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The Men and Women We Want

The Men and Women We Want: Gender, Race, and the Progressive Era Literacy Test Debate

Volume: 1
Copyright Date: 2010
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 214
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  • Book Info
    The Men and Women We Want
    Book Description:

    Should immigrants have to pass a literacy test in order to enter the United States? Progressive-Era Americans debated this question for more than twenty years, and by the time the literacy test became law in 1917, the debate had transformed the way Americans understood immigration, and created the logic that shaped immigration restriction policies throughout the twentieth century. Jeanne Petit argues that the literacy test debate was about much more than reading ability or the virtues of education. It also tapped into broader concerns about the relationship between gender, sexuality, race, and American national identity. The congressmen, reformers, journalists, and pundits who supported the literacy test hoped to stem the tide of southern and eastern European immigration. To make their case, these restrictionists portrayed illiterate immigrant men as dissipated, dependent paupers, immigrant women as brood mares who bore too many children, and both as a eugenic threat to the nation's racial stock. Opponents of the literacy test argued that the new immigrants were muscular, virile workers and nurturing, virtuous mothers who would strengthen the race and nation. Moreover, the debaters did not simply battle about what social reformer Grace Abbott called "the sort of men and women we want." They also defined as normative the men and women they were - unquestionably white, unquestionably American, and unquestionably fit to shape the nation's future. Jeanne D. Petit is associate professor of history at Hope College.

    eISBN: 978-1-58046-764-3
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-13)

    Prescott Hall feared for the future of the nation. He observed nearly twenty million immigrants arriving in the nation’s ports between 1880 and 1910, more than twice the number that had arrived in the previous hundred years. Unlike the familiar immigrants from England, Scandinavia, Germany, or even Ireland, the vast majority of these “new” immigrants came from southern Italy, Russia, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and other poverty-stricken and remote countries in southern and eastern Europe.¹ These new immigrants met the technical requirement of “free white persons” set out in the Naturalization Act of 1790, but their racial unfitness, for Prescott Hall,...

  6. 1 Breeders, Workers, and Mothers: The Beginning of the Literacy Test Debate
    (pp. 14-30)

    The literacy test came into being through the political will of Senator Henry Cabot Lodge and the passion of Prescott Hall and Robert DeCourcy Ward, the young Harvard graduates who founded the Immigration Restriction League (IRL). In the 1880s, these men watched as immigration to the United States nearly doubled from the previous decade and, more worrisome for them, the sources of immigration shifted. The numbers of English, Scandinavians, and other northern Europeans whom they saw as racially compatible stagnated while the numbers of those whom they saw as less racially desirable—Italians, Russians, and other southeastern Europeans—tripled, or...

  7. 2 Parents and Progeny: The Dillingham Commission Report
    (pp. 31-58)

    In the first decade of the twentieth century, the parameters of the literacy test debate were transformed. The economic growth of the early twentieth century led to a huge demand for labor and, consequently, a spike in immigration. Over ten million immigrants arrived in that decade, the vast majority from southern and eastern Europe.¹ Overall wages increased and unemployment remained low, which weakened the restrictionists’ case that immigration hurt working men. At the same time, the growth of the progressive movement had called into question much of the laissez-faire policies of the past, including policies about immigration. The presidency of...

  8. 3 Muscle, Miscegenation, and Manhood: The Literacy Test at the Height of the Progressive Era
    (pp. 59-86)

    By early 1912, literacy test legislation was front and center in the American political landscape, and the men of the Immigration Restriction League (IRL) were delighted. After the Dillingham Commission’s findings, they believed that a literacy test was just around the corner. At long last, the nation would be protected from weak and dependent immigrants dragging it down. The year 1912, however, was also a time when interest groups from across the political spectrum felt empowered to participate in debates about the scope of government power and the role of immigrants in American life. Thus, even after the Dillingham Commission...

  9. 4 Practical Aid and Sympathetic Understanding: Grace Abbott’s Alternative to the Literacy Test
    (pp. 87-102)

    When testifying against the Burnett literacy test bill in 1912, Grace Abbott refused to be baited. Everis Hayes, a California Republican and member of the House Immigration and Naturalization Committee, pushed Abbott to admit that the racial composition of immigration had changed, and not for the better.¹ Abbott acknowledged that more immigrants had come from southeastern Europe, but she also challenged the notion that they were racially inferior. “Anyone who knows the family life of the newly arrived immigrant,” she claimed, “sees very little menace in the situation.” She spoke of the sacrifice young men and women made to save...

  10. 5 World War I and the Literacy Test
    (pp. 103-127)

    In January of 1916, the House Committee on Immigration and Naturalization began hearings for yet another literacy test bill. Like the bills vetoed in 1913 and 1915, this bill called for immigrant men and unmarried immigrant women over the age of sixteen to pass a literacy test in order to gain admittance to the United States.¹ Prescott Hall, Louis Hammerling, and Grace Abbott entered statements into the record that reiterated the arguments they had developed over the years. Prescott Hall submitted a report from the Immigration Restriction League (IRL) which concluded that a literacy test would exclude those who would...

  11. 6 The Legacy of the Progressive Era Literacy Test Debate
    (pp. 128-138)

    When Prescott Hall died in 1921 at the age of fifty-four, Joseph Lee lionized his friend’s single-minded drive for literacy test legislation. Hall, Lee maintained, stood at the forefront of the restriction movement from the first, and “the final success of the literacy test in 1917 marked the close of what must have been, I think, the longest legislative fight on record.” According to Lee, Hall had noticed “thirty years ago what others began to see during the war, that the most important question for this country was the kind of human material of which its future citizenship should be...

  12. Notes
    (pp. 139-178)
  13. Bibliography
    (pp. 179-192)
  14. Index
    (pp. 193-202)
  15. Back Matter
    (pp. 203-203)