New Beginnings: A History of Immigrant Women and the American Experience
Women immigrants have played a dynamic role in transforming America socially, politically, and economically.
A Woman’s Story
Though women are integral characters, immigration is rarely thought of as a woman’s story. Women historically have accounted for almost fifty percent of immigrants and currently exceed that. Women’s motivations for migration have been varied and complex. Gender has influenced migrant women’s choices to immigrate as well as their opportunities and challenges upon arrival.
On the day Ellis Island opened on January 1, 1892, an Irish girl named Annie Moore became the very first person processed through what became the world-famous immigration center.
Though Annie herself is remembered for being the first, her experiences in America were very much like those of millions of other women who chose to make a new home in a new country.
Like those before and after, the women and girls who came through Ellis Island transformed America socially, politically, and economically.
Immigrant women often have borne the double expectation of building new communities while simultaneously maintaining the home country’s culture and values in the new world. Their presence or absence in the U.S. signaled whether a particular ethnic group was desired to be permanent or tolerated as temporary residents. From 17th-century Jamestown to 20th-century California, women immigrants have been vital to establishing and maintaining the social fabric of the United States.
America’s first permanent, English settlement was at Jamestown in 1607. The Virginia Company actively encouraged women’s immigration to replicate an English model of society in the New World.
Enslaved African women were involuntary immigrants to Jamestown. The privateer White Lion brought “20 and odd Negroes” in 1619. The 1620 census listed 17 African females among the settlement’s 928 residents. Over the ensuing centuries, the mingling of people from different cultures, classes, and conditions of servitude led to the development of America’s distinctive culture.
Women’s labor has been integral to building and maintaining a strong American economy whether through paid employment or support of family businesses. Immigrant women have been well represented in the labor force throughout American history. Their attainment of the American dream has often been married to a vision of economic prosperity.
Making a Living
Many 19th-century, European immigrants departed home communities with low economic prospects for Eastern and Midwestern urban centers in the United States. Once established, women took jobs in factories, in mills, as domestic servants, and in other unskilled occupations. Even women who did not secure paid employment, such as those with young children, contributed to the economy through micro business like laundries and keeping boarders or performing piece work at home.
Mechanization transformed U.S. industry between 1880 and 1930, fueling production of inexpensive consumer goods. This created an explosive need for cheap, low-skill labor.
Factory women, mostly concentrated in garment and textile industries, comprised 20% of the female workforce. About 2/3 of women factory workers were first or second generation immigrants.
The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire claimed the lives of 17 men and 129 women. The fate of the Russian, Italian, Hungarian, and Austrian victims brought attention to deplorable working conditions.
Populating a Nation
The U.S. government envisioned a country that stretched from coast to coast. Women were integral to achieving the United States’ “Manifest Destiny”. The goal was to establish new states and expand the United States’ political and geographic boundaries. Women were incentivized by the promise of more expansive property and political rights, including the vote in some states.
The Homestead Act encouraged western settlement by promising 160 acres of land to any citizen or intended citizen following five years of occupancy. Women were allowed equal access to the opportunity.
Europeans were encouraged to emigrate, and tens of millions settled in the U.S. between 1815 and 1915. People from the same home countries often settled near each other, establishing ethnic networks.
Irish women adeptly formed immigration chains with established women bringing over sisters, cousins, and friends. The Irish were the only immigrant group in which women eventually outnumbered men.
While government policy welcomed Europeans, non-whites–like the Chinese–were discouraged from immigrating.
The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 barred almost all Chinese immigration, with narrow exceptions including for the wives and children of U.S. citizens.
Many Chinese immigrant women were held at Angel Island Inspection station from weeks to years while immigration officials determined their eligibility for entry.
Advocating for Rights
Immigrants have profoundly and indelibly impacted the political landscape of America. From the 1909 uprising of 20,000 (mostly) Jewish immigrant women working in New York City’s shirtwaist district, to the development of the modern immigrant rights movement, immigrants have often had to create a political voice that advocates for the respect of their dignity and the enactment of their political, economic, and social rights. For Mexican immigrants in particular, the 20th century saw immigration policies that swung back and forth like a pendulum, at times opening the door and at other times closing it.
Many immigrant women learned to self advocate for political rights. From interned Japanese during World War II to Mexican farm workers, immigrant women sought to improve their legal status.
Prior to the Immigration Act of 1924, there were few restrictions on Mexican immigration to the U.S. Agricultural workers moved freely across the border, following the harvests. The 1924 law established an immigration quota system, leading to deportation of hundreds of thousands of Mexican immigrants.
After the U.S. entered World War II, farm workers left agriculture in droves for higher paying factory jobs. Millions of Mexican and Latin American families migrated to the U.S. to fill the void.
During the 1960s a growing outrage at the treatment of migrant workers emerged. Many lived in dilapidated houses and barely earned enough to feed their children, despite working long hours.
Leaders like Dolores Huerta, one of the most influential labor activists of the 20th century, placed themselves on the front lines of the fight for farm worker (often immigrants) rights and for economic improvements for Hispanic communities. In 1960 Huerta helped found the Agricultural Worker’s Association where she met fellow activist and labor leader Cesar Chavez. In 1962 they co-founded the National Farm Workers Association, which was the predecessor to the United Farm Workers Union formed in 1965. The 1965 Delano Grape Strike was a major catalyst for the group’s efforts. Huerta helped to organize the strike of over 5,000 grape workers and the subsequent boycott of the wine company. This work led to a three-year contract about bargaining agreements between California and the UWF. Huerta negotiated contracts for workers and managed an entire hiring system to increase the number of available jobs. She also fought against the use of harmful pesticides and for unemployment and healthcare benefits for agricultural workers. Huerta served as Vice President of the UWF until 1999.
America is a land of immigration and immigrants. New people coming to the United States over hundreds of years, exploring new places, encountering new people and ideas, and transacting cultural exchanges created a unique national culture – a culture that values independence, responsibility, and resilience. Immigrant women embodied these ideals as they established the social, political, and economic foundations of their lives in America.
Originally published by the National Women’s History Museum, 2015, republished with permission for educational, non-commercial purposes.