Two goals have driven the involvement of women’s movements in issues affecting women immigrants. The first issue has been supporting affirmative action legislation that benefits women. The second has been overturning gender stratification that has benefited the interests of men over those of women.
Advocates of the rights of immigrant women trace global developments emerging in the last quarter of the twentieth century to the presence of growing numbers of women in international migration flows and their identification as immigrants. They argue the economic and cultural shifts in many less-developed nations have reduced employment opportunities for populations of men and women generally, but have contributed to individuals finding alternatives to traditional means of making a living. The concept of the “feminization of survival” emphasizes both the public and domestic contributions of women to state and household in an era of acute economic hardship and an increasingly global demand for women’s work. One consequence of the “feminization of survival” phenomenon has been a growing proportion of women in migration flows across the globe, including those to North America.
Studies of immigrant women coming to the United States have found that these women typically enter as wives and dependents of men who sponsor their admission. Research has also shown that one effect of gender stratification has been that women are usually less likely than men to enter the United States on humanitarian or economic grounds. Immigrant women have also faced a gender-stratified labor market in which they typically occupy positions regarded as “women’s jobs,” such as seamstresses, nannies, domestic workers, caregivers, and nurses. Moreover, such studies have revealed that the negative impacts of gender stratification have combined with those of being immigrants. For this reason, many women’s movements have argued that immigrant women are doubly disadvantaged and consequently more likely to occupy marginal occupations that are poorly paid and unregulated by labor laws.
Women’s movements have developed in a variety of forms. They have included community organizations that bring immigrant women and other members of a community together to confront the various forms of oppression immigrant women experience. Women’s movements also come in the form of advocacy groups that attempt to represent the interests of individuals in government agencies as well as groups calling for benefits and lobbying for social and political change. Other groups have been involved in public education and awareness campaigns that aim to inform immigrants of their rights as well as to challenge generalizations and cultural stereotypes about immigrant women that tend to develop in their receiving communities.
One of the most urgent imperatives for movements concerned with immigrant women has been ensuring the human rights of both legal and illegal immigrant women. As such, various organizations have mobilized to combat human rights abuses including violence against immigrant women along U.S. borders, sexual abuse by employers, inhuman conditions in refugee camps, and domestic violence perpetrated by American spouses. Additionally, sex trafficking has become one of the largest international industries in the underground global economy. The gender inequality of many women around the globe has enhanced the vulnerability of women. Women’s movements argue that sex trade traffickers use the low status of women and stereotypes of women as sexual commodities to fuel the industry and perpetuate the extreme marginalization and exploitation of many women and girls.
Poster issued by the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) in 1919 to call attention to the contributions of women immigrants.
Although immigration to the United States has continued to offer women social and economic opportunities, these opportunities have not been evenly distributed, especially in employment. Moreover, nonwhite immigrants have faced additional hurdles. Indeed, some immigrant women may be said to have been triply disadvantaged in the labor market by virtue of being female, foreign born, and nonwhite.
One of the most serious criticisms leveled against the feminist movement, even by feminists themselves, has been that women’s movements have focused largely on the needs of middle- and upper-class white women, to the exclusion of lower-class women, especially members of racial or ethnic minorities. Some feminists have argued the need for a more inclusive feminist strategy that focuses less on less on gender and more on the complex interrelationships among race, ethnicity, and class.
Advocates for immigrant women have called for women’s movements to define “woman” in ways that go beyond class, race, and other categories. They further argue that a word such as “immigrant” is itself restrictive in that an immigrant woman can have many identities. Such advocates have also argued that human rights and immigrant women’s movements should be more closely integrated. They also suggest that immigrant women should be more proactive in speaking out for their own interests. Only then, they argue, will they become less marginalized in that their concerns will be represented by voices that do include them.
Despite criticisms of the limited scope of some women’s movements, many feminists and women’s organizations dedicated to legal reform have successfully advocated on behalf of low-income and marginalized women through campaigning for decisive civil rights legislation. For example, the
Dutt, Mallika, Leni Marin, and Helen Zia, eds. Migrant Women’s Human Rights in G-7 Countries: Organizing Strategies. San Francisco: Family Violence Prevention Fund and Center for Women’s Global Leadership, 1997. Collection of articles examining how immigrant women in the United States and other developed nations have raised public concern about such issues as domestic violence, worker’s rights, and xenophobia. Fitzpatrick, Ellen. Endless Crusade: Women Social Scientists and Progressive Reform. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990. Examination of the lives of four progressive women who played a crucial role in the establishment of settlement houses and social reform. Kamm, Richard. “Extending the Progress of the Feminist Movement to Encompass the Rights of Migrant Farmworker Women.” Chicago-Kent Law Review 75, no. 765 (2000): 765-783. Essay on how the needs of immigrant female farmworkers might best be served by a more inclusive feminist movement originating at the grassroots level. Pikkov, Boyd, and Deanna Pikkov. “Gendering Migration, Livelihood, and Entitlements: Migrant Women in Canada and the United States.” Policy Report on Gender and Development: Ten Years After Beijing. New York: United Nations Research Institute for Social Development, 2005. Comparative study of immigrant women’s experiences in the United States and Canada.
Immigration Act of 1924
Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952