The United States of America is one of the most diverse countries in the entire world. It has gained diversity not merely through race, but through religion, ethnic background, and through the ever-dynamic shift of America. Some of the most dramatic and rapid changes occurred in the late nineteenth century following the Civil War. As the United States began to industrialize, wave upon wave of immigrants poured into the country’s borders in search of religious, political, or, more often than not, economic freedom. To the outside world, the United States began to be seen as our Pledge of Allegiance suggests is: a land of the free.
“’America is a free country’ one Polish immigrant stated…’you don’t have to be a serf to anyone…freedom and prosperity are enjoyed by the people of the United States.’”1 Despite these immigrant hopes of freedom and prosperity, America was only just beginning to leave behind its roots of slavery; racism and prejudice were still in the air. While African-American men were being given their permission to vote, white women still struggled for that freedom. Immigrants faced dilemmas from some radical white women. “Feminists argued that native-born white women deserved the vote more than non-whites and immigrants.”
2 The struggles of being an immigrant were difficult enough, but to be a woman as well during that era was unlike any other barrier to freedom and inequality at the time. The novel Bread Givers by Anzia Yezierska, an immigrant who lived during that era, discusses what life was like for her demographic during her time through the eyes of a Jewish immigrant girl. Immigrant women in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century faced a slew of harrowing challenges as they faced a changing America.
One of the biggest challenges that immigrant women had to face was exceedingly poor living conditions. Aside from being confined to very tight knit, ethnically uniform neighborhoods and communities3, many areas had landlords or landlord-esque figures set up to enforce strict living requirements which often limited higher quality housing in the immigrant community and female demographic.4 In Bread Givers, Yezeriska’s character, Sara, experiences this dilemma.
She grows up in a tenet fit possibly for a single person or possibly even a couple, and yet she lives with her mother, father, and three other sisters. On top of cramped living conditions, they do not appear to live in an area where access to cheap, safe food is available all the time.5 Later in the novel, an adult Sara is searching for a place to live with a room to herself. She struggles to find any place other than single rooms to share with two to four other women. She often finds herself facing rejection to open rooms. “’No girls,’ snapped this one, too. ‘Why no girls?’ I dared ask the skinny tsarina.
‘I want to keep the house clean. No cooking, no washing. Less trouble, less dirt, with men.’”6 When Sara finally does find a room, it is described as being a room very common to poor immigrants during that time. “It was a dark hole on the ground floor. The only window…was thick with black dust. The bed see-sawed…the mattress full of lumps and the sheets were shreds.”
7 These living conditions often created complications in the health and well-being of these immigrant women, and access to quality health care was rare for immigrant women. Sara’s mother falls ill in the novel and has no access to such care, ultimately leading to her demise.8 These poor living conditions, however, were not the only conflict immigrant women faced. Even when these women left home for work, conditions only worsened.
Job opportunities for the immigrant woman in the United States during that era were remarkably limited. As the job market expanded, skilled labor became more desired and unskilled labor was left to the immigrants and women. These types of jobs came with low wages (some as low as $3 per week) long hours, and dangerous working conditions. Immigrant women were largely confined to low-wage factory jobs, while the job-market for native born white women expanded enormously.
9 In Bread Givers, Sara searches desperately and finds a job in a clothing factory, much like the factories who hired immigrant girls in reality, for five dollars a week. She describes the factory as small, congested, smelly, and filled with fumes with nearly no source of fresh air flow.10 A similar textile factory, The Triangle Shirtwaist Company, burst out in flames on March 25, 1911.
The factory was located on the top three floors of a ten-story building in Greenwich Village of New York City. As the fire spread, the young Jewish and Italian immigrant girls, some as young as 14, began to realize the doors to the stairwells were locked, as per usual in these factors, in order for the owner to prevent theft, “unauthorized bathroom breaks,” “outside distractions” to his employees. In the end, approximately 150 immigrant girls died in the fire, and some of the remaining survivors were arrested for forming a Union against these factories.
11 These inequalities towards immigrant women were prevalent all over the country, but especially in New York City, where a large portion of the immigrant community lived due to its proximity to Ellis Island and its high-volume of unskilled factory jobs. There were also barriers to immigrant women, however, on a smaller, more individualized scale: specific cultural practices.
