- Immigrant Girl, Radical Woman: A Memoir from the Early Twentieth Century by Matilda Rabinowitz and Robbin Légère Henderson
Matilda Rabinowitz, with commentary and original drawings by Robbin Légère Henderson
Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2017
vii + 279 pp., index, $29.95 (paper)
Robbin Legere Henderson, the editor and illustrator of this memoir, should, along with the Institute for Labor Relations at Cornell University, be congratulated for providing such a splendid volume, one that will be of interest and enjoyment to scholars and general readers alike. Written in a very readable style that blends Matilda Rabinowitz's words with the commentary of Henderson, her granddaughter, the book tells the story of an immigrant girl from a Jewish family who came to America from Ukraine in the early twentieth century. Immigrant Girl, Radical Woman will take a place of importance in American labor history, Jewish history, and the history of the American working class, socialism, women, and sexuality.
Family members discovered Rabinowitz's memoir, which she had titled, plainly, "My Story," only after her death in Los Angeles in 1963, and as such it had not been intended for a public audience. At the time of Immigrant Girl, Radical Woman's publication, few scholars, even those who have written about American labor history, would have known about this working-class activist, born Taube Gitl Rabinowitz, whose name had barely appeared in scholarly history other than in a limited few articles and books before this one. An article in 1993 in Labor History by Joyce Shaw Peterson seems to be the only focused discussion of Rabinowitz. Peterson discussed Rabinowitz in the piece as "Matilda Robbins," considering her to be a middle-class labor activist, disconnected her from working-class life.
Yet this woman's journey took her from the Czarist empire to New York, then to Connecticut as a child in a working-class Jewish family, and then, as an organizer, activist, and publicist, to Lawrence, Massachusetts; Little Falls, New York; and Greenville, South Carolina—all mill towns known for exploitative labor conditions and highly contentious strikes—as well as to Greenwich Village in the late 1910s and 1920s, Washington, DC, St. Louis, and elsewhere. Rabinowitz's story reads like a chronicle of the first third of the twentieth century in America.
Over the years, Rabinowitz intersected with and worked for the Industrial Workers of the World (better known as the Wobblies), the Socialist Party, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, and the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, among other organizations. She lived, worked, and interacted with others in the working class, including others far poorer than herself, but also engaged comfortably with those better off, native born, and far more educated.
Her life touched and was touched by some of the key figures in the labor and radical movements, including Randolph Bourne, Ella Reeve Bloor, Joe Ettor, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, "Big Bill" Haywood, Helen Keller, Carlo Tresca, and Anna Strunsky Walling.
She describes some of the most significant events in the early decades of the twentieth century in a prose that would have been stunning even for a native-born, highly [End Page 192] educated individual, let alone for an immigrant from a non-English-speaking home and with minimal formal learning in America. Turmoil in the mills (particularly the Lawrence strike of 1912), World War I, the Sacco and Vanzetti trial all come alive to us through Rabinowitz's fierce commentary. With a keen eye and in beautiful prose, she captures in chronological order both the physical and emotional processes of immigration, her life in the immigrant Jewish quarter of New York's Lower East Side, the working-class streets of Bridgeport, Connecticut, working conditions in the corset factory where she labored, her conversion to socialism, her travels as a union organizer, life in boarding houses in mill towns, and from there, her experiences in a string of jobs she held, often just in order to keep herself fed.
The author, the "immigrant girl" turned "radical woman," envisioned her memoir as a legacy to bequeath her descendants, in particular her grandchildren, one of whom grew...