Women immigrants Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

A gendered understanding of immigrants reveals that women have often migrated under circumstances that differ from those of men, and they have typically become involved in specifically female occupations on their arrival in the United States. During the late twentieth century, scholars in many fields began studying women’s documented and undocumented immigration and have found that the patterns of female immigration that were previously subsumed within general studies of immigration were often very different from those of men.

The study of women’s immigration is a developing field of research that is receiving increased attention from anthropologists, economists, geographers, and other scholars. With increased scrutiny and more attention to data-gathering, it has become apparent that the motivations, pathways, and ultimate destinations of women immigrants have often been determined by criteria that differ from those of male immigrants. These patterns went long unnoticed because scholars assumed that gender differences played no role in migration. Women were generally considered only in their dependent roles as wives, mothers, or daughters, rather than as self-sufficient immigrants and workers in their own right.WomenWomen[cat]DEMOGRAPHICS;Women immigrants[cat]WOMEN;Women immigrants

Among issues that specifically affect women’s immigration patterns have been the desire to escape from gendered hardships, such as domestic violence, educational and employment opportunities that are lower for women than for men, religious and political inequities, and other privations that weigh more heavily on women than men. The United States has exercised a special attraction to female immigrants because women in the United States possess many freedoms that are not available to women in other nations, as evidenced by legislation, law enforcement, and courts that support women’s rights. Many women also may immigrate to the United States to fill certain jobs that are held mostly by women, such as child care and other Domestic workersdomestic work, which draw many immigrants from developing countries. Some immigrants also take advantage of the American demand for Mail-order brides[Mail order brides]foreign-born wives by finding prospective husbands online in chat rooms or through relationship brokers.

The fact that the decisions of male and female immigrants are influenced by different Push-pull factors[push pull factors];and women[women]push-pull factors was not fully recognized until scholars began comparing the data on men with data on women. Moreover, inattention to gender issues also meant that most scholars were long unaware that women, rather than men, dominated legal immigration flows from the 1930’s until 1980. Coding problems in immigration data for 1980-1984 make gender comparisons in the United States almost impossible, but the international facts are instructive. At the start of the 1980’s, 157 of the world’s countries produced census data that enumerated approximately 78 million people living outside their countries of birth. Of this total, 48 percent were women. During this same time period, in the developed nations, women immigrant populations outnumbered those of male immigrants.

Between 1985 and 1992, women immigrants to the United States outnumbered men, though by a smaller margin than in previous decades. However, some of the 1990’s data were skewed in favor of men by the legalization of undocumented immigrants already living in the United States because large numbers of male agricultural workers took advantage of the [a]Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986;amnesty provisionsImmigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 to gain legal immigration status.

Data from the early twenty-first century have shown a continued preponderance of female over male immigrants. For example, in 2008, 54.2 percent of the more than 1 million new legal permanent resident documents granted were granted to women. Gender ratios for 2002 through 2007 were similar.

Cooking class in Chicago’s Hull-House.

(University of Illinois at Chicago, University Library, Jane Addams Memorial Collection)

The predominance of women in U.S. immigration data is somewhat surprising, given the emphases found in most national and state histories on contributions of male immigrants to national and regional events. Less attention has been paid to women’s achievements, even though female immigrants outnumbered male immigrants in most years since the 1930’s.

Women, Relationships, and Domestic Violence

A challenge for immigration scholars has been to figure out how all these disparate data fit together and to document women’s divergent immigration strategies and patterns. Many women have immigrated to the United States under family reunification programs. The [a]War Brides Act of 1945War Brides Act of 1945, which served to unite non-American wives with their American husbands after World War II, is one example.

As late as 1972-1979, 10 percent of all immigrants to the United States were foreign women married to American men who chose to immigrate using the spousal preferment option. The trend of American men seeking wives in other nations has continued and has developed in new directions, especially with the expansion of the Internet, which has become increasingly available in developing nations. Some men in more developed countries find women using online Mail-order brides[mail order brides]mail-order bride services or other e-mail connections. During the early twenty-first century, as many as 4,000-6,000 marriages resulted from such connections every year. However, the data are unreliable, and it is unclear how many such marriages last beyond the acquisition of American passports and settlement in the United States.

New York City garment workers demonstrating their solidarity with the victims of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

A special problem faced by mail-order brides is that many of them lack U.S. documentation in their own right, which leaves them open to manipulation and abuse by others. Moreover, they may fear deportation if they object to being poorly treated. Battered women’s shelters across the United States have assisted immigrant women requesting help. Domestic violence is challenging to all women who are victims, and even native-born American women may be reluctant to ask for help for reasons such as feelings of shame, the risk of further harm, or financial difficulties.

