According to Gabaccia, more than 25 million immigrants arrived in the US between 1880 and 1940 (p. 25). Majority of these immigrants emigrated from various Southeastern European countries such as Slovakia, Italy, Poland, and Russia. These immigrants came to America to look for employment opportunities in order to improve their standards of living. Bell’s novel Out of This Furnace, avidly narrates how immigrant workers left their native countries to look for employment opportunities in the US (p. 12).
Although the novel is a fictional account of the lives of women and immigrant workers in the US, it gives us an insight of the lives and struggles of immigrant women in America. The paper will examine how socio-economic and political position of women changed between the 1880s and 1940. It will particularly examine how major historical challenges especially the World War I, The Great Depression, and World War II affected women and the significant contributions women made to the American society.
Towards the end of the 19th century, many immigrant women were lured to work in the mills of Lowell Massachusetts and Western Pennsylvania. These women were ready to work for long hours but for relatively low wages. Upon their assimilation, these women thought they could lead decent lifestyles for themselves as well as for their families and share the benefits of the American Dream.
The prospects of these women were short-lived. Instead of receiving attractive wages and lead decent lives, they found themselves trapped in vicious cycle, hardly earning enough to sustain their families despite the fact that they worked for long hours.
In the 1880s and the earlier 20th century, the US experienced unprecedented levels of industrialization and urbanization. Several immigrants especially women flocked the US from Southeastern European countries. Because of the high number of immigrants, major urban areas became crowded and this led to the emergence of slums in major American cities.
The outbreak of infectious diseases in these slums resulted in high infant mortality and a general decrease in life expectancy. In addition, rampant factory accidents necessitated by poor working environment caused misery to women as they lost their husbands in the line of duty.
In cities, party leaders firmly controlled power through political machineries. Industrial corporations and factories gradually consolidated into trusts and major companies thereby taking control of the nation’s economy. These led to rapid deterioration of the living conditions of immigrant workers and their wives.
The absence of workers unions significantly contributed to poor women’s working and living conditions (Dickinson 51). Nevertheless, the media soon caught up with the plight of the working-women and began exposing the harsh realities of their lives to the public. Soon stories of poor working conditions in factories, rampant corruption, and unhealthy living conditions in slums found their way to the newspapers.
As these problems were brought to the public light, women movements emerged gaining widespread support from women at the local, state to the national level. Women reformists worked day and night to “humanize and sanitize” both the working and living conditions for workers. These reformers wanted to eradicate corruption and break up trusts and wanted the government to regulate private industries besides; they tirelessly worked to revive the educational system, which largely discriminated against girl child education (Foner 41).
Despite the fact that traditional historians largely focused on male progressive reformers such as President Theodore Roosevelt, women also played a significant role towards attaining crucial reforms during the time.
By the end of 19th century, women were generally seen as moral guardians and many appreciated their role as family protectors. It was during the Progressive Era that women called upon the government to integrate them into public offices to enable them effectively handle pertinent issues, which affected families such as education and sanitation.
In order to push the government, women formed various organizations, such as the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) to champion their rights. Through these organizations, women undertook research, implemented programs, and lobbied for [policies] to address socio-economic and political woes” (Gabaccia 124).
Middle-class women united to call upon the government to provide education for every child, to provide universal health care, and they staunchly fought corruption among the political class. On the other hand, working-women joined forces with middle-class women to ask for increased salaries and improved working conditions. Finally, African-American women organized movements to fight racism and fascism. Their combined efforts resulted in real improvements to the lives of many Americans.
From the 1880s to 1940, women’s status evolved rapidly. Initially, middle-class women hardly worked outside their homes. Employed women were particularly single women especially “divorcees, widows, women of color, and women from poor families.” Majority of women worked in agricultural production whereas others worked factories as others took domestic servant jobs.
After the US officially joined the World War I in 1917, women contributed to the war efforts in various ways. Besides, agitating for pre-war reforms, women reformists in the club, settlement, and the suffrage movements aggressively sold war bonds and preserved food for their families as well as for American soldiers.
As the 20th century, progressed, new jobs became increasingly available for women. Several women secured jobs in departmental stores whereas others found clerical jobs. Middle-class women graduated from colleges to secure white-collar jobs.
