Book Review: Foreign and Female. Immigrant Women in America, 1840-1930. Revised and Expanded Edition, by Doris Weatherford

Prepared by Gena Philibert-Ortega.

Unless you are one-hundred percent Native American, your ancestors immigrated to this country. That immigration experience and the subsequent experience of living in a new place can be an important part of your ancestor's story. Unfortunately, many works on immigration focus on the lives of men. Have a female ancestor that arrived in the United States between 1840-1930? "Then Foreign and Female" is a book you will want to read.

Not so much a book about the actual act of immigrating, this work serves to answer the question of what immigrants experienced once they arrived in America. This book serves as an excellent reference to what it was like to be "foreign" in the United States. Issues such as "experiences with childbirth; religion; courtship, marriage and divorce; cleaning, child care, and clothing; work and wages; medical and health issues; death and dying" are covered in this volume. This is a book that looks at the everyday lives of these ordinary women. The book draws "from the letters and diaries of immigrant women," as well as other historical sources.

This is a look at the European female immigrant experience. You will see references to experiences of women who were Scandinavian, Jewish, Italian, Irish, German and Polish. Chapters can be read independently, unlike a traditional book.

One of my favorite sections of this book has to do with work. It is here you will learn about the types of work women did, how they did it, and even some of the more common work done by immigrants such as working in a cigar factory or laundry. This is a great look at the working lives of women. We too often assume that our female ancestors were "just" housewives, an assumption that is not necessarily true. What may surprise some readers is that in some cases women came to the United States first, worked and then sent for their husbands. This is a time period where the whole family worked in an effort to eke out an existence. In the chapter titled "Supporting Families," it even addresses the fact that pre-school age children were contributing to the work done by families. It should be apparent that our lives today hardly resemble the lives of our grandmothers and great-grandmothers. Another reason why understanding social history is vital to our genealogical research.

This book is a frank look at women's lives. Chapters devoted to the subjects of premarital pregnancy, adultery, venereal disease and prostitution are explored. These issues affected our ancestors in the "good old days" just as they do us today.

So often researchers find it difficult to research their female ancestors. That's when social history and understanding more about their everyday lives can be used to provide rich details to their life stories. "Foreign and Female" is a book that will help you learn more about these female lives and understand what it was like for your immigrant ancestor. I know that it's a book that I will continue to study and refer back to.

Foreign and Female: Immigrant Women in America, 1840-1930, Revised and Expanded Edition, by Doris Weatherford.

<< Genealogy Book Reviews

What's New in Genealogy ... Today!
click to view original photo