Immigrant Women in Stockton
In the early 1980s, Sally Miller, Professor of History at University of the Pacific, and her students interviewed sixty immigrant women from at least twenty-five different nationality groups in Stockton. When Miller conducted the interviews, there was very little history on immigrants in the western US or on smaller cities like Stockton, and even less on immigrant women. Miller’s work broke new ground in turning attention to women in a mid-size city in California’s central valley.
Of the sixty immigrant women interviewed for the Stockton project, most came to the United States between 1920 and 1960, during a period of strict immigration restriction framed by the 1920s quota bills. The Johnson-Reed Act "limited the number of immigrants allowed entry into the United States through a national origins quota. The quota provided immigration visas to two percent of the total number of people of each nationality in the United States as of the 1890 national census. It completely excluded immigrants from Asia.”
A few of the interviewees arrived before 1920, and seven arrived after 1960. The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 did away with the quota system and instead prioritized highly skilled immigrants and people with family already living in the United States, paving the way for new groups of immigrants to come to the U.S.
Miller explains the draw of Stockton: “People came here from all over because, as already seen, immigrants follow earlier family members and townspeople, and many came to Stockton because they could follow traditional occupations in a familiar climate (fruit farming, truck farming, dairying, viticulture and others).” Solitary female immigrants were unusual. When young people traveled solo to earn money, it was usually men, who planned to earn money and return or to create roots and bring a family. However, young women were also sent by their parents to add to the family economy. Extended kin or friends from the same town typically housed young women to ensure her safety and respectability. More commonly, women immigrated with their families. Daughters went to work in the garment industry, canneries, and domestic service. Mothers and wives also contributed to the family economy, often taking in boarders and doing piece work alongside managing the household.
As public education expanded in the 20th century, immigrant girls attended school and balanced the appeal of U.S. culture with the cultural ties their families stressed. Vicki Ruiz notes that women and girls were expected to be the cultural glue that held kin groups and ethnic communities together.
Barbara Burton, et al., "Women Immigrants in the United States," Proceedings of a conference sponsored by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the Migration Policy Institute, 2002.
Donna Gabaccia, From the Other Side: Women, Gender, and Immigrant Life in the U.S., 1820–1990 (Indiana University Press, 1994).
Sally M. Miller, “The Stockton Project,” The Pacific Historian 26, no. 2 (1982): 1-9, at https://scholarlycommons.pacific.edu/pac-historian/102
Vicki L. Ruiz, From Out of the Shadows: Mexican Women in Twentieth-Century America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 54.