Women Progressives and Immigrant Women

by Gayle Gullett

California women won the vote in 1911 and fundamentally changed the status of their citizenship.  Over the next few years women reformers searched for ways to further transform their citizenship.  They wanted to go beyond enfranchisement and acquire more political power, thereby enhancing both their membership and their position within the American polity.  They sought to gain political equity in their state by influencing public policy, with their first serious attempt to do so occurring in 1913 in a campaign focusing on sexual mores.  In that campaign they won legal and political victories, but not equality.  Two years later in 1915 California women enthusiastically entered a different effort to redefine the meaning of U.S. citizenship, the Americanization movement, an aggressive attempt by businessmen, patriotic groups, settlement workers, and educators to acculturate immigrants....

        The suffragists belonged to a loose network bound by a sense of identity they called "organized womanhood."  This designation reflected their belief that all women shared the same basic concerns of home and morality and their faith that gender solidarity would enable a diverse coalition of women's groups to form a single movement.  Organized womanhood functioned as a separate movement and as part of the coalition known as California progressivism.  Many of these women were deeply involved in the state's politics as progressives....

        Organized women joined the Americanization movement because the fundamental question of that campaign, defining American citizenship, merged with the basic issue they sought to resolve:  how to transform women's citizenship.  Americanization illustrates how women reformers combined ideologies of gender, class, and ethnicity to construct a new model of citizenship and thus answer a question posed by both social movements:  Who is an American citizen?  Women reformers rejected women's traditional citizenship status that relied upon the male head of household to speak for all the female members of the family; instead, the activists called for a full and independent citizenship for women that included the ability of women to speak for themselves, shape state policy, and change American nationalism.

        Who is an American citizen?  Women progressives in the Americanization movement responded that women, immigrant as well as native-born, qualified but not equally among themselves nor in the same way as men.  Women activists extended citizenship to immigrant women, an important democratic advance.  But the reformers' efforts were at least partially self-serving; they demanded that the newcomers learn from them how to become acceptable women citizens by remaking their homes into American homes.  Organized women thus created a political role for themselves as managers of other women's homes.  This role gave the reformers a voice over some policy issues but they gained it at the expense of immigrant women who were seen as needing uplift and not able to provide it for themselves.  Furthermore, women's citizenship continued to be linked to the home and, consequently, it differed from that of men.  Women progressives thus placed themselves, white, middle-class, native-born, at the center of their model for the female citizen and made the citizenship of all women distinct from that of men.

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        Organized women began supporting Americanization efforts in the 1890s but their numbers increased appreciably after 1915 when the California Daughters of the American Revolution, the national DAR, the California Federation of Women's Clubs (an organization that represented the largest number of women's civic groups in the state), and the national General Federation of Women's clubs joined the campaign....

        According to the activists, American values could not take root unless immigrant wives and mothers taught them in the immigrant home; moreover, that instruction could not effectively occur unless women reformers had first instructed immigrant women.  Women progressives perceived Americanization as crucial to the nation's well being and dependent upon women's political activism.  The Americanization campaign, they concluded, offered them a vehicle for sponsoring legislation, managing programs, and even holding office - in short, for achieving full citizenship.

        Progressive women viewed Americanization in this manner partly because they, along with the progressive men who joined the Americanization crusade, belonged to that part of the progressive coalition whose political objective was building an interdependent society.  They envisioned society as consisting of unequal parts that must hold together if those parts and society itself were to survive.  They saw their political mission as creating social cohesion through responsible political actions that they defined as those efforts that maintained a productive capitalist system.  Such a system allowed for unequal class divisions but also permitted reforms protecting society from the worst hazards of unregulated capitalism.   They thus avidly supported capitalism yet they abandoned the old notions of laissez faire and sought political means to bind society together - to achieve an interdependent society.