Women of all cultures, but especially poorer immigrant families, often had high-priority obligations in the home that prevented them from excelling in the world. While many native-born white women were privileged enough to grow up in school and go to college, get educations, and find skilled-labor careers, immigrant girls often had obligations forcing them to stay at home rather than seek an education, find a respectable job, and start their own family at a reasonable age.
Taking into account the poor living conditions found in immigrant communities, as well as the lack of high wage employment and access to health care, women often had responsibilities to their families before pursuing their own lives. In Bread Givers, the meaning of the term “bread givers” was that Sara and her three sisters were obligated to give their earnings to the family, especially the father.12 Although not all immigrant families had patriarchal father figures who demanded all earnings for selfish reasons as the father in Yezierska’s novel did, the structure of income was very common to find in immigrant households.
One of Sara’s sisters, Bessie, was the most crucial “bread giver” early in the story, and later on a man takes interest in her for a wife. “I like a plain home girl that knows how to help save the dollar, cook a good meal, and help in the shop. I think Bessie is just fitting for me.”13 This man takes interest her the same way most men would during that time. He sees her as a woman to uphold household responsibilities and help to save money instead of earn it on her own.
Most of the daughters, except for Sara, end up marrying men for the sake of bringing money into the house in order to support their parents.14 Finally, at the end of the story, the father begins to grow old and sick and it becomes the responsibility of the daughters to take him in and take care of him without question or hesitation.15 These were some of the specific cultural barriers that imposed on the individual freedoms of immigrant women in the United States.
Anzia Yezierska, through her book Bread Givers, provided a very specific, yet realistic depiction of the challenges presented to immigrant women in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century of America. The huge influx of immigrants, especially from southern and eastern Europe, between 1890 and 1914 created a drastically new dynamic in the changing United States.
16 This new dynamic presented countless challenges to immigrants and women alike including poor living conditions, limited job opportunities, and cultural barriers. As our country continues to progress, so will the challenges presented to each individual group, culture, and demographic; therefore, it is crucial to study these past experiences so we may learn to adapt and thrive in those conditions.
Foner, Eric . Give Me Liberty! – An American History, seagull 3e. 3rd. 2. New York, NY: W W Norton , 2012. 546-713. print.
The Power and the People, episode 4 of New York: A Documentary Film, Steeplechase Films, 1999, PBS home video. Yezierska, Anzia . Bread Givers, A Novel. New York, NY: Persea Books, INC, 2003. print.
As one of the dumb, voiceless ones I speak. One of the millions of immigrants beating, beating out their hearts at your gates for a breath of understanding.
Ach! America! From the other end of the earth from where I came, America was a land of living hope, woven of dreams, aflame with longing and desire.
Choked for ages in the airless oppression of Russia, the Promised Land rose up — wings for my stifled spirit — sunlight burning through my darkness — freedom singing to me in my prison — deathless songs tuning prison-bars into strings of a beautiful violin.
I arrived in America. My young, strong body, my heart and soul pregnant with the unlived lives of generations clamoring for expression.Q1
What my mother and father and their mother and father never had a chance to give out in Russia, I would give out in America. The hidden sap of centuries would find release; colors that never saw light — songs that died unvoiced — romance that never had a chance to blossom in the black life of the Old World.
In the golden land of flowing opportunity I was to find my work that was denied me in the sterile village of my forefathers. Here I was to be free from the dead drudgery for bread that held me down in Russia. For the first time in America, I’d cease to be a slave of the belly. I’d be a creator, a giver, a human being! My work would be the living job of fullest self-expression.Q2
But from my high visions, my golden hopes, I had to put my feet down on earth. I had to have food and shelter. I had to have the money to pay for it.
I was in America, among the Americans, but not of them. No speech, no common language, no way to win a smile of understanding from them, only my young, strong body and my untried faith. Only my eager, empty hands, and my full heart shining from my eyes!
God from the world! Here I was with so much richness in me, but my mind was not wanted without the language. And my body, unskilled, untrained, was not even wanted in the factory. Only one of two chances was left open to me: the kitchen, or minding babies.Q3
My first job was as a servant in an Americanized family. Once, long ago, they came from the same village from where I came. But they were so well-dressed, so well-fed, so successful in America, that they were ashamed to remember their mother tongue.
“What were to be my wages?” I ventured timidly, as I looked up to the well-fed, well-dressed “American” man and woman.
