Long before feminism was a catch phrase there was a generation of women who had a core of steel. These women came from Italy, Ireland, Germany, England, France, Africa, China etc. Most were poor and didn’t speak the language of their new land. They were Catholic, Jewish, Protestant, Muslim and they had a commonality, they were considered second class citizens by Anglo Americans that were already here and by the men they were married to. Perhaps by all men who maintained the power.
They had no vote, no birth control, generally had no money of their own, and barely any formal education. Some were kept as chattel or brood mares. Some were loved, but treated as pieces of fluff without a thought of value in their heads.
I remember my grandmother, born in 1898 Sicily, was always so proud that she could read Italian. That was rare among those of her generation. I would sit with her as she painstakingly read an Italian newspaper. She would bother to translate for me. Not that I was really interested in the what the newspaper was reporting, but it gave me a few moments to just sit with her. She didn’t get these papers often because they were a luxury.
Her ability to read was not a factor in the only jobs that were open to women of her time. She arrived in America packed in steerage, pregnant and with another babe in her arms, my mother. My grandfather had sent for her as European men did in those days. They first came alone to work and find a place for their family to live when they arrived in the US. I don’t remember too much about him as he died when I was a year old.
These immigrants, these women of steel, worked, cooked, cleaned and raised children. They washed clothes for their big families on wooden washboards. (I was promised the best wooden washboard when I got married) During the depression mothers were usually the last to eat. My mother told me there were times when a pound of macaroni was made for the family of eight. When they asked my grandmother why she wasn’t joining them at the table, she would say, “I ate in the kitchen”. I guess everyone knew that wasn’t so, but it was easier to not press her on it. I’m told my grandfather took work where and when he could find it. Any student of history will tell you it was not easy to come by.
The women with their determination kept families together. They also took back-breaking jobs when they could and left young children at home alone. Sometimes asking a neighbor to look in on them. Seven year olds watched their younger siblings. Think of what you would expect of a seven-year old today.
Those tight tenement rooms where the family lived, sparkled because floors were washed on hands and knees and the wash was hung on clothes lines in the alleys between the buildings. Windows shone because women washed them inside and out, sometimes at peril of their own lives. Seeing my grandmother sit on the ledge of the window, hanging more than half way out in order to wash the outside panes never frightened me then. That’s just what she did. It was routine. In retrospect, there she was hanging on to those old wooden framed windows which could have given way at any time. She would have plummeted down four stories to the cement sidewalk below. Good thing she was only about 4’9″ and weighed approximately 90 pounds.
Men found worked where they could and also sought diversions from their tired, worn, wives with any opportunity presented to them. They weren’t bad men, but they had very little regard for their women. It was truly an age of poverty and ignorance.
My grandmother taught me to always squirrel away a few dollars when you could, because you never knew when more hard times were on the way. She taught me to haggle with the butcher, how to pick out a good chicken before they rang its neck, and to manage to do things for myself. You made up for lack of physical strength with brain power. She was a fairly young widow as was my mother who became a widow at the age of 39. They leaned on each other and made a decent life for myself and my sister.
They were typical of so many women of that error. Hardened by want. Determined to make the best life they could.