        Progressives viewed Americanization as a tool to integrate immigrant workers into this interdependent society.  Their means were to be "education and protection":  reformers themselves teaching immigrants the values appropriate to a capitalist economy while protecting them from the most oppressive injustices of industrial capitalism.  The ultimate goal of Americanization was to transform rural peasants of dubious national loyalties into contented and reasonably rewarded American workers who accepted the elite leadership of American society.  These middle-class reformers used the language of interdependency to protect their own class interests.

        The women who participated in the Americanization campaign shared with their male colleagues the goal of interdependency but the women described themselves, their means of achieving this goal, and the gaol itself in gender specific language.  We are, they announced, patriots who engage in "home defense."  This definition of patriotism revealed two legacies from the antebellum women's movement.  One of them defined patriotism in terms of gender.  From the beginning of the nineteenth century women reformers believed that "home defense," or building a family environment supportive of the social order, was women's distinctive political responsibility.  By the 1840s Americans commonly accepted that women's defense of the home might well require them to perform public tasks outside the home, such as charity work.  Women of the progressive era enlarged this notion of domesticity by contending that women's "home" duties required the transformation of the immigrant family, and this necessitated women's inclusion in the Americanization campaign.  by using domesticity to justify their participation in the Americanization movement, women both expanded and limited their political role in the movement.

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        The second legacy from the antebellum women's movement involved the interrelationship of class and gender.  Early nineteenth-century female charity workers attributed the poverty of workers' homes to the moral lapses of the workers themselves; the charity workers also believed their own affluence came from the morality they taught in their homes.  Because of these assumptions, the women their patriotic duty clearly:  they must teach all women how to serve as moral guardians of the home.   If women throughout the United States followed the example of elite women, America would become a morally united, prosperous nation without class conflict.

        Middle-class women reformers during the progressive era intended their message for all Americans, not just the newly arrived immigrants....[T]hey gave themselves...the responsibility for teaching the "right" values to citizens and foreigners [alike].

        At first, these reformers debated sharply over the best means to achieve national unity, with businessmen and those belonging to ultra-patriotic organizations stressing the need to acculturate immigrants immediately and completely into American society, and by force if necessary.  Others, especially social and settlement workers, urged a slower approach, one addressed to creating an interdependent [sic] society based on Anglo-American values that the immigrants themselves would help shape.  In time, these two views merged, with the latter position virtually disappearing after World War I....

        The settlement house movement deeply influenced reformers in California, leading to the development in the 1890s of two significant settlements, the College Settlement in Los Angeles and the San Francisco Settlement.  Both closely modeled themselves after Hull House in Chicago and offered Americanization programs for immigrants.  Both expressed their ultimate goal in terms of "nation-building" or building a social consensus that crossed class and ethnic lines.  The College Settlement, managed completely by women, was dedicated "to help[ing] the privileged and the unprivileged to a better understanding of their mutual obligations."  In San Francisco, where men and women shared management responsibilities, the settlement had a similar goal:  "to serve as a medium among the different social elements of the city for bringing about a more intelligent and systematic understanding of their mutual obligations."

        In 1912 Simon Lubin heard Jane Addams and Frances Kellor, two renowned settlement workers, present the plank regarding immigrants to the national Progressive party.  Lubin, who had served in social settlements himself, was impressed with the women's presentation, particularly with their advocacy for state agencies concerned with immigrants.  He persuaded California Progressive Governor Hiram Johnson to create in 1913 a state Commission on Immigration and Housing.

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        The Commission's education programs, especially its home teacher program that sent female public school teachers into immigrant homes, won the praise of Americanization advocates across the nation.  These programs were the creation of Mary Gibson, a Los Angeles school teacher, the widow of a banker, and nearly sixty when she joined the Commission in 1913.  She came with thirty years of service in women's civic activities and more recent experience in partisan politics....

        Gibson's appointment to the Commission of Immigration put her in a political world where women's role remained uncertain....[M]any male progressives felt uncomfortable with women in politics, a discomfort illustrated by the limited support the men gave to the fight for women's suffrage.  Male progressives pushed the California legislature of 1911 to pass a constitutional amendment giving women the vote so the issue would come before the male electorate; after that, male reformers generally gave women's suffrage a minimum amount of attention.  It passed in 1911 because of women's efforts....