They looked at me with a sudden coldness. What have I said to draw away from me their warmth? Was it so low for me to talk of wages? I shrank back into myself like a low-down bargainer. Maybe they’re so high up in well-being they can’t any more understand my low thoughts for money.
From his rich height the man preached down to me that I must not be so grabbing for wages. Only just landed from the ship and already thinking about money when I should be thankful to associate with “Americans.”
The woman, out of her smooth, smiling fatness assured me that this was my chance for a summer vacation in the country with her two lovely children. My great chance to learn to be a civilized being, to become an American by living with them.
So, made to feel that I was in the hands of American friends, invited to share with them their home, their plenty, their happiness, I pushed out from my head the worry for wages. Here was my first chance to begin my life in the sunshine, after my long darkness. My laugh was all over my face as I said to them: “I’ll trust myself to you. What I’m worth you’ll give me.” And I entered their house like a child by the hand.Q4
The best of me I gave them. Their house cares were my house cares. I got up early. I worked till late. All that my soul hungered to give I put into the passion with which I scrubbed floors, scoured pots, and washed clothes. I was so grateful to mingle with the American people, to hear the music of the American language, that I never knew tiredness.
There was such a freshness in my brains and such a willingness in my heart I could go on and on — not only with the work of the house, but work with my head — learning new words from the children, the grocer, the butcher, the iceman. I was not even afraid to ask for words from the policeman on the street. And every new word made me see new American things with American eyes. I felt like a Columbus, finding new worlds through every new word.
But words alone were only for the inside of me. The outside of me still branded me for a steerage immigrant. I had to have clothes to forget myself that I’m a stranger yet. And so I had to have money to buy these clothes.
The month was up. I was so happy! Now I’d have money. My own, earned money. Money to buy a new shirt on my back — shoes on my feet. Maybe yet an American dress and hat!
Ach! How high rose my dreams! How plainly I saw all that I would do with my visionary wages shining like a light over my head!
In my imagination I already walked in my new American clothes. How beautiful I looked as I saw myself like a picture before my eyes! I saw how I would throw away my immigrant rags tied up in my immigrant shawl. With money to buy — free money in my hands — I’d show them that I could look like an American in a day.
Like a prisoner in his last night in prison, counting the seconds that will free him from his chains, I trembled breathlessly for the minute I’d get the wages in my hand.Q5
Before dawn I rose.
I shined up the house like a jewel-box.
I prepared breakfast and waited with my heart in my mouth for my lady and gentleman to rise. At last I heard them stirring. My eyes were jumping out of my head to them when I saw them coming in and seating themselves by the table.
Like a hungry cat rubbing up to its boss for meat, so I edged and simpered around them as I passed them the food. Without my will, like a beggar, my hand reached out to them.
The breakfast was over. And no word yet from my wages.
“Gottuniu!” I thought to myself. “Maybe they’re so busy with their own things, they forgot it’s the day for my wages. Could they who have everything know what I was to do with my first American dollars? How could they, soaking in plenty, how could they feel the longing and the fierce hunger in me, pressing up through each visionary dollar? How could they know the gnawing ache of my avid fingers for the feel of my own, earned dollars? My dollars that I could spend like a free person. My dollars that would make me feel with everybody alike!”
Lunch came. Lunch passed.
Oi weh! Not a word yet about my money.
It was near dinner. And not a word yet about my wages.
I began to set the table. But my head — it swam away from me. I broke a glass. The silver dropped from my nervous fingers. I couldn’t stand it any longer. I dropped everything and rushed over to my American lady and gentleman.
“Oi weh! The money — my money — my wages!” I cried breathlessly.
Four cold eyes turned on me.
“Wages? Money?” The four eyes turned into hard stone as they looked me up and down. “Haven’t you a comfortable bed to sleep, and three good meals a day? You’re only a month here. Just came to America. And you already think about money. Wait till you’re worth any money. What use are you without knowing English? You should be glad we keep you here. It’s like a vacation for you. Other girls pay money yet to be in the country.”
It went black for my eyes. I was so choked no words came to my lips. Even the tears went dry in my throat.
