Celebrating Women Series: Annie Thomas on Immigrant Women of 19th and 20th Century

Welcome to the fifth article in the “Celebrating Women” for Women’s History Month! It’s my first series (author guest article series) to celebrate women in history or women making history! Thank you to Annie Thomas for offering the fifth article in this series. If you’d like to continue on with the tour, which runs March 19-31, 2014, follow along each day on the main blog or head to this blog page, Women in History, which will be updated daily with the scheduled link.


Ordinary Immigrants of Early 19th and 20th Centuries:
Remembering Everyday Women Who Survived Adversity

by historical author Annie Thomas

We take it for granted now that women can be winners, on their own terms, in every walk of life.  But it hasn’t always been like that.

In Women’s History Month, it is important to celebrate the lives of women who have never become famous, never achieved great social or political goals, but who nevertheless have survived adversity with strength and grace.

The women who I learned to admire while researching my novel ‘A Woman’s Choice’ are those who travelled to the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, seeking a new life of opportunity.

Between 1900 and 1910, over 9 million people, predominately from across Europe, made the voyage to America, landing at Ellis Island.  They travelled with high hopes, seeking new lives to replace the financial hardship or persecution that they experienced in their homelands.  Many went straight through New York to the agricultural and mining areas; others stayed in the cities, and did not always find that the streets were paved with gold.  A few with determination, courage, and luck found their way to the prosperity they all desired.  Many more found themselves in appalling living conditions and exploited in menial jobs.


Irish immigrants arriving in the United States in 1902
(courtesy of http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/USAEireland.htm)

I have always been fascinated by how people’s lives are affected by the time they live in – the inter-connection between public and private. When I started writing, I wanted to not only write about a woman who would become successful, but to populate her story with other women, who strived to make a living in the most difficult of circumstances; to give a flavour of the streets they lived in, the conditions they endured, and how their individual stories can come together to celebrate the strength of ordinary women.

Libraries, archives and the web give us access to the most vivid oral history testimonies and photographs that make the early 1900s come alive. Photographs of families arriving at Ellis Island show women carrying heavy boxes and bundles alongside the men.  All they possessed was packed and portable.  Even allowing for the unfamiliarity of a camera lens, they stand with stoic, weary faces gazing at the photographer, seeing an uncertain future.

There is a wonderfully titled book published in 1906 (available on the web through OpenLibrary.org) called ‘The life stories of undistinguished Americans as told by themselves’ 
edited by Hamilton Holt.  It includes the life story of a Polish sweatshop girl; a French dressmaker; a German nurse girl; and a farmer’s wife, all in their own words.  It provides a fascinating insight into the lives of emigrant women in the early 1900s.  They are far from being undistinguished, and you read their stories with enormous admiration and absorption.

Here is how Sadie Frowne, a sixteen year old Polish girl remembered her arrival:

‘We came by steerage on a steamship in a very dark place that smelt dreadfully. There were hundreds of other people packed in with us, men, women and children, and almost all of them were sick. It took us twelve days to cross the sea, and we thought we should die, but at last the voyage was over, and we came up and saw the beautiful bay and the big woman with the spikes on her head and the lamp that is lighted at night in her hand.’

Sadie went on to work in a sweatshop, and at the web site for the Kheel Centre for Labor Management Documentation and Archives at Cornell University, I found photographs taken in garment factories (sweatshops) of the period. Lines of women busy at their machines, while the male supervisors looked on.  I could imagine how they might talk and behave together, and was always aware of the lives they continued to lead after my fictional lead character, Clara, left to seek her destiny elsewhere.

Sadie tells us how she gets up at 5.30 every morning, makes herself a coffee and eats a little bread.  She gets to the factory about 6 am: it doesn’t open until 7 am but she doesn’t want to be late.  Generally she does not finish until 6 pm.  Then she goes to night school.  She has been going to night school in the winter since she was 14, and has learned to read, write and do arithmetic.  She has a young man called Henry, who wants to marry her, but at just 16, she says: “Lately he has been urging me more and more to get married… I think I’ll wait”.

Her life story is one of ambition, striving for self-improvement, through hard work, determination, optimism and strength. But did Sadie’s education lead to more opportunity?  Did she marry Henry?  Was she happy? We will never know.

Popular historical fiction can bring us fresh insight and help us to understand the lives of ordinary women who we would otherwise know nothing about.   It allows us to enter an imaginary world based on the real one; to vicariously experience what it was like to be a stranger in a foreign land and to work in a sweatshop.  We can imagine and recognise women who may have been ordinary in their own eyes, and who may not have earned the accolade of fame, but whose strength and perseverance have so much to teach us, even today.

It is important to remember them, and to celebrate them now, in Women’s History Month.

Author Annie Thomas, Biography~

soft-6-recropAnnie Thomas is a British writer, and the author of A Woman’s Choice.  Brought up in London, after a degree in English and History she now works in an English university, and lives in a rural converted Victorian converted pub where rumour has it that Tolkein and C.S.Lewis once stopped for a beer on one of their many walks together.


A Woman’s Choice, Synopsis~

Set in the vibrancy of early twentieth century New York, the story A Woman's Choice book coverfollows the young emigrant Clara and the people she meets on the way, through tenement living and sweatshop labour to success.

But as the horror of World War One in Europe threatens to engulf America, Clara learns that personal lives cannot be lived apart from public events, and finds that the people she has loved, and who love her, are not always what they seem.

All the incidents in ‘A Woman’s Choice’ are based on what really happened to many thousands of emigrant families. It is a compelling saga of friendship, love and ambition.

ON SALE THIS WEEK ONLY, March 21-27,  in honor of Women’s History Month: .99cents in e-book!!


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