Immigrant Woman As She Adjusts Herself to American Life, June 10, 1914

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MADAM PRESIDENT: Miss Abbott has talked about the young girls who come to this country. If I may, I will talk about the mothers of the families, although I always find it extremely difficult to put the case of these women as it comes to me through my daily experience. Sometimes I try quoting Walt Whitman, who said the wisest person in the world was a mother of a large family; sometimes I remind my auditors of Michael Angelo's Sibyls; sometimes of Dante's good people who had "learned from life."

This morning I am going to try a story of a happening at Hull House, which may perhaps breathe the beauty or life efficiency which these women contribute to America, and which we do not always realize when we carelessly look at [page 2] women with shawls over their heads. I am not at all certain, however, that the story will convey the message which I would so gladly give.

There is a theory, as you may know, that women first evolved and used the fairy story, that combination of wisdom and romance, in an effort to tame her mate and to make him a better father to her children. The stories finally became a rude creed, or rather rule of conduct, which softened the treatment men accorded to women. In support of this theory it is pointed out that in the typical fairy story, the heroine is often disguised under a repulsive and ugly mask, while on the other hand the man is often destroyed by seductive beauties; the old woman, the mother-in-law to the maker of the tale let us observe in passing, is a wicked witch who gives men bad advice, and above all, the step-mother is the incarnation of all wickedness.

These first pitiful efforts of women became so wide-spread and so powerful that we have not yet escaped their influence. We had a remarkable experience at Hull House this year of the persistence of one of these tales which has doubtless had its taming effects through the centuries upon recalcitrant husbands and fathers.

It burst upon us one day in the persons of three Italian women who, with an excited rush into Hull House, demanded to see the devil baby. No amount of denial convinced them that it was not there, for they knew exactly what it was like with its cloven hoofs, its pointed ears and diminutive tail; it had been able to speak as soon as it was born, and was most shockingly profane. For six weeks the messages, the streams of visitors from every part of the city and suburbs, to this mythical baby, poured in all day long and so far into the night that the regular activities were almost swamped. The Italian version with a hundred variations, dealt with a pious Italian girl married to an atheist who vehemently tore a holy picture from the bedroom wall saying that he would quite as soon have a devil in the house as that, whereupon the devil incarnated himself in his child. As soon as the devil baby was born, it ran about the table shaking its finger in deep reproach at its father, who finally caught it and in fear and trembling brought it to Hull House. When the residents there, in spite of the [page 3] baby's shocking appearance, in order to save his soul took him to the church for baptism, they found the shawl was empty and the devil baby fleeing from the holy water, ran lightly over the backs of the pews.

The Jewish version, again with variations, was to the effect that the father of six daughters said before the birth of the seventh child that he would rather have a devil than another girl, whereupon the devil baby promptly appeared. The story was used not only to tame restless husbands, but mothers threatened their daughters that if they went to dance halls or out to walk with strange young men, they would be eternally disgraced by devil babies.

Simple, round-eyed girls came to Hull House to see if this were true, many of them quite innocent of the implications in the warning. Save for a red automobile which occasionally figured in the story, and a stray cigar, the tale was as [medieval] and unrelieved as if it has been fashioned a thousand years ago in response to the imperative need of anxious wives and mothers. It had fastened itself to a poor little deformed creature born in an obscure street, destined in his one breath of life to demonstrate the power of an old wives' tale among thousands of people living in modern society, but the fact that many women brought their husbands in an effort to keep them friendly to daughters, friendly to religion and the other things which were so dear to them also made clear that this sort of morality making is still going on. The incident was a graphic demonstration of at least one thing which the foreign woman does, she brings into this country ancient, worked out rules of conduct, those which have been proven to be sufficient unto life through hundreds of years, when perplexity and difficult moral problems have been brought before women to solve as best they might.

The foreign woman does not as a rule bring a great deal of learning, although there are many well bred and well educated women who come to America; she may not bring a vast amount of cultivation, but she does bring those basic moralities which have proved most valuable in the long history of the human race. American women as a rule do not, however, discover these contributions. [page 4]

We do not set up any adequate method or communication with the immigrant women. In their efforts to become adjusted to the conditions of American life they have little help from women such as make up this audience, because it takes a sort of technique and a training with a determination to understand them before we can uncover these reserves of moral ability and the power of life, which these women have come to embody.

After a few years, when immigrant families become prosperous, when their children have graduated from the high schools, they move into a well-to-do neighborhood and there they often feel more bitterly than they felt when they first arrived, the difficulty of making an adjustment.

When they first came to America they worked hard for their children, cooking and washing all day long, but as an increasing prosperity releases them from that drudgery and they are expected to do other things for their children which the American woman does for hers, they find how inadequately they have been prepared. It is at this point that the American woman could be of greatest service to them, and it is at this point that the American women fail.

The immigrant women too often furnish their houses like the tawdry houses to which alone they have access, thinking that they are thus imitating Americans. All that newer contribution to the art of living which American women have obtained so easily, inherited in many cases from mothers and grandmothers, we do not communicate nor make it common property thus sharing it with the immigrant women. On the other hand we do not get from them that wisdom unto life which the immigrant women might give to us.

I would plead that when they first come to America and their children go to school, every effort be made to keep the mothers with their children, that they be invited to come where their children are and be given a part in every festivity; if these can be arranged at private houses, so much the better.

When the immigrant families move to more prosperous quarters and the women fold their hard hands in their first chance for rest, I would urge that something be done to lead them out into club life, into that larger community life where American women have found so much profit and pleasure. [page 5]

Don't be thrown off the track because they do not speak English exactly as you do. Be assured that they have a reservoir of old country traditions and customs.

Club women have a chance in this country of ours to make a synthesis of the knowledge and experiences of women throughout the ages if the club movement but supply the initiative! Club women who are already versed in the ways of organization, who know the value of club life and have learned the technique of approaching other women, must not be deterred by mere unessential differences, but must learn of life from those who have come to embody its wisdom.