Burmese Mermaid

Burmese Mermaid

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Clio Speaks - Book Review: From the Other Side: Women, Gender, and Immigrant Life in the U.S., 1820-1990, by Donna Gabaccia

Feminist scholar Donna Gabaccia's From the Other Side offers a bold and provocative alternative approach to immigration history. Gabaccia proposes that we can better understand the complex process by which people leave their homes on "the other side" and reestablish new ones here in the United States through the filter of migratory women's experiences. Rather than rely exclusively on the experiences of immigrant men as many previous historians have done, Gabaccia chooses instead to focus on the behaviors and views of immigrant women past and present. Gabaccia asserts that immigration is a family process, and because women act as the emotional centers of immigrant families, they are best suited to explain the true nature of that process. To support her argument, she draws extensively from the recent works of feminist scholars (of the past two and a half decades) and from classics in the field, such as John Bodnar's The Transplanted and Portes and Rumbaut's Immigrant America: A Portrait. If we wish to understand the immigration experience, it is essential to begin with the experiences of immigrant women.

Gabaccia makes clear the importance of gender in shaping immigrant women's experiences. Working outward from the center, Gabaccia traces the immense network of inter-relationships between immigrant women and various external forces, the whole in a constant state of flux. First, what were the causes of emigration and what was the status of emigrating women "on the other side?" Did men and women react in the same way to these changes? Gabaccia's examination of the causes of emigration, or "push" factors, places emphasis on the family decision to emigrate, colored by male and female family members' perceptions of the availability of women's work options in the United States. In addition, a woman's cultural, economic, and class origins were of primary importance in determining motives for emigration and in shaping her life once in the United States.

Changing global economics on "the other side" also changed traditional gender and family patterns. For instance, in subsistence economies of the 19th century that struggled with political decentralization and developing capitalism, changing work patterns (sending young men and women family members out to work, while retaining older women in the home) often indicated the beginnings of transnational migrations. These emigrants were better prepared to adapt to new environments. In the 20th century, immigrant women were subjected to restrictive immigration laws that forced them to enter the United States as dependents, and as a result, they were often viewed negatively by the native born. Gabaccia asks how the arrival in the 21st century of highly skilled immigrant women will further transform perceptions of the immigrant experience in America.

Gabaccia painstakingly connects the experiences of transition as immigrant women moved towards the development of an ethnic, or cultural identity once in the United States. As part of this analysis, Gabaccia looks at some of the similarities among immigrant women's relationships to immigrant men, and of their views of women outside of their own communities. Immigrant women turned to their own communities for support and were cautious in dealing with the native born. For the most part they had no contacts with other American minorities. Immigrant women found comfort in relationships within their own ethnic communities. They also found support in a larger kin and neighborhood network, much broader in scope than the American understanding of kinship. Kin and neighborhood involvement eventually extended to the development of ethnic voluntary organizations. While first generation immigrant women resisted at all costs communal ties with the native born, voluntarism provided second generation immigrant women the impetus for labor activism, and increased contact with the native born.

Gabaccia devotes her study to a careful analysis of change over time. Compared to the 19th century, a much higher percentage of 20th century women immigrants are middle class, educated, and of professional status. In perhaps her boldest assertion, these women have a better chance of achieving gender equality than do native born professional women! Gabaccia's research would seem to support the idea that these professional immigrant women had/have more support for autonomy, and thus more opportunities for gender equality. If this trend towards autonomy continues, the stereotypical native born views of immigrant women as dependents will also continue to be challenged.

Gabaccia discusses the role of immigrant women as cultural gatekeepers and mediators within their own families and communities. Immigrant women were aware that migration posed both opportunities and risks; economic gains were countered with cultural losses. Thus, the process of assimilation included the preservation of customs and values from "the other side." Gabaccia seems not alone in her view of women as cultural preservationists, but she goes a step further and reveals the differences among first, second and third generation women's concepts of ethic identity. First generation mothers often wanted their daughters to behave like Americans and yet retain their ethnicity. Daughters often responded by seemingly rejecting their mothers' worlds. Gabaccia uses the example of an Italian immigrant mother who is proud of her accomplishments in raising her daughters to be "just as good" as Americans (with their different manners), yet still "good Italian girls," as defined by values from "the other side." Gabaccia supports her argument by citing the high degree of ethic identification among third and subsequent generations of European American women for whom the ethnic past nurtures individual identity.

Gabaccia's work also considers native born responses to immigrants as reflected by social institutions and immigration laws and policies. These sources lend tangible insights into native born assumptions of immigrant men and women. Gabaccia argues that the continued presence of immigrants will challenge established native attitudes. Gabaccia makes further comparisons between native born women of color and immigrant women. Unlike immigrant or ethnic women who consciously cultivate cultural links with an ethnic past, native born women of color have suffered from a greater degree of social and economic marginalization. Gabaccia questions if the United States will in the future strive to more fully incorporate its racial minorities. The arrival of more Latin American and Asian immigrants will continue to test the divisions of class, ethnicity and race. Gabaccia provides a fascinating example to illustrate how some racial boundaries changed with upward mobility: as the Catholic Irish, then Catholic, Orthodox and Jewish southern and eastern Europeans and their children became middle class, they also became white! In contrast, assimilated middle class Asians are still asked where they come from, indicating a society that continues to differentiate based on physical differences. One of Gabaccia's most intriguing ideas suggests that racial (biological) and ethnic (cultural) evolution are experienced adn perceived in myriad ways by both immigrants and native born Americans. Similar to the interpretation of Kathleen Conzen, Gabaccia's research affirms the state of constant change that exists in the interplay between native born and immigrant populations.

Gabaccia asks for further research that places the experiences of immigrant women at the locus from which, she says radiates the entire immigration experience. Gabaccia mentions Oscar Handlin's reflections on his setting out to study immigration history, only to discover that American histor was, for him, the history of immigration! If Handlin's observation is accurate, then the study of immigration history can deepen our understanding of American history and of what it means to be an American. The enormous difficulty of unraveling the immigrant experience in America requires scholars with strong multi-disciplinary backgrounds (history, psychology, sociology, economics, etc.) working both individually and collectively. Gabaccia reminds us that the story of American immigration, as told through the experiences of immigrant women, remains largely untold.

By C. Fabrizi.

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