What about “World of Our Mothers”?

World of Our Fathers, by Irving Howe. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich (1976), $14.95; Simon & Schuster (1977), $6.95 (paper)

Irving Howe’s World of our Fathers is an enormous work. It is immense in design and purpose. It is the story of the East European Jews who migrated to New York’s Lower East Side at the turn of the century. He covers their migrations, the early ghetto years, union organizing, socialist commitments, Jewish culture and finally, their attempted assimilation.

He has, however, written an incomplete history. He has left us out. Jewish women occupy only a small part of his chronicled world. In a culture where the sexes share so much, Howe shows us very little. We are almost invisible. Howe, apparently, has internalized the American image of woman, backstage companion and appendage to man. Howe’s history more closely reflects his beliefs about woman’s place than it does the role of Jewish women in history. He has shown us a few stars; we must go in search of the rest. We must find our ancestors, our grandmothers, our traditions, for he does not tell us about them. For Irving Howe, the world of the Lower East Side was truly a World of our Fathers.

I started reading, with gladness, this book about Jews, but a few pages in and I began to puzzle, a few more and my feminist hackles began to rise. Howe has done us dirty. Fifteen years ago he would have been excused. Ten years ago he would have been forgiven. Today it is not acceptable to write a lopsided, one-sided sexist history of my people.

I will focus on his major flaws, his most serious defects. These are his perceptions of women in relation to economics, union organizing and the family. Equally important, I will comment on something I call tone, because it is through tone, the use of language, that he stereotypes, trivializes and patronizes women.

Tone, the last of these sexist features, is subtle. It is difficult to discover just what it is that feels so uncomfortable when he discusses women. When he writes about men, the tone is respectful, loaded with praise and full of dignity. A shabby, overworked peddler becomes an individualized hero worthy of human notice and regard. We admire the courage of the peddler’s commitments. When he writes about women, his tone becomes folksy, “down-home,” full of the minutiae of details. The words change. His references to a woman denigrate through familiarity and false coziness. Howe patronizes her, this immigrant woman with busy hands and swollen ankles and unhealthy pallor, and his language reflects paternalistic attitudes. For example: “If she stayed at home, she learned a little, perhaps a little more than she let on.” And “In her bones, she knew.” Men had convictions, women held impressions.

Still, beyond tone, there is the linguistic mixing of respect categories and the constant matching of men with girls. Under the title heading “The Girls and the Men,” he discusses women’s roles in union organizing. A sweatshop photograph bears the caption, “Girls at the machines in a garment shop,” and not one of them looks under thirty. And “A Russian Girl Student”—since a picture is provided, an appropriate title might have been “A Russian Student.” But for Howe, male is the rule, so if the subject is not male it must be clearly stated. In describing the “Bintel Brief” (the bundle-of-letters section of the Daily Forward Yiddish newspaper) as a column “in which readers, many of them women, wrote about problems” he again patronizes. Try reversing the sexes in the sentence. How absurd to write that many of the readers were male; all people, unless otherwise stated, are male.

For some readers this selection of details will appear irrelevant, but it has purpose. Right from the beginning Howe’s language conveys meaning and sets the stage for attitudes that will follow throughout the book. Men are people, women are appendages. “If an immigrant wanted to bring his wife and children he had to lay out what for him was a small fortune.” Since all were immigrants, a slight language change could have reflected the equal immigration position of them both. Howe chose to use the archaic “his wife” form because it best reflects his attitudes about women. Ironically, among Jews more often than not she paid the small fortune to bring them to America. It is Howe’s tone that allows him later to state, without internal contradiction: “America meant that the sons could find a path such as Jews had never before been able to discover. The fathers would work, grub and scramble as petty agents of primitive accumulation. The sons would acquire education.”

Howe acknowledges the existence of women’s labor, both in and out of the home, but he underplays its importance. “For the Jewish wife the transition seems to have been a little easier. Having sold herrings in the marketplace of her shtetl, she could sell herring in Orchard Street….”It was common for the husband to be the scholar and the wife the business person, yet he maintains “…on the East Side only a tiny fraction of wives worked full time, though most girls did or tried to.” But according to Zborowski and Herzog (Life is With People: Culture of the Shtetl, 1952), the earning of a livelihood was sexless, and the large majority of women participated in some gainful occupation if they did not carry the chief burden of support. Women were expected to contribute to the family income. Woman’s crucial economic role is further documented by Baum, Hyman and Michel in The Jewish Woman in America (1976): “Women, in addition to their domestic duties, were accustomed to functioning as part of a family economic unit, a pattern typical in pre-industrial societies where husbands rarely earn enough to support an entire family….In these societies, women also customarily shared with their husbands the burden of supporting the family, in addition to their other responsibilities. What distinguished Jewish women was that sometimes they provided the sole support of their families while the husbands studied Torah.”

If Howe underestimates women’s role in economic matters he virtually ignores it in union affairs. Jews helped build the New York labor unions. The needle trades (ILGWU) and the bakers’ and painters’ unions were all created with Jewish sweat and Jewish blood. Men and women struggled for labor unity. Howe highlights our heroes in mentioning Rose Schneiderman and Clara Lemlich, but nowhere does he detail the importance of the rank and file. He has forgotten. Other authors, however, have not. The Proceedings of the Academy of Political Science of the City of New York (1910), chronicled the shirtwaist-makers strike of 1908: “The men strikers were intimidated and lost heart, but the women carried on the picketing, suffering arrest and abuse from the police and the guards, engaged by the manufacturers.” This general strike, called by many the women’s strike, had sixty men and ninety women on the picket lines. Lewis Levine, in a History of the ILGWU, credits victory to the women. They struck for a shortened work week, year round labor and fixed wages.

