Women immigrants have played a dynamic role in transforming America socially, politically, and economically.
On the day Ellis Island opened on January 1, 1892, an Irish girl named Annie Moore became the very first person processed through what became the world-famous immigration center.
Like those before and after, the women and girls who came through Ellis Island transformed America socially, politically, and economically.
America's first permanent, English settlement was at Jamestown in 1607. The Virginia Company actively encouraged women's immigration to replicate an English model of society in the New World.
Enslaved African women were involuntary immigrants to Jamestown. The privateer White Lion brought “20 and odd Negroes” in 1619. The 1620 census listed 17 African females among the settlement’s 928 residents. Over the ensuing centuries, the mingling of people from different cultures, classes, and conditions of servitude led to the development of America's distinctive culture.
Mechanization transformed U.S. industry between 1880 and 1930, fueling production of inexpensive consumer goods. This created an explosive need for cheap, low-skill labor.
Factory women, mostly concentrated in garment and textile industries, comprised 20% of the female workforce. About 2/3 of women factory workers were first or second generation immigrants.
The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire claimed the lives of 17 men and 129 women. The fate of the Russian, Italian, Hungarian, and Austrian victims brought attention to deplorable working conditions.
The Homestead Act encouraged western settlement by promising 160 acres of land to any citizen or intended citizen following five years of occupancy. Women were allowed equal access to the opportunity.
Europeans were encouraged to emigrate, and tens of millions settled in the U.S. between 1815 and 1915. People from the same home countries often settled near each other, establishing ethnic networks.
Irish women adeptly formed immigration chains with established women bringing over sisters, cousins, and friends. The Irish were the only immigrant group in which women eventually outnumbered men.
While government policy welcomed Europeans, non-whites--like the Chinese--were discouraged from immigrating.
The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 barred almost all Chinese immigration, with narrow exceptions including for the wives and children of U.S. citizens.
Many Chinese immigrant women were held at Angel Island Inspection station from weeks to years while immigration officials determined their eligibility for entry.
Many immigrant women learned to self advocate for political rights. From interned Japanese during World War II to Mexican farm workers, immigrant women sought to improve their legal status.
Prior to the Immigration Act of 1924, there were few restrictions on Mexican immigration to the U.S. Agricultural workers moved freely across the border, following the harvests. The 1924 law established an immigration quota system, leading to deportation of hundreds of thousands of Mexican immigrants.
After the U.S. entered World War II, farm workers left agriculture in droves for higher paying factory jobs. Millions of Mexican and Latin American families migrated to the U.S. to fill the void.
During the 1960s a growing outrage at the treatment of migrant workers emerged. Many lived in dilapidated houses and barely earned enough to feed their children, despite working long hours.