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Becoming American

For many immigrants to this country, becoming "American" was a top priority. While some
longed for the ways of the old country, many embraced the new ways America had to offer.
In her study of German-Russian immigrant women in Lincoln at the turn of the century,
University of Nebraska sociologist Hattie Plum Williams found that many women learned
new ways working in "American" homes. Her manuscript on file at the State Historical
Society notes "this day labor in American homes is one of the greatest assimilative forces
which exists. Its chief influence is on the language, the increase of desires, and the position
of women in the homes. There are few women in the settlement (except new immigrants)
who have gone out to work who cannot speak English intelligibly, and most of them can
speak far better than their husbands because many of the latter work in groups of their own
countrymen and speak only German.

"The introduction of new desires and their rapid multiplication is one of the means of
progress for the immigrant. It raises his standard of living, transforms his environment, and
broadens his mental and spiritual horizon by tempting him to choose among a vast array of
things set before him. The democratic constitution of our society places no limits upon the
satisfaction of these desires. If 'Katie' wants a fur coat like her employer's or window curtains
or rugs, there is no sentiment in the community to hinder her from having it; it all depends
upon whether she wants to spend her money that way. Mahogany tables and chiffonniers,
brass beds, walnut bedroom sets, and other luxuries of the best homes in Lincoln are
duplicated in homes of the settlement. The excellent taste in color and floor furnishings and
furniture testify to the teachableness and keen observation of these women.

"The place of women in the American home is as carefully noted as are her household
possessions. Women who were accustomed to accept beatings from their husbands as the
natural order of events find out that the practice is not tolerated in this country, and soon
learn to call the police and have their belligerent husbands given thirty or ninety days in jail.
If conditions in the home become intolerable (from the American viewpoint) it is not
infrequent to find the employer ushering the Russian-German woman through the mysteries
of police or divorce court and securing her rights under the law. It is this 'evil' influence upon
their women folk which leads the older Russian-German men to base their chief objection to
America, on the grounds that 'the women in this country have too much say about things.'"

 

 

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Last updated 14 September 2005

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