Sunday, March 6, 2011

Immigrant Women in the Work of Helen Papanikolas (I)

Pioneer Immigrant Women (early 20th century) as Double Minorities

Helen Papanikolas’s writing documents the experiences of pioneer immigrant women in terms of dramatic psychological and cultural dislocation. These women nurse scarred internal landscapes caused by patriarchy, nativism, and loneliness. Spatially and psychologically constrained, early immigrant women inhabit zones of gendered class and ethnic oppression. Confronted with the new conditions in migrancy, immigrant women struggle with issues of isolation, spatial restrain, and social marginality. Isolation was most acutely felt in remote homesteads and in male dominated immigrant colonies. Cut from their supporting social and familial networks in their homeland, women were often brought to the brink of psychological collapse. As Papanikolas observes, this was common in the context of homestead economy:

"Before his railroad and building days, [Joe Bonacci] farmed near Wellington where his third wife raised a large family in complete isolation. He was often gone days at a time to sell his produce in Price and in mining camps. His wife’s reminiscences of her profound loneliness resemble those of pioneer women in the Midwest on homesteads fifty wagon miles apart who often succumbed to mental illness. Josephine Bonacci was eventually saved, not by her pleadings but by admonitions of her husband’s friends that his wife and daughters could be vulnerable during his absences to passing cowboys and sheepherders” (Papanikolas, 1981:87).

Here, the homestead functions as an anti-contact zone of despairing solitude for women. Adding up to geographical isolation, a gendered economy which regulated women to a “cult of domesticity” (Scourby, 2003:36) socially marginalizes women. Patriarchy pushes women to psychological limits and averts their complete destruction only when male honor is at stake. In this respect, the homestead is also a sexually threatening contact zone. Women’s feelings are ignored. Males intervene to redress the effects of female involuntary seclusion only in response to social sanctions of male masculinity.

Confronted by extreme loneliness, women often felt propelled to create their own spheres of interaction. The recollection of Thelma Siouris, a pioneer Greek immigrant woman, dramatically drives this point home:

"I was the only Greek woman in the railroad town. I was so lonely, I baked cookies and sat on the porch waiting for the school children to come by. I had them sit and eat the cookies and didn’t understand what they were saying, but at least I heard the sound of human voices" (cited in Papanikolas, 1989:30).

Greek patriarchy also sought to regulate the range of contacts for American-born daughters. Repatriated under the new conditions of migrancy, patriarchy intensified when immigrant fathers sought to constrain the social field of interaction for their daughters. The absence of communal surveillance – that enforced traditional gender ideologies in the homeland – rendered the domestic sphere as a crucial site to enforce the domination of women in the New World. A charismatic folk healer, for instance, turned into an “autocratic” tyrant when it came to enforcing traditional codes of honor.

"When her oldest daughters entered their teen years, the young Greek laborers coming home from the mill saw fit to pass Magherou’s house, hoping for a glimpse of them. Their father painted the window gray, so that the young men could not look in and his daughters could not look out" (1989:22).

The possibility of breaking away from regimes of control in diaspora is canceled by enforcing patriarchal ideologies through new means of spatial confinement. The patriarch redraws the borders of vision, recreating an environment of spatial confinement aimed to control desire, the possibility of being able to imagine a world beyond the confines of the immigrant household. In this case, the reterritorialized social order of the Old World spatially imprisons the American-born. Literally and metaphorically, immigrant traditions demarcate the domain of vision, what can be seen, and how not to be seen, in the gendered spaces of Greek America.

Yet immigrant Greek America is not represented as a homogeneous social space. Not all households were or remained hermetically sealed. Immigrant daughters demanded and claimed their own spaces. Transformations in Post World War II American society allowed them to venture beyond the immigrant world into the work place, the University and inter-ethnic marriage. Papanikolas claims that the American West, more than elsewhere, enabled Greek immigrant daughters to transcend the restrictions imposed on them by tradition.

"Although there were instances of extreme oppression of daughters, they had more freedom than those in urban centers in the East and Midwest. They drove cars, worked outside the home, could, usually refuse marriage proposals, and groups of them took vacations together. As they grew older, they dropped more constraints" (34).

Papanikolas’s non-fictional work does not elaborate on this exceptionalism. Neither does it explore in detail her claim that immigrant women redefined America from a place of exile to a site of attachment as home. Her ethnohistoric work teases a number of questions. How did immigrant women of diverse social class and educational background negotiate the experience of migration? What aspects of Greek culture did immigrant women thought worth retaining? How did immigrant daughters confront the experience of cultural betweeness? What were their strategies in defying oppression? What were their views of America? Papanikolas pursued some of these questions in her fiction and to some extent family biography. Her non-fictional contribution to women’s studies rests in her documentation of early immigrant women’s perspectives, and the social and political significance of the networks they built.
To be continued

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