I left. Not a dollar for all my work.Q6
For a long, long time my heart ached and ached like a sore wound. If murderers would have robbed me and killed me it wouldn’t have hurt me so much. I couldn’t think through my pain. The minute I’d see before me how they looked at me, the words they said to me — then everything began to bleed in me. And I was helpless.
For a long, long time the thought of ever working in an “American” family made me tremble with fear, like the fear of wild wolves. No — never again would I trust myself to an “American” family, no matter how fine their language and how sweet their smile.
It was blotted out in me all trust in friendship from “Americans.” But the life in me still burned to live. The hope in me still craved to hope. In darkness, in dirt, in hunger and want, but only to live on!
There had been no end to my day — working for the “American” family.
Now rejecting false friendships from higher-ups in America, I turned back to the Ghetto. I worked on a hard bench with my own kind on either side of me. I knew before I began what my wages were to be. I knew what my hours were to be. And I knew the feeling of the end of the day.
From the outside my second job seemed worse than the first. It was in a sweatshop of a Delancey Street basement, kept up by an old, wrinkled woman that looked like a black witch of greed. My work was sewing on buttons. While the morning was still dark I walked into a dark basement. And darkness met me when I turned out of the basement.
Day after day, week after week, all the contact I got with America was handling dead buttons. The money I earned was hardly enough to pay for bread and rent. I didn’t have a room to myself. I didn’t even have a bed. I slept on a mattress on the floor in a rat-hole of a room occupied by a dozen other immigrants. I was always hungry — oh, so hungry! The scant meals I could afford only sharpened my appetite for real food. But I felt myself better off than working in the “American” family where I had three good meals a day and a bed to myself. With all the hunger and darkness of the sweat-shop, I had at least the evening to myself. And all night was mine. When all were asleep, I used to creep up on the roof of the tenement and talk out my heart in silence to the stars in the sky.Q7
“Who am I? What am I? What do I want with my life? Where is America? Is there an America? What is this wilderness in which I’m lost?”
I’d hurl my questions and then think and think. And I could not tear it out of me, the feeling that America must be somewhere, somehow — only I couldn’t find it — my America, where I would work for love and not for a living. I was like a thing following blindly after something far off in the dark!
“Oi weh.” I’d stretch out my hand up in the air. “My head is so lost in America. What’s the use of all my working if I’m not in it? Dead buttons is not me.”
Then the busy season started in the shop. The mounds of buttons grew and grew. The long day stretched out longer. I had to begin with the buttons earlier and stay with them till later in the night. The old witch turned into a huge greedy maw for wanting more and more buttons.
For a glass of tea, for a slice of herring over black bread, she would buy us up to stay another and another hour, till there seemed no end to her demands. One day, the light of self-assertion broke into my cellar darkness. “I don’t want the tea. I don’t want your herring,” I said with terrible boldness. “I only want to go home. I only want the evening to myself!”
“You fresh mouth, you!” cried the old witch. “You learned already too much in America. I want no clock-watchers in my shop. Out you go!”Q8
I was driven out to cold and hunger. I could no longer pay for my mattress on the floor. I no longer could buy the bite in my mouth. I walked the streets. I knew what it is to be alone in a strange city, among strangers.
But I laughed through my tears. So I learned too much already in America because I wanted the whole evening to myself? Well America has yet to teach me still more: how to get not only the whole evening to myself, but a whole day a week like the American workers.
That sweat-shop was a bitter memory but a good school. It fitted me for a regular factory. I could walk in boldly and say I could work at something, even if it was only sewing on buttons.
Gradually, I became a trained worker. I worked in a light, airy factory, only eight hours a day. My boss was no longer a sweater and a blood-squeezer. The first freshness of the morning was mine. And the whole evening was mine. All day Sunday was mine.Q9
Now I had better food to eat. I slept on a better bed. Now, I even looked dressed up like the American-born. But inside of me I knew that I was not yet an American. I choked with longing when I met an American-born, and I could say nothing.
Something cried dumb in me. I couldn’t help it. I didn’t know what it was I wanted. I only knew I wanted. I wanted. Like the hunger in the heart that never gets food.
An English class for foreigners started in our factory. The teacher had such a good, friendly face, her eyes looked so understanding, as if she could see right into my heart. So I went to her one day for an advice:
“I don’t know what is with me the matter,” I began. “I have no rest in me. I never yet done what I want.”
“What is it you want to do, child?” she asked me.
