Immi­grant Girl, Rad­i­cal Woman: A Mem­oir from the Ear­ly Twen­ti­eth Century

Matil­da Rabi­nowitz; Rob­bin Légère Hen­der­son, illus.
  • Review
By – June 11, 2018

Immi­grant Girl, Rad­i­cal Woman com­bines mem­oir, pri­ma­ry his­tor­i­cal sources, and beau­ti­ful illus­tra­tions in a way that is both thor­ough­ly enter­tain­ing and edu­ca­tion­al. At its core is the sto­ry of Taube Gitel Rabi­nowitz, a poor Jew­ish girl from Rus­sia who immi­grates to the Unit­ed States, where she becomes Matil­da Rob­bins — labor orga­niz­er, sin­gle moth­er by choice, pro­lif­ic author, and Social­ist par­ty leader. From the great mill strikes of the ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry to the Sac­co and Vanzetti tri­al, Matilda’s sto­ry is inter­twined with some of the most dra­mat­ic moments in the his­to­ry of labor orga­niz­ing and rad­i­cal politics.

Matilda’s grand­daugh­ter, Robin Légère Hen­der­son, pro­vides illu­mi­nat­ing com­men­tary as well as strik­ing wood­cut-style illus­tra­tions. She calls her grand­moth­er a Vic­to­ri­an-era woman and a twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry rebel in a small body,” and the descrip­tion is apt. Matil­da comes across as a woman both of and ahead of her time — one whose sto­ry res­onates in our cul­tur­al moment of new kinds of gen­der and labor struggles.

In today’s par­lance, Matilda’s life and writ­ten work, although com­posed decades ago, would be described as inter­sec­tion­al. In From the Life of a Wage-Earn­ing Moth­er (repro­duced in full as an appen­dix) she decried the enor­mous gap between the qual­i­ty of child­care avail­able to the poor and that avail­able to the well-off. There are books a‑plenty and edu­ca­tors … and mod­ern the­o­ries on child­care … but what is there for the moth­er com­pelled to leave her child for the job?” The piece was reject­ed twice, from The Nation in 1927 and from Red­book in 1977.

Mak­ing this book far more than a mem­oir, Hen­der­son con­duct­ed an enor­mous amount of research to fill in areas where Matil­da was some­what cir­cum­spect, and includ­ed pri­ma­ry his­tor­i­cal mate­r­i­al to con­nect her grandmother’s life and strug­gles to larg­er his­tor­i­cal events. For exam­ple, in the sec­tion about the Rabi­nowitz family’s life in Rus­sia, Hen­der­son repro­duces sec­tions of the Russ­ian May Laws, which severe­ly restrict­ed Jew­ish move­ment with­in the Pale of Settlement.

Though Immi­grant Girl, Rad­i­cal Woman is of inter­est to a gen­er­al audi­ence, it would be of par­tic­u­lar rel­e­vance to the teenaged read­er who has fall­en in love with the All-of-a-Kind Fam­i­ly girls and is look­ing for a more grown-up read about turn-of-the-cen­tu­ry Amer­i­can immi­grant life as seen through the eyes of one extra­or­di­nary woman.

Rokhl Kafris­sen is a grad­u­ate of two schools named after Jew­ish Supreme Court jus­tices. She is a prac­tic­ing attor­ney in New York City as well as work­ing on her first book: The Myth of the Yid­dish Atlantis: Dynam­ic Yid­dishkayt for the New Millenium.

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