Document Type


Date of Degree

Spring 2017

Access Restrictions

Access restricted until 07/13/2021

Degree Name

PhD (Doctor of Philosophy)

Degree In


First Advisor

Schwalm, Leslie A.

First Committee Member

Storrs, Landon R.Y.

Second Committee Member

Stromquist, Shelton

Third Committee Member

Baynton, Douglas C.

Fourth Committee Member

Rigal, Laura


In the period 1880 to 1919, the organized labor and woman suffrage movements in the United States brought together and reframed for public discourse some of the most divisive and fundamental questions facing the nation, questions concerning the relationship of race, class, and gender to citizenship and national belonging. Concurrent with the expansion of these social movements, the states of Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin were transformed as the promise of cheap and productive farmland and the opportunity to develop autonomous ethnic communities led to the influx of large numbers of immigrants. This region underwent significant change at the same time that debates over women’s public roles intensified and focused attention on the presumed inability of racialized “others” to responsibly perform the duties of citizenship. Through their public activism, immigrant women helped shape these debates and put forth for public consideration their perspectives on important issues of the day.

In contrast to historical analyses that portray foreign-born women as politically indifferent, this dissertation demonstrates that immigrant women in Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin expressed strong and public support for women’s right to vote and for labor’s right to organize. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, women's rights activists reframed the movement's ideological underpinnings and attempted to recast gendered perceptions concerning women’s appropriate role in public life, efforts that at times served to widen class and racial divides. White native-born female activists embraced maternalism as a means of justifying their increased presence in the political realm, an ideology that elevated women’s public status while simultaneously reinforcing middle- and upper-class ideals of domesticity.

My findings reveal that through their work for woman suffrage and in support of organized labor, immigrant women sought to advance alternative understandings of gender, ethnicity, and citizenship. Foreign-born women, more so than their native-born counterparts, articulated their desire for the ballot in the language of equal and natural rights and directed their activism not only in support of women’s political equality but also toward highlighting the patriotism and political fitness of all members of their ethnic community. During labor disputes, women strike activists at times embraced militant motherhood by integrating maternal duties and identities into a confrontational style of public activism. With their words and actions, immigrant women expanded “motherhood” to include public, at times violent, activism in support of class interests. Female strike activists often paid a price, however, for openly asserting their rights to economic justice. The dominant society’s opinion makers excoriated immigrant women for taking a public stand and racialized immigrant groups on the basis of immigrant women’s perceived transgression of gender norms.

Historians have analyzed immigrant women’s labor activism in large urban areas such as New York City and Chicago, but we know little about how and why immigrant women chose to become politically active in a setting dominated by rural and small urban communities and how these actions shaped emerging regional institutions and attitudes. Analyses of immigrant women’s political activism in Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin expands our understanding of the gendered ideologies that encouraged or constrained women’s public work and the processes of racialization that shaped public opinion toward immigration in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Public Abstract

Immigrants came to Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin in large numbers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. During this same period, the United States underwent social upheaval due to such factors as industrialization, urbanization, and women’s increased public presence in politics and waged workplaces. Though their contributions have gone largely unrecognized, immigrant women played an important role in the woman suffrage and organized labor movements and helped shape the political and economic environments of their communities. Sometimes their work for women’s rights or organized labor revealed that immigrant women had different ideas about the motivations for and targets of women’s reform efforts than did native-born white women. While native-born women often justified their political activism by arguing that women had special talents and sensibilities and that their influence would help purify the political realm, immigrant women were more likely to call for women’s political equality on the basis of shared humanity and equal rights with men. In addition, immigrant women often worked not just for women’s rights but also for expanded opportunities for all members of their ethnic community, both male and female. Newspaper editors and public officials often criticized immigrant women’s political activism, drawing connections between their public behavior and their ethnic groups’ inability to assimilate into the American political and social mainstream. By analyzing immigrant women’s political activism, we learn more about how and why women chose to become politically active, what they hoped to accomplish, and how their actions helped shape society’s attitudes toward immigration.


Ethnicity, Gender, Immigration


viii, 328 pages


Includes bibliographical references (pages 311-328).


Copyright © 2017 Pamela Renee Stek

Available for download on Tuesday, July 13, 2021

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