Daughters of The Shtetl: Life and Labor in the Immigrant Generation

DAUGHTERS OF THE SHTETL: LIFE AND LABOR IN THE IMMIGRANT GENERATION by Susan A. Glenn; Cornell University Press, 1990, $29.95

My grandmother is not like other grandmothers. A self-made intellectual and activist with an idealistic vision beyond her times, she is so outraged by social injustice and forthright in her opinions that I cannot imagine a revolution big enough to contain her. She says I should have known her mother, my great-grandmother. “Now that was a real woman,” she says. My grandmother and great grandmother are part of a remarkable group of women who, during a turbulent time of change in urban America, struggled to construct a female identity as rooted in the Old World as it was in the New.

Susan Glenn’s Daughters of the Shtetl rescues these women from the oblivion of fading family anecdote. She brings their lives into focus in the context of familial and societal factors that shaped them, both in the shtetl and in the American city. Her book concentrates on women in the garment industry, who formed a majority of the workforce and lent fierce support to the union movement. As these women changed within themselves, they transformed the world around them, played critical roles in organizing labor from 1900 to 1930, and yet received little recognition for their efforts.

Glenn takes pains to defy simplistic analysis. She opens with a discussion of women’s lives in Eastern Europe and how mothers and daughters of the immigrant generations adapted differently to American life. She then considers work opportunities and labor conditions in the garment industry, describing the rich social and cultural worlds that arose in factories and sweatshops. The book crescendos with the chapter “Uprisings: Women and the Mass Strike Movement,” where Glenn captures the risk-taking and suspense as well as the colorful characters involved in labor’s first attempts to organize.

Throughout, Glenn reinforces her principal thesis that immigrant women’s new identity — or “new womanhood”—drew sustenance from both Old and New World perceptions of women, and was often in flux between the two. In the shtetl, women were considered to be beneath men, yet achieved high status as breadwinners. In America, women were idealized for their feminine qualities, but expected not to work outside the home. The immigrant generations derived positive strength from both cultural perceptions of women. In formulating a “new womanhood,” they learned to take pride in their work without seeing themselves as inferior to men. These women often showed greater determination than more Americanized later generations, who settled into the cult of domesticity. Glenn quotes a former garment worker born in Poland: “My husband considered me aggressive and so does my daughter.” Yet she insists, “Only through aggressiveness am I protected.”

While unwilling to accept inferior status, Russian Jewish women did not see themselves as “morally superior” to men as did early American feminists, who believed in a unity among all women that overrode class and ethnic lines. This separatist notion of a sisterhood did not appeal to Jewish women who yearned to participate in a world of men, a realm closed to them in the shtetl. They saw themselves as neither superior nor inferior to men, but as partners in a common struggle for justice and dignity.

This struggle had its roots in the shtetl. There, socialism captured the imaginations of young people as an alternative to reality. Long before they came to America, many Russian Jews had grown familiar with the tension between old and new ideas.

These internal conflicts continued in America during the initial stages of the labor movement, though, as Glenn points out, the Orthodox and socialist sectors often overcame their differences and joined forces in the struggle for just and humane working conditions. She gives an example of the militant kosher meat boycott by immigrant mothers on New York’s Lower East Side in 1902. “Their language and tactics were radical and extremely violent, and their cause was supported by the leaders of the garment workers” union and by both the socialist and the Orthodox Jewish press.”

Unlike other immigrant groups except the Irish, many Jewish daughters came alone to the United States and worked to earn enough to bring their families. Most Jewish female workers in the garment industry were highly skilled and ambitious, not passive low-skilled laborers. Glenn explains in unbiased cultural and economic terms why Jewish female garment workers embraced activism, while their Italian counterparts rejected it in the initial stages of unionizing. Glenn succeeds in presenting the complexities behind the stereotypes of Jewish women as militant and Italian women as servile.

Despite their ambitions, Jewish women had a romantic domestic image of themselves that conflicted with their personal non-domestic selves. Their aspirations at work and at home clashed. While they struggled to achieve high status in the workplace and union, many dreamed of marrying and staying home to raise a family. When they married, even the most successful women leaders, such as Dorothy Jacobs and Bessie Abramovitz, abandoned their hard-earned status for the domestic life idealized in America.

Glenn adds the new dimension of gender to previous studies of immigrants that stress the importance of socialist thought and the influence of men, but ignore women’s crucial participation in this period. She captures the fluidity and complexity of Jewish women’s evolving identity during the early decades of this century. Heroic, radical, romantic and traditional, this unsettled generation of women left its mark on Jewish women today who struggle with traditional and modern aspects of their identities.

A dense academic study—the end notes alone make up one-fifth of the pages—Glenn’s book is at times dry, suffering from the lifeless verbs and repetition that afflict many academic studies. Yet, it is often entertaining with sprinklings of first-hand anecdotes, poems, songs and good storytelling. More importantly, she offers an invaluable analysis that roots in a richer, broader context the inspiring personalities we have understood only through anecdote.

Alison Gardy has had articles appear in The New York Times