Immigrant girl, radical woman: An early 20th century memoir
Immigrant girl, radical woman: An early 20th century memoir

IMMIGRANT GIRL, RADICAL WOMAN: A Memoir from the Early Twentieth Century is a fascinating, educational and engaging personal story written like a great novel rather than a typical memoir. The book is based on the diary of the main character, Matilda Rabinowitz. I highly recommend it.

The focus is on an immigrant Jewish girl arriving in America in the thick of the turbulent times ushering in the 20th-century. Anarchists, communists, and socialists are battling capitalists. The working class battles robber barons. A young woman, Matilda, begins as a foot soldier in a passel of Jews grasping “the nuances of Socialist theory, aligning themselves with the younger, radical members.”

Jews are unshackling themselves in “the Golden Medina” from Old World beliefs and practices, immiseration, illiteracy, and pogroms. Matilda Rabinowitz is enthralled. Her ambition now is dedicated to fighting for the soul of America.

Granddaughter, Robbin L. Henderson, deftly weaves the stories about Matilda’s childhood, treacherous trek to America, and her coming of age. She is disappointed with the working and living conditions she finds in a land with so much more potential. Matilda dedicates herself to social progress. Henderson shares Matilda’s not so private and never traditional life to round out the picture. Regardless of one’s politics, the reader sympathizes and admires Matilda Rabinowitz.  

Henderson undertakes years of research to fill in historical gaps. Henderson scrounges through archives of organizations many long out-of-business. She travels to undertake personal interviews with survivors from the time. She includes newspaper articles. Henderson adds original drawings appearing throughout the book that enhance the stories, and stimulate the visual sense.  It is an indelible touch.

Matilda was no shrinking violet. She held little regard for many of her contemporaries in the Movement. Radicals referred to Socialists in politics and soft union leaders with the derisive terms, “municipal sewage plant” or “post-office” Socialists. Matilda believed union leaders “assumed the privileges of the ruling class.” It was wrong to collaborate with employers, while they saw their cooperation as the means to higher wages, shorter hours and greater benefits. Matilda believed they were undermining working-class solidarity.

Comfortable Jews believing nostalgic tales of a Xanadu-like religious life “in the old country” learn the rest of the story from Matilda’s diary; why Jews ran fast by the millions before the Nazis. “Many were the lean years. Great had often been her terror of persecution and pogrom...My uncles were fairly well educated, but trained for nothing useful,” so earning a living was beyond reach. “The girls just waited to get married,” and they were uneducated, because “the duties of a wife did not include any necessity for education.” Intellectual pursuits were out of the question because of religious discrimination and family pressures.

Matilda tells us of her harrowing tale how “mules” directed Matilda’s family across Europe to unfamiliar ports for transport, sneaking and bribing their way across borders, scrounging for food and warm places to sleep. Sound familiar? Matilda is not reported to ever practice Judaism again.

She believes in America’s promise and her opportunity to repair the world through radical Socialism, labor organizing, and avant-garde feminism. Matilda fights for better working conditions and pay, eliminating child labor, improving public health and living conditions, and reordering of the government’s responsibility to its people. These were heady times and Matilda’s work helped build a middle class where none existed before.

Her turn politically left might be traced to, “The shock and disappointment with (New York) city that I had pictured in my childish imagination” creating a sense of alienation and a feeling of not belonging, the  ”deadening factory work and exploitation they experienced from the time of their arrival in the United States.”

Matilda wrote articles for The International Socialist Review. Her claque in the IWW (International Workers of the World—Wobblies) was dedicated to “agitating and organizing, organizing and agitating.” She believed “in the precept of the IWW preamble: It is the historic mission of the working class to abolish capitalism.”

She held no quarter for the nascent Zionist Movement. Henderson tells the reader, “Matilda was an internationalist and an anti-Zionist.” She rejected the term “cultural pluralism” coined by the ardent Zionist and prominent intellectual liberal of the time, Horace Kallen. She was more concerned for the Japanese Americans interned during the war under Executive Order 9066 than for the remnants of the Holocaust. Matilda bristled at “Jewish exceptionalism.” That “offended her democratic sensibilities and her international beliefs.” For Matilda, the Zionist project was a theocracy and she long before abandoned Judaism and her Jewishness. Henderson explains in simple straightforward terms the Left’s rejection of Israel till today.

There are many first-hand stories about Matilda’s agitating and organizing, but one of the best is how Matilda enthralls workers at Studebaker auto plant to stage the nation’s first auto factory strike. “Some historians credit Matilda at Studebaker with forcing (Henry) Ford fearing unionization, to increase his workers’ salaries to five dollars a day.” The notorious anti-Semite who detested unions a little more than Jews found in Matilda the inescapable nemesis.

Between 1900 and mid-century, Matilda and other activists designed a web of new social policies: equal pay for equal work, no to child labor, women’s rights, decent wages and working conditions, improving public health, birth control, AFDC and Maternal and Child Health Care, free public education and public housing. Matilda was in the thick of the perfect storm rampaging for a century. She and the activists named in the book had what it takes to change a nation; she was stentorian, sagacious, and full of brio.

The book is replete with names of activists and union leaders. Matilda knew and worked with many of them. Matilda writes about the Federal Children’s Bureau (1912). Midway in my career, I was interviewed and hired by Dr. Martha May Eliot (born 1891) to head a Massachusetts children’s advocacy center. Dr. Eliot and Matilda must have crossed paths. Dr. Eliot was a feminist and health activist. AFDC, child health programs, and child labor laws were her main focus. Matilda worked on a study of infant mortality for the Federal Children’s Bureau working as a statistical assistant and interpreter where Dr. Eliot spent much time.

Matilda thinks about the impact of industrialization taking hold. How it brings about job cuts and changes the nature of work. She senses the changing attitudes to unions and organizing workers with the burgeoning white-collar office workers. They quickly outnumber factory floor workers. The same conversation prevails in 2018 using the sobriquets of Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning.

Her personal life is nettled by poverty and love affairs with characters. Matilda suffers repeated bouts of poverty. She and her baby depend on the good acts of friends and family. She was underemployed or unemployed for long periods. The book never quite satisfies the reader why she does not retain the good paying jobs over the long-term despite Matilda’s talents for language, diligence, and innate smarts.

Henderson admires her grandmother but there is no pretense. Henderson writes truthfully with affection and admiration. Matilda’s diary has not vaunted or given to self-aggrandizement like in so many memoirs. For instance in an effort to embarrass Matilda the organizer, local papers published love letters exchanged between Matilda and her married paramour, father of her child but not her husband. These are included in the book.

Matilda’s story strengthens the resolve of women to find their own place in society in their own time and be inspired. I will recommend Immigrant Girl, Radical Woman to my college students as a must read.  

Harold Goldmeier is a writer and college teacher in Tel Aviv with a degree from Harvard. He is an award-winning businessman and public speaker @ [email protected]