Women of Courage: Jewish and Italian Immigrant Women in New York

By Rose Laub Coser; Laura S. Anker et al. | Go to book overview

Chapter Eight
Women and Work in the "Golden Medina"

As soon as they were settled into their new homes, immigrant women began looking for employment. "I was fourteen," one Italian woman recalled, "and I reached here in April, after one week I started work, crochet beading. . . . My cousin used to have that job" ( Donna Cassado). A Jewish respondent told a similar story: "Here I could go to work and not be ashamed. . . . I landed in New York on a Tuesday and got a job patching pipes the following Monday . . . a neighbor took me there" ( Freda Chrystel).

Jewish and Italian women brought with them to their new communities a "family culture of work" ( Smith 1985; Glenn 1990; Seller 1986). Unlike American middle class women, who expected to be supported by a father or a husband, they were accustomed to producing as well as consuming the family income. Neither Jewish nor Italian immigrant women subscribed to a Victorian vision of female dependency. They assumed that in the new world, as in the old, each member of the household would contribute to the support of the whole. As one respondent put it: "I didn't come here for somebody to keep me up" ( Yetta Thomashow).

The economic realities of life in America--low wages and irregular employment--reinforced these values, requiring immigrant families to rely on the work of more than one household member in the United States as they had in eastern Europe and southern Italy. In the first two decades of the twentieth century, when economists estimated that it cost between $800 and $1,000 a year for a family of five to maintain "a normal standard of living"--including housing, fuel, food, and transportation, but not "mental or social improvement"--most male heads of household earned considerably less ( Bloom 1985; Chapin 1909:

-93-

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