- The Grasinski Girls: The Choices They Had and the Choices They Made
Sociologist Mary Patrice Erdmans wrote a book which is gutsy, honest, innovative, and controversial. The book focuses on the lives of six women, who are white Roman Catholic Polish Americans of working class background. The women were born in the 1920 and 1930s; one of them is Erdmans' mother, others are her aunts. The author conducted extensive interviews with each of the women over a period of four years and the book is based on those inter- views.
The book is divided into three parts, each with a different theme, which highlight the life stories of particular Grasinski Girls. In part I, "Migrations and Generations" the author provides background information on the family history and genealogy, as well as a transcript of Fran Grasinski's recollections of the Great Depression. The second chapter of Part I analyzes the ethnicity of the women. Part II "Choices Given, Choices Made," focuses on the career choices of three of the women, which included entering the convent, marriage and full time motherhood, as well as pursuit of education in adulthood. Again, the themes are illustrated by fragments of interview transcripts with Nadine, Angela Helen, and Mary Marcelia. Part III "Learning to Sing" aims at explaining issues of agency and what the author terms "kitchen table resistance" in the lives of the women, and underscores the significance of faith in their lives. It includes an interview with Caroline Clarice. The book's Conclusion, entitled "A Grasinski Granddaughter," seeks to compare and contrast opportunities and choices of the author and her female family members from the older generation.
Both in the Introduction and in the Appendix, Erdmans devotes much effort to carefully explaining her methodology, perhaps anticipating that her decisions if left unaddressed might be considered questionable. The three issues that make Erdmans' book unusual include a small sample of interviewees; close relationships the author had with them, which might compromise her objectivity as a researcher; and their active participation in the editing of the transcripts as well as the manuscript. Erdmans strongly and patiently defends her decisions of using life stories as methodology and placing them at the intersection of history and biography. Erdmans insists that although the women were indeed allowed to construct their narratives, the question why they did it in the way they did remains a valid one.
The Grasinski Girls' self-portrait is positive; they claim to have led happy lives, satisfied with being women within the private sphere of family and faith. They exude a strong sense of self-worth, are comfortable with their ethnicity, and take seriously values that are generally counterpoised to those of competition and domination, which are prevalent in the public sphere and internalized by younger feminists. If they do resist, it is "kitchen table resistance" which allows them to refuse to see themselves as victimized, inferior or powerless, but does not threaten their relationships with others. The sources of their strength are faith, which requires agency and denies self-pity; and family, which gives them the continuity and support of female networks. Although they talk about [End Page 495] the men in their lives, Erdmans makes sure that the focus is strongly fixed on their own experiences, with the exclusion of the male point of view. The author analyzes particular themes in their stories by placing them in the larger context of feminist theory, effectively returning often overlooked experiences of white ethnic women into the fold of feminist studies.
Perhaps the strongest and most convincing theme of the book relates to the ethnicity of the Grasinski Girls, which the author explores both in a separate chapter and in relation to the question of faith. What does ethnicity mean to third- and fourth-generation women of European ancestry, asks Erdmans after noticing the sisters' confusion about their lineage. The answers she uncovers are most enlightening and destined to become a classic among scholars of immigration and ethnicity. Grasinski women seem to be very comfortable...