Later, “Jewish women were the movers and shakers behind the ‘uprising of the 20,000,’ the largest strike by women in the United States up to that time.” Women were active, they were the doers, they were prime movers on all levels. These Jewish women abounded with high energy and hot strength. They organized, they hustled, they led strikes. Howe does not remind us, but Baxandall, Gordon and Reverby do, in America’s Working Women: A Documentary History—1600 to the Present (1976). In 1902 Jewish immigrant women in New York organized a boycott of the kosher meat butchers. They closed the shops and demanded lower prices. “Several of the women leaders of the mob laughed at the fear of the men in doing damage…the women threw bottles, stones and whatever they could place their hands on at the policemen… All that the police could do was to arrest four women who were charged with being ringleaders of the mob.”

Howe recounts the deeds of thousands of men, but only a handful of women. The founding of Hadassah gets one sentence; Sadie America, head of the National Council of Jewish Women, gets none. Howe mentions a few stars, but we need the history of all our foremothers. It’s in the archives, it’s documented in the libraries, it’s recorded in the papers and city halls. It was available for his social history. In Jewish life where women worked, organized, created, struck and were part of the open marketplace, Howe’s neglect is anything but benign.

If Howe underestimates the importance of women’s impact on economics, unionization and labor, he totally misunderstands the position of single women. When he examines the life of Lillian Wald, founder of the Henry Street Settlement House, he states: “By some later perspectives, Lillian Wald missed a good deal in life. She never married, she seemed to have no intense personal relationships, she yielded her emotions to all about her, she showed small inclination toward self-scrutiny or introspection.” In Howe’s world, an unmarried woman would have had to have missed a great deal in life. It seems inconceivable to him that she might have actually been quite happy and enjoyed her position. Compare his treatment of single women with that of Baum, Hyman and Michel: “Most of the Jewish women who remained single and part of the labor movement led rich lives, despite (or because of?) the absence of a long term male relationship…They managed to set up a community of their own that offered some satisfactions. There is evidence too, that a small number of Jewish women in the labor movement became involved in same-sex relationships, some of which lasted a lifetime. Men were not central to their lives, the union was.”

If he overlooks Jewish women on the picket line and almost ignores them in the union halls, he cannot escape their presence and impact on the family. He acknowledges that “…the mother often becomes the emotional center of the family.” Here we meet, at last, the Jewish mother. Here sits the woman who occupies center stage in her own domain. Here is the woman who clothes, feeds, washes, patches and repairs the bodies, psyches, hearts and souls of her offspring. And how is she treated in the book? With patronizing respect and pulsating fear. He respects her ability to keep the family together. He fears her strength, her drive and her power.

Howe is afraid of this Jewish woman. He writes: “…that one crucial result of migration was that changes in Jewish family life often led to a flow of power towards the mother. If she often used this power with legendary selflessness, it could also seize her like a dybbuk, transforming her into the brassy-voiced, smothering and shrewish momma upon whom generations of unsettled sons would blame everything from intellectual sterility to sexual incompetence.”

Howe becomes more specific. “Time brought changes. Learning to relish the privilege of suffering, the Jewish mother could become absurdly, outrageously protective. From that condition, especially if linked, as it well might be, with contempt for her husband, she could decline into a brassy scourge, with her grating bark and soul-destroying whine, silver-blue hair and unfocused aggression.” Nowhere does Howe explain how she learns to relish the privilege of suffering or why she would develop contempt for her husband. His image of her brassyness, though, comes through very clearly. We see her through his eyes, with his distaste for her loud voice and brassy tongue, and his fear of her abrasive and assertive manner. The Jewish mother conflicts with the popular American image of passive femininity. She is not the stereotype of the American woman, soft-spoken and reticent. Howe’s Jewish mother suffers from not living up to the Jewish man’s “all-American girl” image. She is not demure; she is not retiring. The loud, assertive Jewish mother is ultimately being condemned for her ethnicity. It is her non-Americanism which Jewish men, apparently, cannot abide.

In a pathetic attempt at explanation for her perceived shrewishness, Howe turns apologist. “Yet even behind the most insufferable ways of the Jewish mother there was almost always a hard-earned perception of reality.” She was there to keep the family safe. “…Later, such memories (the dangers faced by Jewish children) would fade among those she had meant to shield and it would become customary to regard her as a grotesque figure of excess. Venerated to absurdity, assaulted with a venom that testifies obliquely to her continuing moral and emotional power, the immigrant mother cut her path through the perils and entanglements of American life.” It is a final irony that a book that devotes so few of its 694 pages to women should focus most of its female coverage on the stereotypic destructive force of the Jewish mother. Without documentation, Howe vilifies her in a manner reminiscent of Phillip Wiley’s Generation of Vipers. She must have been sufficiently outside the feminized American norm to have created such fear in her assimilated sons.

I have focused on the major sexist faults of the book. As feminists we can no longer permit sexism to go unchallenged. We have our own history to rediscover and our own world-view to put forward. With these warnings, Howe’s book should, of course, be read. He has written an epic, a colossus, a blockbuster of a book. I have concentrated upon the defects, but his efforts, his depth and his scope must be appreciated. He tries to chronicle almost a hundred years of Jewish-American history. In spite of sexist shortsightedness it is still an immense challenge and a grand attempt. It is a book I will give to my father.

Dr. Barbara Joans, feminist anthropologist, co-authored women’ s studies project Identity Female, is radical, feminist, Jewish, woman-identified, mother, daughter and wife