        Sensing this equivocal support from male reformers, Gibson enlisted organized womanhood to promote her Americanization program.  She created a place in government where women wrote, directed, and carried out policy.  Immigrant wives must be Americanized, she told her superior, Commissioner Lubin.  The most efficient means of doing that was by sending women teachers into immigrant homes.  Lubin agreed.  Gibson wrote the California Home Teacher Act.  She and the Women's Legislative Council of California, the political umbrella of the California women's movement, insured that the bill passed the state legislature.  The California Daughters of the American Revolution raised funding for the first home teachers.  The program's success, reasoned Gibson, would strengthen American society and thus underscore women's crucial contribution to its stability.  Women would subsequently be rewarded with greater political responsibilities.  "If they [women]," declared Gibson in a 1915 speech, "carry through but half their far-reaching plans [for Americanization], the women of the country will have justified themselves and their claims to suffrage a hundred-fold."

        As Gibson worked to make this prediction come true, she emerged as leader of women's Americanization efforts within California.  She transformed her hometown of Los Angeles into a showplace of Americanization activities.  She became an officer of the California Federation of Women's Clubs in 1915 specifically to direct Americanization activities statewide and then in 1919 served a similar function as chair of the Americanization committee for the national organization, the General Federation of Women's Clubs.  She lectured frequently, wrote for state and national journals, and during World War I was chair of the Americanization Department of the Women's Committee of the State Council of Defense of California.

        Gibson and others caught up in the California Americanization movement worried that when the Panama Canal opened in 1915, immigrants would "flood" the state.  That did not happen.  During the first two decades of the twentieth century the percentage of immigrants within the total population of California remained essentially the same, twenty-five percent in 1900 and 1910 and twenty-two percent in 1920.  But the immigrants' place of national origin shifted.  From 1900 to 1910 England and Germany headed the list of countries sending immigrants to California, but after 1910 Italians and Mexicans began coming in increasingly larger numbers.  By 1920 they constituted the majority of newcomers from abroad.

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        To supporters of Americanization in California, Mexicans posed the most serious challenge to the state.  They were the fastest growing immigrant group, and they were perceived as coming from an especially flawed culture that hindered their ability to assimilate.  The California Commission of Immigration compared "the Italian with his love of industry and frugality, whose adaptability makes him quickly assimilated," to the "Mexican with his lack of initiative, whose roving temper increases the difficulty of adjusting him."  ...Mexicans could become good American citizens but only if they were so changed they could no longer be recognized as Mexicans.

        Until that transformation was achieved, they remained a danger to American society.  "Unguided and unprotected," stated a leaflet distributed by the California Immigration Commission, "he [the immigrant] is liable to become a menace.  The correction of these evils is no more than a matter of our own self-protection."  To which Gibson added in a 1915 California Outlook article:  "These [immigrant] families are with us and make up a definite part of our civilization - whether that part shall be valuable[,] or a menace to the body politic, rests with us." ...

        [A]ccording to Gibson and other advocates of Americanization programs, all immigrants needed to be socialized into their proper place in American society.  In this task the idea of "interdependence" was crucial.  ...She envisioned an interdependent society as hierarchical and relying on humane yet powerful experts to achieve and maintain social harmony.

        Gibson, Lubin, and the others on the Commission of Immigration and Housing saw themselves as those experts, transforming the culture of immigrants through their programs of "education and protection."  Immigration presents "a series of peculiar problems," affirmed Lubin, "which require for their intelligent solution a specially created body of experts, with one general view - the protection, assistance and education of the new-comer." ...

