Reflecting on Immigrant Women and Their Place in Irish Diaspora

Donna Gabaccia’s “Immigrant Women: No Where at Home” focuses on the creation of immigrant women studies and its similarities to women’s studies, ethnic studies, sociology, history, and literature in which she accredits the lack of content to divergence in the fields making the study of immigrant women more difficult. The main concerns Gabaccia focuses on are family and feminism. She addresses the departure from the narrative that immigrant women were victimized and that they truly valued family- to the point that these women did not see themselves as individuals. Though a general “studies suggest” was given for that statement she briefly mentions the dissatisfaction of some scholars due to the large differences in culture and class changing family dynamics. Moreover, family solidarity shaped immigration studies and Gabaccia points out that John Bodnar uses it to challenge Oscar Handlin. However, Gabaccia is settled in the kinship network being a strong and positive development to the immigrant women narrative. Feminism, however, she sees as fleeting because their view is that women were ‘more than’ their families as seen with the Irish immigrant women in our other reading.

Janet Nolan’s “Women’s Place in the History of the Irish Diaspora” focuses on the study of Irish immigrant women and why the field deserves more scholarly attention. Not only does Nolan lay out the truth of the Irish in America, that they were here pre-Revolution, but also that there were just as many Irish women immigrating to the United States as there were men. Unlike most of the migrant women that arrived in the U.S. most of these women were single and immediately went into working positions to send money home for two main reasons. First, to sponsor a family member’s immigration. Second, to support family post-famine, which led to the stabilization of the Irish economy. These facts, Nolan argues, make Irish immigrant women’s stake in American and Irish history much greater than they have been receiving credit for. Most of these women took servant jobs, but the religious Catholic women also funded the development of churches, worked within them, and established Catholic higher education in America. Nolan pushes that these women are vital to the development of urban America and spills out several sources, both primary, of individual women, and on Irish immigration that only scratch the surface of the subject. The gaps remain, however, in the formation of Irish national and ethnic identity between our two countries as well as these women’s contributions to Irish independence.

There are six reasons given by Nolan to grow the study of Irish immigrant women and these reasons can easily be applied to immigrant women’s studies in general. First, the number of women immigrants. While it should not be taken so far as Gabaccia did to discredit all scholarly works pre-acknowledgement of women, Nolan points out that the numbers of Irish women were equal and a times higher than the number of men. Second, funding of more migrants. The Irish women backed the transport of more Irish migrants and upon further study there could be similarities in other time periods for other ethnic groups depending on their originating country’s struggles. Third, economic and physical challenges were equal for both genders. It would be irresponsible to not look into the work across generations and ethnic groups to see how the working Irish women compared to other working women groups and from field to field and then comparing that to the men of each community- though possibly more vital to women’s studies. Fourth, and this one is truly geared toward the Irish women, but “American Letters” where they sent funds to their families. This is a common practice with Hispanic migrants now and it could be helpful to future historians to create theories and methods around how these Irish women handled this so that it can later be compared to current similar situations. Fifth, the Irish migrant women founded the American Catholic Church and aided the mobility and selective adaptation of the Irish. Again, there are likely to be strong similarities to present Hispanic migration to the US and further work on the Irish immigrant women could help later studies on Latina migration. Sixth, again with potential to link to modern Hispanic migration, both Irish in Ireland and America funded and organized the rebellion that led to independence. Nolan’s points are valid and strong because it is an entire missing narrative that is vital to American society today, even to the point where she closed with Lawrence McCaffery pointing out that the Irish established the American ghetto, which is still such a big part of immigrant life today in America.

These two reading made strong arguments to the importance and struggles of women immigration studies. Nolan may have the right idea, however, that some groups, having had a larger effect on American society, need to have a foot ahead of the other groups in being studied. How, after all, can a proper image of American History be painted if a vital part of its story is missing or worse lost entirely. In a way, the latter is probably more true because aside from letters in an attic or something similar these voices are now lost to us. Personally, it is easy to see its need to be studied now so that future historians can have a footing in understanding the current migrant women in a time of migrant crisis.

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