This last category of women remained unmarried because they wanted to pursue their professional careers making people to call them “New Women.” A few who decided to marry looked for marriages based on equality. In essence, these women were largely the driving force behind major reforms of the Progressive Era.
For example, professional women were at the forefront of WCTU, which called upon the government to enact the alcohol control bill to curb the rising consumption of alcohol in the US. Many women who fought for the regulation of the sale of alcoholic beverages claimed that alcohol consumption led to increased cases of domestic violence in families. WCTU was thus instrumental to the passage of the 18th amendment to the US constitution, which outlawed the sale of alcohol across the country.
In addition, WCTU was instrumental to the passage of the 19th amendment to the US constitution in 1920, which granted women suffrage rights. Although women were granted suffrage rights in 1920, broader socio-economic and political change took a little longer and the speed of progress became increasingly unpredictable. Women called for the entire overhaul of institutional, cultural, and political values in addition to clamoring for a conscious revolution in the minds of Americans, particularly in the way women were treated.
Women experienced many obstacles as they pursued the common “woman dream” when several organizations and movements emerged to curb what they called ‘unstoppable feminism.’ Indeed, we can see the fruits of their activism in their present lifestyles and their unfettered access to various opportunities.
The first two decades of the 20th century saw the amendment of the US constitution, which guaranteed women voting rights marking the end of the movement which begun in the mid-19th century. Many women had earlier contended that women voters would cause considerable changes in American politics. Notable women particularly Carrie Chapman argued that the new order would guarantee women equal rights with men.
This became apparent after the formation of the “Women’s Joint Congregational Committee, a coalition of women’s organizations with more than ten million members” (Dickinson 45). Ten years earlier congress had passed laws outlawing pay and employment discrimination in the federal civil service and President Wilson had re-affirmed this by appointing various women to different positions in the courts of law and to various federal commissions.
However, ten years after women were granted voting rights, the long waited ‘women’s vote’ did not materialize nor was there any meaningful transformation in their roles because the women’s reform agenda wasn’t clearly defined. The 1930s negatively worked against women because of the Great Depression, which saw massive unemployment rates. The Great Depression caused massive layoffs although women’s jobs were hardly affected.
However, employers drastically lowered wages and sometimes delayed the salaries. Nevertheless, women’s earnings remained vital in sustaining families since male dominated jobs had suffered massive layoffs. Bodnar acknowledges that during the Great Depression, more men lost their jobs unlike the women whose employment rates increased (p. 211). He affirms that in earlier1930s, more than 10 million women worked in paid employment and the number rose to 14 million by 1940.
As the Great Depression severely hit the US economy, President Eleanor Roosevelt established The New Deal programs to revive the economy. The New Deal programs included the “Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA), the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), and the Works Progress Administration (WPA).” These programs opened employment opportunities for women and greatly helped to ease the hardships brought by the Great Depression.
After the tribulations of the Depression, women again emerged to participate in the Second World War. During WWII women, especially “African-Americans became involved in gendered efforts to redefine their citizenry rights because the war immensely improved their relationship with the government” (Bodnar 228).
Employment opportunities soared, African-American women took advantage and acquired jobs, which allowed them to champion anti- discriminatory laws and promote civil liberties. In fact, women aggressively attacked inequality than they did during the Progressive era. The Second World War further opened up job opportunities for women. As the government and the entire American industry expanded to sustain war needs, women were called upon to take up traditionally male dominated jobs including taking up military jobs.
Bell,Thomas. Out of This Furnace: A Novel of Immigrant Labor in America. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985.
Bodnar, John E. The Transplanted: A History of Immigrants in Urban America. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985. 199-230
Dickinson, Joan Younger. The Role of the Immigrant Women in the U.S. Labour Force, 1890-1910. New York: Arno, 1975. 44-61
Foner, Eric. Give me liberty: An American History. New York: W.W. Norton. 2004. ISBN 0-393-97872-9.
Gabaccia, Donna. From the other side: Women, Gender, and Immigrant Life in the U.S., 1820-1990. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994. University of Pittsburgh Press, 1941.1991. 25-104