        Gibson focused her attention on education....Her most significant contribution was her home teacher program, an innovation designed to send female teachers into the immigrant home to teach the foreign mother "American" standards....[T]he teachers attempted to convince foreign-born wives themselves to attend classes in English, civics, and "domestic science" or home economics.  The classes were held at local schools or in neighborhood homes, while later some were moved to "cottages," small houses equipped with American-style furniture and household equipment.  In 1915 there was a single home teacher in Los Angeles; three years later there were twelve salaried teachers working in nineteen of the city's school districts and offering classes in five model homes.  By World War I, other cities, such as Oakland, had also adopted the program.

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        In seeking public support for the home teacher program, Gibson emphasized that immigrant women were a potential "menace" to American society.  Because they lived a life of painful isolation, either unable or unwilling to engage in a dialogue with native-born American society, foreign-born mothers, according to Gibson, did not make their homes "American homes."  The result was that their children, who were more accepting of American values, developed contempt for their immigrant homes and parents, especially for their mothers, the least Americanized parent.  This conflict could lead to juvenile delinquency and other problems.  If the state failed to rescue immigrant women and restore family order, warned Gibson, it faced "imminent peril" and would have to "pay the penalty of social disorder." ...

        [I]mmigrant women became the object of such concern because they served as "linchpins" in maintaining immigrant culture.  Immigrant wives and mothers stood at the center of immigrant culture, creating homes that honored the values of pre-industrial societies, values that stressed that individuals should place the well-being of the family over personal advancement.  Immigrant family survival often rested upon family cooperation, and the person who taught, managed, and encouraged cooperation was the immigrant mother.  These women were strong, intelligent, resourceful, in command of family resources, and integrated into their communities.  This reality contrasted sharply with the view of Gibson and other Americanization advocates who saw immigrant women as isolated, unable to control their children, and a potential "menace" to American society....

        Gibson and her colleagues believed that immigrant mothers who became inculcated with American values would be crucial in the assimilation of their families, especially as they were persuaded to de-emphasize group cooperation in favor of individual ambition.  To reformers the development of individualism was at the heart of the Americanization education program, for they believed that once immigrants began pursuing their own individual material interests, the economy of the country would be strengthened and the immigrant standard of living would improve.  "One cannot transform a hopeless ignoramus into a good citizen," Gibson announced in a 1915 speech; "he must first be instilled with ambition."...

        For "the making" of ambitious people, Americanization proponents stressed domestic science, a required subject in the home teacher program.  Domestic science...emphasized teaching the immigrant mothers "restlessness and dissatisfaction" with shoddy workmanship and poor living conditions.  They should not "accept the fallen plaster, the dish-water that leaks through from the flat above and the dirty and dark hall."...

        Another goal of domestic science was to provide immigrant wives with vocational skills, transforming them from unskilled peasant women into scientific household managers.  A by-product would be relief for the chronic shortage of skilled, inexpensive household help.  While reformers felt immigrant wives needed ambition, they sought to instill only the kind of ambition that would leave the newcomers in the working class, moving from unskilled to semiskilled or, at best, skilled work....

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        Thus, the assumption undergirding the Americanization program was that only elite, native-born women would resolve the menace presented to the American social order by immigrant, working-class women.  "Upon the women, brave enough and strong enough to win their own political emancipation," stated Gibson, "rests the responsibility of the education and protection of these alien women; and to so establish and sustain the mother in her own domain, is to protect the state from delinquent children and an ignorant vote."...

        As for the Americanization campaign itself, immigrants voted with their feet overwhelmingly against it....[F]ew immigrants attended night schools, an early and crucial innovation by Americanization reformers that provided lessons in English and American civics for adults....[E]ven during World War I, a period of intense Americanization activities, nigh schools "enrolled only a quarter of a million out of a possible thirteen and three quarters million immigrants...[and] women constituted less than a third of this already small number."  Gibson and other California reformers established the home teacher program to overcome the reluctance of immigrant women to come to night classes but the drop-out rate for the home teacher program was, at eighty percent, very high...."Consistently low registrations and high drop-out rates" characterize the response of immigrant women to all Americanization programs, from night schools to settlement programs.  A 1920 survey of Americanization programs in Los Angeles [showed that] 3,448 people (in a city with 122,131 foreign-born) started the program and only 322 finished it.

