Dawn Clayton
March 12, 1984 12:00 PM

WOMEN EMPIRE BUILDERS

Over the past century and a half nearly 20 million women have come to America in search of a better life. For many that quest has meant a bitter struggle to survive on an alien shore. This month National Public Radio introduces The Golden Cradle: Immigrant Women in the United States, a 10-part series that brings to life the rich experiences of women shaping a new future in a new land. Drawn from letters, journals and archival tapes, the program also features colorful interviews with surviving immigrants and their descendants. In the first touching half hour, actress Liv Ullmann reads from a young Norwegian woman’s shipboard diary written in 1862: “May 2: Still sick. The violent pitching of the boat. The ominous groaning of timbers. June 3: My mother-in-law seized with severe labor pains. She gave birth to a son. June 7: Mother and child are very ill. Shall I for all my days suffer this pain and hopeless longing for my beloved homeland? June 10: The baby is still having convulsions. June 11: We see land once again. Thankfulness to God overwhelms me.” Everyone recovered except the infant, who was buried en route to Minnesota.

Subsequent segments profile other immigrants, including those who left Ireland during the 1840s’ potato famine and today’s undocumented Mexican workers. The subjects reflect with pathos and humor on their flight from poverty, oppressive families, revolution and on the hardships they found in America: discrimination, miserly wages, shabby working and housing conditions and the added burden of adapting to a foreign culture. The stories of these settlers reveal a longing for middle-class respectability and a deep-rooted optimism that through their own ingenuity they could at least promise their children a more prosperous future. The program does not ignore such shameful incidents in U.S. history as the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911, in which 146 laborers, most of them Jewish and Italian immigrants, died because of inadequate safety regulations, and the period following the Pearl Harbor attack when Japanese families on the U.S. West Coast were herded into “pioneer settlements.”

This evocative social history was co-produced by public radio contributors Louise Orcutt Cleveland and Deborah George, whose grandmother gives a moving account in one program of her journey from an impoverished Greek village to New York City in 1914.

“My grandmother had a very real sense of her life as being a good story, full of drama and adventure,” says George. “A lot of the women we interviewed did.” And she adds, “We wanted to take these women out of the obscurity to which they’ve been relegated in American history—to let them tell their stories their own way. The project gave me a new sense of myself as an ethnic woman.”

Indeed The Golden Cradle serves as a poignant testament to the throngs of spirited women lured to America by a common dream.

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