Anzia Yezierska was born sometime between 1880 and 1885 in a small Polish village. Her father was a Talmudic scholar, and the large family lived on the money her mother made from peddling goods, as well as on contributions from neighbors, who honored the way the family supported their studious and holy father.
Yezierska and her family immigrated to New York City in around 1890. Her brother Meyer, one of Yezierska’s eight siblings, had come over several years earlier and changed his name to Max Mayer. He gave his new surname to his family, so for a time, Anzia Yezierska became Hattie Mayer. Young Hattie had a variety of jobs, first peddling homemade paper bags on Hester Street and later becoming a laundress, waitress, and sweatshop worker. Rebelling against her parents’ wishes that she assume a traditional path, she left home at age seventeen to live at the Clara de Hirsch home for working girls—one of the city’s charitable shelters. She continued her education and earned a four-year scholarship to study domestic science at Teachers College at Columbia University in New York City. Though bitterly disappointed that in many cases “domestic science” meant nothing more than cooking classes, she graduated and went on to hold a succession of teaching jobs before leaving for a time to room at the socialist dormitory of the Rand School, also in New York City. There, she socialized with well-known, outspoken women, such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and absorbed iconoclastic ideas about marriage and women’s independence that expanded and strengthened her own views. During this period, Yezierska married two times: she had the first marriage annulled, and she left the second after three years. The second marriage yielded a daughter, Louise, whom Yezierska eventually left for her former husband to raise.
Yezierska published her first story in 1915, and she began receiving wide recognition for her writing in 1919. She published her first novel, Salome of the Tenements, in 1923. In each of her books, Yezierska worked to recreate the feelings of the immigrant girl she had once been, trying to break away from the oppressive strictures of her religion and make a place for herself in a new land. Yezierska also recalled the conditions she’d grown up in by repeatedly echoing the tumultuous relationship she had with her father, whom she respected for his holiness but resented for his complete rejection of her work. She continued to revisit the distance between her and her father in her books, even as critical response dimmed and friends begged her to find something new to write about. Yezierska’s final published book, a fictionalized autobiography, Red Ribbon on a White Horse, was one last retelling of the story she had spent her entire life writing. She died in 1970.
Though Yezierska achieved a measure of success during her lifetime, it was always a struggle. In America, she had to overcome many obstacles that weren’t so different from the obstacles Jewish women had to face in her home county—that is, she had to fight for the privilege of being independent. Usually, the only aspect of the American dream available to women was the expectation of marriage and motherhood, varied only by a factory job or, if the girl was lucky, work as a typist or a salesgirl. The highest aspiration for a Jewish girl was to become a teacher, a goal that went against many of the norms at the time. However, becoming a teacher meant the family had to support her in school until she was eighteen or nineteen, and most immigrants couldn’t afford such an expense, even with the promise of future returns. If a choice had to be made between sending a daughter or a son to college, parents often chose to send the son because of both religious beliefs and economic reality. The old world and new world were in complete agreement on what a woman should be allowed to do with her life, and Yezierska had to fight to pursue a different path.
Certain factors, however, precluded the permanence of such a restricting arrangement for women. Instead of becoming shy, submissive workers, generations of Polish women became aggressive and articulate, more than capable of holding their own in the world. With the men secluded in religious study, wives and daughters assumed much of the economic burden. They brought in the wages, spotted cheats, haggled over prices, and slowly but surely learned skills that left them better able to transverse the wider world. These women then immigrated to America, full of stories of people with similar skills who had managed to shape new lives for themselves. Though it didn’t happen immediately, Jewish women began to be tempted by the possibility of new lives, and they focused on education as the logical starting point for building them. Some Jewish girls, Yezierska included, left home to pursue their dreams; others persuaded their mothers to persuade their fathers to allow them to do so. Whatever the method, Jewish girls began to take the first step in finding their own identity, and by 1916, more than half of the Jewish graduates of Hunter College, one of the prominent schools in the New York City area, were women.