The challenges of family abuse are especially difficult for immigrant women, who may have poor English-language skills, few local friends, and meager understandings of services and legal help available to them. In addition to dealing with the stresses of domestic violence, women naturally fear the prospect of being returned to their homelands with few resources to aid their reintegration into their native communities. The laws can be bewildering, and immigration officials are not always helpful to the impoverished and those who lack English skills and legal understanding.

For all of these reasons, in the United States, there has been increasing attention to providing immigrant victims of family violence with specialty services. For example, some battered women’s centers cater to women from immigrant communities by providing translators and other services that enhance the women’s safety and ability to remain in the United States legally. Spanish-language serves have become available in most major American cities, but many immigrants speak other languages for which translators may not be available. Language and culture also play important roles in immigrant women’s employment opportunities.

Women’s Work

In the United States, women doing the same work as men have almost always been paid less than men, and immigrant women are paid less than American-born women. Consequently, women immigrants have typically faced severe struggles to house and feed themselves and their families. As early as the late nineteenth century, these inequities were challenged by women philanthropists, such as Addams, JaneJane Addams and Starr, Ellen GatesEllen Gates Starr, who established Hull-House[Hull House]Hull-House in Chicago in 1889. Hull-House and other Settlement house movementsettlement houses were founded on humanitarian principles, and offered housing, education, and other services to poor women, typically newcomers.

Immigrant women who have been desperate for employment have often accepted jobs requiring them to endure hazardous working conditions. Historically, the general public became aware of these conditions when horrible industrial accidents occurred, such as New York City’s Triangle Shirtwaist fireNew York City;Triangle Shirtwaist fireTriangle Shirtwaist Factory disaster in 1911, when 146 sweatshop employees, who were mainly young immigrant women, were killed in a fire because they could not get out of an unsafe building. The aftermath of that disaster brought some reforms in occupational safety, but many immigrants continued to work in unsafe conditions.

A large number of immigrant women work in domestic situations, providing daily household labor for families with whom they often live. They often tend children and clean homes for their employers. Such tasks are not highly remunerated, and because many of these women are undocumented, they have limited ability to push for higher wages or to obtain health care and other benefits.

Other fields in which many immigrant women are concentrated include the Garment industry;women immigrantsgarment industry, family-run businesses in ethnic enclaves, and skilled service work, such as nursing. Undocumented immigrant women are often excluded from skilled employment by their insecure legal status, and may accept lower wages in return for piecework or employment with small businesses.Women

Further Reading
  • Danquah, Meri Nana-Ama, ed. Becoming American: Personal Essays by First Generation Immigrant Women. New York: Hyperion, 2000. Collection of twenty-three memoirs by immigrant women telling their own immigration stories.
  • Hondagneu-Sotelo, Pierrette. Doméstica: Immigrant Workers Cleaning and Caring in the Shadows of Affluence. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001. Extensive study based on interviews with thirty-seven employers and twenty-three immigrant employees in Los Angeles County.
  • McGill, Craig. Human Traffic: Sex, Slaves and Immigration. London: Vision Paperbacks, 2003. Chilling accounts of sex trafficking of women in all areas of the world, with considerable information on the United States.
  • Parreñas, Rhacel Salazar. Children of Global Migration: Transnational Families and Gendered Woes. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2005. Study of gender and its impact on Filipino families with members living in the United States.
  • Pedraza, Silvia. “Women and Migration: The Social Consequences of Gender.” Annual Review of Sociology 17 (1991): 303-325. Overview of the academic debates about women immigrants.
  • Tyler, Anne. Digging to America: A Novel. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006. Beautifully written fiction about immigrant families in the United States, foreign adoptions, and the challenges for women immigrants.
  • Warrier, Sujata, and Jennifer Rose. “Women, Gender-Based Violence, and Immigration.” In Social Work with Immigrants and Refugees: Legal Issues, Clinical Skills, and Advocacy, edited by Fernando Chang-Muy and Elaine P. Congress. New York: Springer, 2009. Article presenting information about domestic violence and immigrant women, including strategies for assisting women.


Immigration waves

International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union

Mail-order brides

“Marriages of convenience”

Picture brides

Settlement houses

Triangle Shirtwaist fire

War brides

War Brides Act of 1945

Women’s movements

Categories: History