“I want to do something with my head, my feelings. All day long, only with my hands I work.”
“First you must learn English.” She patted me as if I was not yet grown up. “Put your mind on that, and then we’ll see.”
So for a time I learned the language. I could almost begin to think with English words in my head. But in my heart the emptiness still hurt. I burned to give, to give something, to do something, to be something. The dead work with my hands was killing me. My work left only hard stones on my heart.
Again I went to our factory teacher and cried out to her: “I know already how to read and write the English language, but I can’t put it into words what I want. What is it in me so different that can’t come out?”
She smiled at me down from her calmness as if I were a little bit out of my head.
“What do you want to do?”
“I feel. I see. I hear. And I want to think it out. But I’m like dumb in me. I only know I’m different — different from everybody.”
She looked at me close and said nothing for a minute. “You ought to join one of the social clubs of the Women’s Association,” she advised.
“What’s the Women’s Association?” I implored greedily.
“A group of American women who are trying to help the working-girl find herself. They have a special department for immigrant girls like you.”Q10
I joined the Women’s Association. On my first evening there they announced a lecture: “The Happy Worker and His Work,” by the Welfare director of the United Mills Corporation.
“Is there such a thing as a happy worker at his work?” I wondered. Happiness is only by working at what you love. And what poor girl can ever find it to work at what she loves? My old dreams about my America rushed through my mind. Once I thought that in America everybody works for love. Nobody has to worry for a living. Maybe this welfare man came to show me the real America that till now I sought in vain.
With a lot of polite words the head lady of the Women’s Association introduced a higher-up that looked like the king of kings of business. Never before in my life did I ever see a man with such a sureness in his step, such power in his face, such friendly positiveness in his eye as when he smiled upon us.
“Efficiency is the new religion of business,” he began. “In big business houses, even in up-to-date factories, they no longer take the first comer and give him any job that happens to stand empty. Efficiency begins at the employment office. Experts are hired for the one purpose, to find out how best to fit the worker to his work. It’s economy for the boss to make the worker happy.” And then he talked a lot more on efficiency in educated language that was over my head.
I didn’t know exactly what it meant — efficiency — but if it was to make the worker happy at his work, then that’s what I had been looking for since I came to America. I only felt from watching him that he was happy by his job. And as I looked on the clean, well-dressed, successful one, who wasn’t ashamed to say he rose from an office-boy, it made me feel that I, too, could lift myself up for a person.
He finished his lecture, telling us about the Vocational-Guidance Center that the Women’s Association started.Q11
The very next evening I was at the Vocational Guidance Center. There I found a young, college-looking woman. Smartness and health shining from her eyes! She, too, looked as if she knew her way in America. I could tell at the first glance: here is a person that is happy by what she does.
“I feel you’ll understand me,” I said right away.
She leaned over with pleasure in her face: “I hope I can.”
“I want to work by what’s in me. Only, I don’t know what’s in me. I only feel I’m different.”
She gave me a quick, puzzled look from the corner of her eyes. “What are you doing now?”
“I’m the quickest shirtwaist hand on the floor. But my heart wastes away by such work. I think and think, and my thoughts can’t come out.”
“Why don’t you think out your thoughts in shirtwaists? You could learn to be a designer. Earn more money.”
“I don’t want to look on waists. If my hands are sick from waists, how could my head learn to put beauty into them?”
“But you must earn your living at what you know, and rise slowly from job to job.”
I looked at her office sign: “Vocational Guidance.” “What’s your vocational guidance?” I asked. “How to rise from job to job — how to earn more money?”
The smile went out from her eyes. But she tried to be kind yet. “What do you want?” she asked, with a sigh of last patience.
“I want America to want me.”Q12
She fell back in her chair, thunderstruck with my boldness. But yet, in a low voice of educated self-control, she tried to reason with me:
“You have to show that you have something special for America before America has need of you.”
“But I never had a chance to find out what’s in me, because I always had to work for a living. Only, I feel it’s efficiency for America to find out what’s in me so different, so I could give it out by my work.”
Her eyes half closed as they bored through me. Her mouth opened to speak, but no words came from her lips. So I flamed up with all that was choking in me like a house on fire:
“America gives free bread and rent to criminals in prison. They got grand houses with sunshine, fresh air, doctors and teachers, even for the crazy ones. Why don’t they have free boarding-schools for immigrants — strong people — willing people? Here you see us burning up with something different, and America turns her head away from us.”
Her brows lifted and dropped down. She shrugged her shoulders away from me with the look of pity we give to cripples and hopeless lunatics. “America is no Utopia. First you must become efficient in earning a living before you can indulge in your poetic dreams.”
I went away from the vocational guidance office with all the air out of my lungs. All the light out of my eyes. My feet dragged after me like dead wood.
Till now there had always lingered a rosy veil of hope over my emptiness, a hope that a miracle would happen. I would open up my eyes some day and suddenly find the America of my dreams. As a young girl hungry for love sees always before her eyes the picture of lover’s arms around her, so I saw always in my heart the vision of Utopian America.
But now I felt that the America of my dreams never was and never could be. Reality had hit me on the head as with a club. I felt that the America that I sought was nothing but a shadow — an echo — a chimera of lunatics and crazy immigrants.
Stripped of all illusion, I looked about me. The long desert of wasting days of drudgery stared me in the face. The drudgery that I had lived through, and the endless drudgery still ahead of me rose over me like a withering wilderness of sand. In vain were all my cryings, in vain were all frantic efforts of my spirit to find the living waters of understanding for my perishing lips. Sand, sand was everywhere. With every seeking, every reaching out I only lost myself deeper and deeper in a vast sea of sand.Q13
I knew now the American language. And I knew now, if I talked to the Americans from morning till night, they could not understand what the Russian soul of me wanted. They could not understand me any more than if I talked to them in Chinese. Between my soul and the American soul were worlds of difference that no words could bridge over. What was that difference? What made the Americans so far apart from me?
I began to read the American history. I found from the first pages that America started with a band of Courageous Pilgrims. They had left their native country as I had left mine. They had crossed an unknown ocean and landed in an unknown country, as I.
But the great difference between the first Pilgrims and me was that they expected to make America, build America, create their own world of liberty. I wanted to find it ready made.
I read on. I delved deeper down into the American history. I saw how the Pilgrim Fathers came to a rocky desert country, surrounded by Indian savages on all sides. But undaunted, they pressed on — through danger — through famine, pestilence, and want — they pressed on. They did not ask the Indians for sympathy, for understanding. They made no demands on anybody, but on their own indomitable spirit of persistence.
And I — I was forever begging a crumb of sympathy, a gleam of understanding from strangers who could not understand.
I, when I encountered a few savage Indian scalpers, like the old witch of the sweat-shop, like my “Americanized” countryman, who cheated me of my wages — I, when I found myself on the lonely, untrodden path through which all seekers of the new world must pass, I lost heart and said: “There is no America!”
Then came a light — a great revelation! I saw America — a big idea — a deathless hope — a world still in the making. I saw that it was the glory of America that it was not yet finished. And I, the last comer, had her share to give, small or great, to the making of America, like those Pilgrims who came in the Mayflower.
Fired up by this revealing light, I began to build a bridge of understanding between the American-born and myself. Since their life was shut out from such as me, I began to open up my life and the lives of my people to them. And life draws life. In only writing about the Ghetto I found America.
Great chances have come to me. But in my heart is always a deep sadness. I feel like a man who is sitting down to a secret table of plenty, while his near ones and dear ones are perishing before his eyes. My very joy in doing the work I love hurts me like secret guilt, because all about me I see so many with my longings, my burning eagerness, to do and to be, wasting their days in drudgery they hate, merely to buy bread and pay rent. And America is losing all that richness of the soul.
The Americans of tomorrow, the America that is every day nearer coming to be, will be too wise, too open-hearted, too friendly-handed, to let the least lastcomer at their gates knock in vain with his gifts unwanted.Q14
"America and I" by Anzia Yezierska (1923) is in the public domain.
- Clamor(verb): to strongly and loudly demand (for something)
- Simper(verb): to smile or gesture coyly or in a way to gain favor
- Avid(adjective): having or showing a great desire, interest, or enthusiasm for something
- Implore(verb): to beg someone desperately to do something
- Efficiency(noun): achieving the greatest amount of productivity with the least amount of wasted effort or cost; work done in a well-organized and productive manner
- Undaunted(adjective): not intimidated or discouraged by difficulty, danger, or disappointment
cannot be conquered or defeated