        Immigrant women often wanted the skills - for example, facility in the English language - taught in Americanization classes but they could gain these through their ethnic communities, churches, and labor organizations.  Since they utilized the services of other social welfare agencies, bringing their infants to well-baby clinics and asking social workers to intervene in cases of family violence, one wonders why they rejected Americanization efforts.  Perhaps they did so because the impulse behind the efforts was a fear of immigrant culture, a fear that meant the programs, no matter how humanely conceived, were permeated with the idea that immigrant culture was basically illegitimate and something that would and should eventually disappear in the United States.

        This negativity toward immigrant culture became especially pronounced during the years following the war when the REd Scare heightened fears of foreign ideas.  For Americanization advocates it surfaced in the way they established themselves as arbiters or "gatekeepers" over what aspects of immigrant culture were socially acceptable.  A dramatic example was the concept of immigrant cultural "gifts" which Gibson vigorously promoted after the war, although the concept was popular among Americanization reformers since the beginning of the century.  In 1921 Gibson persuaded clubwomen to hold a "Homeland Exhibit of Art and Crafts" in southern California that featured the arts, songs, and dances of the foreign-born.  Such an exhibit, she explained, would teach both immigrants and native-born the value of creating a new national consensus shared by all citizens.

        The pageant at the Homeland Exhibit, however, like similar events presented by settlement workers and teachers in neighborhood schools, failed to offer a message of pluralism.  Instead, these pageants functioned as Americanization rituals in which immigrants presented themselves in native costume to native-born officials who symbolically decided whether to accept them and their arts into American society....They decided which immigrant gifts to accept and the meaning of those gifts for the larger society.

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        Also contributing to immigrant disenchantment with Americanization programs was an increasing element of coercion in their implementation.  During and immediately after the Red Scare many states passed coercive Americanization legislation.  California, along with Idaho and Utah, made attendance at Americanization classes compulsory for immigrants.  Neither Lubin nor Gibson favored such forced indoctrination, yet both participated in its implementation as members of the California State Americanization Committee.  Lubin openly expressed misgivings about his participation but Gibson did not.  She looked upon the mandatory programs as an opportunity for "constructive publicity" of the Commission's Americanization efforts.

        Some native-born citizens responded to the Red Scare by declaring that the foreign-born could never become "100 percent" Americans, a nativist sentiment that no doubt encouraged many immigrants to avoid Americanization programs.  In California, the Red Scare and the 100 percent  campaign fostered an anti-Japanese hysteria that swelled into a movement that demanded the expulsion of the Japanese from the state for racial as well as cultural reasons.  Before the war, women reformers expressed more toleration or, at least, less active hostility toward Japanese immigrants.  In 1913 most of the women's civic organizations had remained silent and officially uncommitted when the Progressives waged a campaign against Japanese land ownership; some women defended the rights of the Japanese.  Japanese women attended home teacher programs where they received high marks.

        But in 1919 several women's organizations backed the exclusion of Japanese from the state; these included groups with a long history of support for Americanization.  The California Federation of Women's Clubs passed a resolution for Japanese exclusion in 1920, and its president, Adella Tuttle Schloss, became one of the vice-presidents of the Japanese Exclusion League of California.  The willingness of the state's organized women to join the Japanese Exclusion League was linked to the women's participation in the Americanization campaign.  That campaign had made them more politically active and more receptive to racial nationalism than they had been previously....

        The California women who supported Americanization did so because they perceived their primary political task as maintaining "interdependence" - social order, unity and peace.  They would gain full citizenship; all Americans would accept their proper place and responsibilities; and the result would be social harmony.  Americanization, they thought, provided a means to transform America; housekeepers would become patriots, and immigrants, citizens.