Workshop to Office: Two Generations of Italian Women in New York City, 1900-1950.
Cohen rejects the work of immigration historians, like Oscar Handlin, who focused on the disintegration of traditional values and folkways in the face of modern American culture. Yet she also sets herself apart from the "new" historians of immigration of the 1960s and 70s, who, in emphasizing the resiliency of ethnic culture, failed to explain to what extent immigrants' live changed and how that change occurred.
Cohen finds that the lives of Italian women and girls changed dramatically in fifty years. At the turn of the century Italian girls often had to forego high school to contribute to the family economy by working at home on piecework unti they were old enough to enter the garment factories. Once they were married and had children of their own, they returned to paid work in the home. This existence left little time for leisure and consigned them to lives of toil and drudgery. The pattern had changed by the 1950s. While turn-of-the-century Italian parents had resisted reformers who strove to enforce mandatory school laws and child labor regulations, post-war Italian girls finished high school i far greater numbers and had time for hobbies, movies and dating. In school they trained for white collar jobs as secretaries, which most later abandoned for lives as housewives.
Cohen's analysis of these changes locates her between the assimilation scholars and the new immigration historians for she argues that Italians neither assimilated nor clung to an Old World culture. To those who would argue that immigrants were subsumed into a dominant, individualistic culture, she points t the continuity between the values held by immigrant parents and those of their grown children. Both shared "one basic goal," Cohen writes, "to raise their families to the best of their ability and provide for their own old age and their offspring's future." (4-5)
For those who stress the survival of Old World ways, Cohen warns that ethnic culture is not a static set of beliefs and traditions that have to be jealously guarded against the encroachment of the modern world. Rather she argues, borrowing from John Bodnar, culture is a "constellation" of behaviors and ideas that help people to order and understand their world. "Ethnic culture," Cohen tells us, "is deeply pragmatic." Italians, like other immigrants, understood that "in America, as in Europe, families would have to shift behavior in order to survive." (6) Thus Italians acted to preserve their families with a clear understanding of their short-term interests, and they were willing to change th nature and even the size of their families in order to fulfill those interests.
Cohen begins with a study of family strategies and women's behavior in southern Italy, basing her finding entirely on secondary sources. The next two chapters deal with the work patterns of single adults and married women in New York from 1900 to the Great Depression. The rest of the book is more original and should be used as a resource for anyone interested in immigration and education. Cohen uses census data and school records to explain why Italian families would send their sons to school in greater numbers than their daughters, and to show how families responded to changes wrought by the Depression. As reformers added teeth to child labor and mandatory schooling laws, as poverty drove Italians to bring their family size down to national norms, and as skilled jobs opened up t Italian men during the Second World$War, Italian families changed their views o the value of education. While in 1900 girls often worked at home so that their brothers could stay in school, in the 1950s Italians put more value on the opportunities that education opened up to their daughters, and boys left school earlier to take advantage of openings in skilled blue collar work.
Cohen offers her findings as correctives to the work of several recent works on immigrant women, notably those of Virginia Yans-McGlaughlin and Kathy Peiss. Thus Workshop to Office reads more as a research report and extended historiographical essay than as a narrative of struggle and change. Still, much of her new evidence is compelling. She argues, for example, against historians who see immigrant family strategies as outgrowths of fixed systems of ethnic values. Rejecting the notion that patriarchal norms imported from Italy kept Italian women from taking paid work outside the home, and domestic work in particular, Cohen finds that, in Italy, women worked as domestics in surprisingly high numbers (in Sicily, 34% of women working outside the home wer domestics). She speculates that Italian women avoided work as servants in New York, not because of patriarchal pressures born of ethnic traditions, but because, unlike Irish women, they invariably emigrated in family groups and thu had no need for live-in work. Arguing also with the descendants of Italian immigrants who associate their ethnicity with "an idealized past in which women stayed home and served the men," Cohen finds that immigrant women were more likely to work outside the home than their daughters and granddaughters. (7) This did not mean that Italian women abandoned patriarchal assumptions as they crossed the Atlantic. Rather they were ready to shift their productive roles as their families' needs required.
Cohen's notion of ethnicity as pragmatic is suggestive but ultimately unsatisfying. She is right to see ethnicity as a dynamic identity that can be adapted to suit new social and economic circumstances, but this is hardly an original thesis. Nathan Glazer and Daniel Patrick Moynihan described ethnicity as malleable and instrumental in 1963, and Olivier Zunz, John Zucci, Kathleen Neils Conzen and others have offered similar, if more sophisticated, theories since. Cohen not only knocks down a straw man, then, she makes no mention of th on-going theoretical debates about the nature of ethnicity, and, at one point, even defines ethnic identity circularly as "a sense of connection with one's ethnic group." (202) By reducing family members' behavior and values to pragmatic choices (the word pragmatic appears again and again), Cohen renders her subjects culture-less. After all, if Italians were always driven by the desire to provide for their families, they would be indistinguishable from ever other ethnic group, perhaps from every other human being on earth. No matter ho poor we are and how limited our opportunities, our lives are ordered not simply by rational choices but also by irrational desires, inexplicable faith, and deeply rooted hatreds. Sometimes we do fundamentally impractical things like become historians. Italians, I imagine, were no different.
Finally, by emphasizing the choices that Italians made and the strategies by which they defended their families, Cohen clearly intends to lend them agency; however, her method leads as easily to opposite conclusions. Lacking extensive literary sources--once she moves beyond the days of progressive reformers--that allow her to discover the inner thoughts and emotions of her subjects, Cohen deduces their motivations from their actions. If they kept their daughters in school longer in the 1950s, then, she infers that they valued education more. Yet we also learn from her study that Italians were forced to removed their children from the workforce and send them to school by beefed up enforcement of labor and attendance regulations. Thus there is little evidence here of choice at all. Cohen does make interesting use of high school yearbooks in which the students describe each others' goals in life, but one wonders why Cohen did not simply ask Italians about their lives and those of their parents. Oral history would seem a deeply pragmatic choice for a book devoted to behavior and ideas.
Cindy Hahamovitch College of Wiliam & Mary
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|Publication:||Journal of Social History|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 1994|
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