specific to the lives of women of differing national origins, class and marital status, rather than to describe what is shared by "all immigrant women in general." (p. 12, emphasis hers) Two chapters focus on women's lives in each of the immigrant homelands, Russia and Italy. These are followed by a chapter that compares the two groups of working-class immigrant wives/mothers and a parallel chapter on immigrant daughters/single women in New York. Economic transformations and political relationships dominate the chapters on the homelands, while attention to political relationships - especially between middle-class, female and native-born maternalist reformers and their immigrant women clients - and community of women's "co-ethnics" figure more prominently in the chapters on New York.

Occasionally, Kasaba herself finds it hard to dispense entirely with the "unproductive polarizations" she criticizes. The titles of her chapters on the homeland suggest that Jewish women were pushed from home ("Why Did We Have to Leave?"), while Italian women depended on men to respond to the pull of the new world ("Take Me to America"). Overall, however, her account successfully portrays the ambiguous, often paradoxical outcomes of migration. Kasaba argues forcefully that married women experienced intensified subordination as a result of migration. Here she focuses particularly on "racial nativist" concerns with immigrant women's fertility and on efforts to teach immigrant mothers of both groups the rules of American domesticity, challenging, and undermining, their authority in the home. (In this case, Kasaba's chapter title is beautifully chosen: "So, We Have Crossed Half the World for This?") Immigrant daughters and single women found themselves subject to some of the same pressures, in the form of campaigns against immigrant prostitution and for narrowly-defined female vocational training. Enjoying greater wage-earning work options, however, all began, in limited ways, to develop "the right to a personality."

Kasaba recognizes that migration meant different outcomes for Jewish and Italian women in New York. When Jewish women sought jobs, they worked in an "ethnic enclave economy" (the garment industry, with its many Jewish contractors and factory-owners). When they sought public services, too, they generally found themselves interacting with middle-class representatives of their own faith. Kasaba believes that the Jewish community thus deflected the full impact of racial nativism on women, while binding them ever more tightly to culturally gendered expectations. (One wishes she had paid more attention to religion in this part of her analysis.) Italian women, by contrast, left their community worlds in order to earn wages. Their contacts with the helping professions meant interaction with nativists and Americanizers, unmediated by ties of religion or community. In both cases, however, young women experienced wage-earning as a source of pride and self-esteem not open to their mothers. One wishes, on this point, that Kasaba had interpreted the differing outcomes of Italian and Jewish women more in relationship to their quite different "starting places" in the world economy, and considered how control over marital choice as much as wages held special meaning for both groups of women.

The historian reader of this book should be prepared to grapple with the short-hand jargon of three disciplines. And the scholar who is an expert on the histories of Jewish or Italian immigrant women in the U.S. will find few large surprises in this book. Still, Kasaba's interdisciplinary approach does deliver a more integrated, and comparative, portrait of two frequently-studied groups of immigrant women than historical studies that focus exclusively on their experiences in the receiving country. Her work serves as a reminder, as well, that historians should participate in social scientific discussions of transnationalism in the contemporary world. Kasaba's interdisciplinary analysis makes it clear that transnational lives have a long history, and that in the past, as in the present, gender and nationality "travel together."

Donna R. Gabaccia University of North Carolina at Charlotte
COPYRIGHT 1997 Journal of Social History
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1997, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Gabaccia, Donna R.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1997
Words:1067
Previous Article:Blood Ties and Fictive Ties: Adoption and Family Life in Early Modern France.
Next Article:Festival of the Poor: Fertility Decline and the Ideology of Class in Sicily, 1860-1980.
Topics:


Related Articles
The National Integration of Italian Return Migration, 1870-1929.
Transforming Women's Work: New England Lives in the Industrial Revolution.
Ethnic Cultures in the 1920s in North America.
Memories of Migration: Gender, Ethnicity, and Work in the Lives of Jewish and Italian Women in New York, 1870-1924.
Building Little Italy: Philadelphia's Italians before Mass Migration.
Working with Class: Social Workers and the Politics of Middle-Class Identity.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2020 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters