The beginning of the XX century was marked by mass immigration to the United States, where descendants from Eastern Europe, Italy, China and other countries sought for gaining a better life. A significant part of the immigrants consisted of Jewish people from Eastern Europe, which faced if it is possible to say, standard obstacles for aliens and the need to assimilate. The process of immigrants’ assimilation can be traced even more demonstrably in observing Jewish women assimilation and adaptation to the new environment because it was a group of deprived “aliens” within the small group of Jewish immigrants, who met oppression from both “the New World” and “The Old World”. The main obstacles which such women met and possible outcomes of their struggle can be exemplified by Sara Smolinsky’s story, and supported by the brief observation of the woman emancipation movement, with personal examples of Jeanne Deroin, Elizabeth Heyrick and Gertrude Bell.
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Now it is necessary to make a little digression and focus on the trends and the whole situation in the social development of that time. The rapid development of technology and economy worldwide, and especially in the United States, which produced the need in the labor force, from the one hand, and quite a difficult situation in the countries of Eastern Europe, caused the start of mass immigration. People sought a better life, new opportunities, freedom and independence. But, of course, immigrants on the whole and Jewish immigrants, in particular, had to work really hard to obtain economic independence, trust and respect from the native Americans or even from already assimilated Jewish Americans. The majority of the immigrants understood the necessity to assimilate, which didn’t exclude their culture and religion, they preserved them, but they were to become like Americans. This necessity was brought by the trend of cultivating the American way of life and all Americans, and, of course, by the typical unwillingness to accept aliens to one’s society, which is general for all peoples and countries. And as far as women in the society of that time are concerned it is necessary to point out that the feministic movement already gained ground with American women, and was almost absent within the world of Jewish immigrants. Jewish women lived in the patriarchal world, where men ruled, which made Jewish females seek assimilation into the world of independence and great opportunities: “In America, women don’t need men to boss them” (Yezierska 137)”.
Thus, the story of Sara Smolinsky, though being a part of fiction writing, highlights all the main obstacles met by an average Jewish female immigrant of that time and reveals one of the possible ways out of the bondage to the independent and respectable life in the new environment. From her very childhood, Sara witnesses the suppression of the “old world” which her father embodies, forcing her to earn their living and depriving her of simple and natural freedoms; and her father believes that it is the only way to do: female is made to serve male and even tries to convince his daughters in that, by repeating that women are insignificant, they are nothing and even less, they are “blotted-out existence” (Yezierska 205). But Sara finds the way out of her father’s tyranny – she escapes. Sara understands that to become successful and reach her aims she has to work hard and make the right decision. Sara finds her salvation in labor; she decides to work to gain her aims to become a successful American citizen. Her first achievement and starting point is renting a room where he lived on her own, which wasn’t welcomed especially with poor females (Yezierska 158). But she took a risk and only worked to save money for her dream – education. And only her persistent work made it possible for her to obtain an education and become a teacher. She earned enough money, she earned her respectable status and, finally, she earned independence, which helped her in meeting the love of all her life. Thus, though Sara met a lot of obstacles, being a stranger in the contemporary world by her religion and her gender, used her natural energy and plunged into the work, which, on the one hand, made her forget about some sentiments and go on towards her dream; on the other hand, she gained education and became a part of that hostile society.
At this point, I would like to consider the life of a french woman, who promoted women’s rights and the rights of women in France in the XIX century. This woman’s name is Jeanne Deroin. Of course, she wasn’t an immigrant like Sara, but still, she was suppressed by traditions and male rule. Nevertheless, these women can be juxtaposed, since they both tried to break the rule of male superiority. It is necessary to add that at that time women were even more suppressed since the women’s emancipation movement only started gaining its power. Deroin wrote her works dedicated to improvement in women’s lives, restrictions in child labor. She was very active, and she even became a member of the national election where she promoted women’s rights. She had to be very persistent, for almost all the men were against women’s political activity, or rather any activity.
Another woman to be considered is Elizabeth Heyrick, a British activist for slavery abolition at the end of the XVII century, early XVIII century. This woman, unlike Sara, was quite rich, and her family was quite powerful in the society of those times. Nevertheless, she is a woman who met opposition among men, even within the same movement. As a very good example of this, it is possible to mention the situation when the male leaders of The Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade were against Heyrick, being female, involved in this society, though a lot of women donated for this society. In spite of the male opposition Heyrick’s active campaigns and activities contributed greatly to the slavery abolition process; and made her name imprinted in history.
Gertrude Bell can be also considered in connection with Sara; what these two women have in common is their enormous energy, which changed their lives, and in the case with Bell contributed to the development of many fields of science and international relationships. It is necessary to underline that though Bell was well-to-do, she still was suppressed by the traditions, since only a few areas of study were open for her, thus she chose history and became a very famous archeologist. She traveled a lot, and in this connection, Bell can be contraposed with Sara who was an immigrant and had to assimilate with the rest of the American society, but Bell was the traveler who tried to influence locals. Her energy and her intellect made her a political officer, and she played a significant role in international relationships, trying to help her country.
Thus, it is possible to conclude that immigrants, and especially women, had to work twice harder and be twice more persistent than natives to become a part of that group. And this, in the majority of cases, has led to gaining success, for working hard and earning money and respect was one of the main constituents of it. But another very important point in transforming from the immigrant into, for instance, American is the necessity and ability to assimilate. Assimilation for female immigrants means, first of all, understanding of their dignity and the possibility of independent development without men and the “Old World” interruption. It also presupposes an understanding of the culture and acceptance of the main rules of the society. It is necessary to underline that there is no necessity to quit one’s religion or traditions, for people without the past can’t obtain their future, but still, it is necessary to find a balance between two cultures and, thus, being a part of totally different culture, it is possible to become a part of the different society.
It is also necessary to stress that being a woman made additional obstacles for Jewish immigrant Sara, despite the continuous struggle of women for equal rights with men. Three examples of women’s stories of life depict this struggle and prove that women can achieve any of their aims. Being a woman doesn’t prevent anyone from obtaining a high position in any society or self-affirmation, but being a lazy or, at least, passive woman contributes to men’s rule. Moreover, these three examples prove that active women gain their rights and contribute to the development of society: Bell helps to connect different worlds in the international relationship; Heyrick helps people in gaining freedom, Deroin helps women to surmount suppression; and, finally, Sara, being a teacher, helps young people to develop themselves as personalities. I would like to draw special attention to the fact that Sara can be placed in the same raw with those three great women, for all of them made significant exploit – contributed to making our world better.
Yezierska, Anzia. Bread Givers. New York: Persea Books, 1975.