No Irish Need Apply Professor Gets Into a Fight With Our Blogger Over Louisa May Alcott

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Louisa May Alcott was one of many Americans who endorsed "No Irish Need Apply."

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Most of us have fond memories of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. Her stories of girls growing up inspired many women to become writers. What many of her fans are not aware of is her admitted discrimination against Irish women. I only became aware of this unknown fact when the college professor who said that Irish Americans had created a myth that No Irish Need Apply (NINA) signs and ads existed raised an article on the subject by Alcott in support of his argument.

Now many of you know that Professor Richard Jensen’s 2002 article claiming that there were few instances of No Irish Need Apply signs and ads was disproved by a 14 year-old high school student named Rebecca Fried.  Jensen has gone ballistic over her disproof of his thesis. Since she is not responding to his attacks, he has been attacking me and several other scholars who have publicized Fried’s findings. I will go into his flailing assaults in another article, but I want to discuss one part of Dr. Jensen’s defense.

In one of his more bizarre defenses of the idea that there was not widespread discrimination against the Irish in 19th Century employment, Dr. Jensen used a newspaper article by the author of Little Women, Louisa May Alcott. Like many of her background, Alcott had strong prejudices against the Irish. She fired her servant, an Irish woman, and bragged about her “No Irish Need Apply” solution to her readers in an article published in 1874. Professor Jensen used this story to show that NINA ads against Irish women was not a form of discrimination against the Irish that could objectively give rise to a memory of anti-Irish discrimination in later decades. Here is what Dr. Jensen writes:

The question is asked why were there Nina ads for women domestics? Anti-Catholicism possibly played a role, as the Protestant literature sometimes warned mothers that an Irish maid would teach Catholicism to their children. More important, the Irish dominated and practically controlled the servant market in major cities. The network of Irish domestics set the standards for pay rates, workloads, and time off, and in general tried to take control of the kitchen… If the woman of the house was too difficult, the maid would quit immediately knowing her Irish network would find a new job, and blackball that house. Once a housewife was blackballed, she had to find a Protestant maid, and so she relied on a NINA ad. Louisa May Alcott encountered this “servant problem” when she wanted to take more control of her kitchen. She decided to fire her Irish maid, who warned her it would be hard to find a replacement. “‘No Irish need apply’ was my answer,” said Alcott. She had a hard time finding a new maid. Alcott’s fictional story is online at http://tinyurl.com/p7q3lla

First, we should note that this article is not presented by Alcott as a work of fiction. The title of the essay is “The Servant-Girl Problem: How Louisa M. Alcott Solves It.” It is a first person account of discrimination against Irish women that Alcott is proud to share.

In the article, Alcott does not say that she did not want Irish servants because they might teach Catholicism to the children of the household. Alcott says she fired her Irish maid because of “the faults of her race.” The Irish were considered a race apart, and Alcott saw the Irish race as incompatible with her own.

Alcott does not write of placing any NINA ads when she was seeking a servant. She instead writes that “for a month I did do the work myself, looking about meantime for help. “No Irish need apply,” was my answer to the half-dozen girls who…did come to take the place.” This is interesting because it tells us that while none of the Irish workers who came seeking employment saw a NINA sign or ad, this prominent woman employed a “No Irish Need Apply” rule. We can conclude that perhaps other Irish experienced similar discrimination in employment. The fact that Alcott openly admits this, and does so without apology, indicates that she does not expect condemnation from her readers.

Alcott then sets out strategies in her article for hiring non-Irish servants and concludes that if her instructions are followed, a woman will “never again have…your home invaded by foreign incapables.” In other words, Alcott thinks that far from disapproving of her discrimination against Irish workers, she believes that her readers will welcome her strategic advice for maintaining an Irish-free work environment.

Jensen responded that Alcott was the victim here.  “Alcott,” he writes, “decided to avoid Irish maids and she had no end of trouble finding a Protestant one: “for a month I did do the work myself, looking about meantime for help.” I suggest that was the fate of people who got blacklisted by the Irish. Their only recourse was to a NINA ad or to do the laundry and dishes and meals & sweeping by themselves.”

I answered the Illinois professor:

Alcott was not “blacklisted by the Irish”… After she fired her Irish maid, six Irishwomen applied for the job. That is not a blacklist. I urge anyone interested in Professor Jensen’s veracity to read the article he himself linked to and read the second paragraph of “The Servant Girl Problem.” It is not the Irish women who boycott Alcott, it is Alcott who announced “No Irish Need Apply” and boycotted the Irish.

Jensen now focused on a baseless claim that the fired servant had threatened Alcott and placed her on a blacklist:

the Irish maid she fired suggested she [Alcott] was in trouble. The “blacklist” was of course not a published list. It means that if an Irish woman took the job she would quickly be encouraged to quit…. Why did Alcott fire Biddy? Irish women had “reigned in our kitchen” and gossiped about the Alcotts. When Alcott fired the maid Biddy threatened her: “you won’t get any one else” saying so “with much satisfaction at my approaching downfall”. Those are the key words of a threat.

alcott-irish-maid-nast-1869This cartoon by Thomas Nast depicts the Irish woman as apelike.

Nowhere in the article does Alcott say that her servant gossiped about her.

I also thought that this whole line of surmise about the black hand of Irish women controlling the households of native-born women was more than fanciful. I wrote back:

You claim Alcott’s article is evidence of this Irish blacklist, but it is clearly not. Since Alcott had already decided to discriminate against Irish women and because she refused to hire them, it could not be evidence that “if an Irish woman took the job she would quickly be encouraged to quit.”

In addition, if the Irish cabal was in such control of the labor market and could “quickly” encourage Irish women to quit Alcott’s employ, why could it not also discourage Irish women from seeking work with her? Sounds like a crappy conspiracy that only goes about its work after the Irish woman gets hired.

In the Alcott case, the Little Women author says that she got six Irish applicants in a month, or approximately one every five days. Not a tight boycott,

The only documented blacklist in the article was imposed by Alcott on the Irish.

The Irish women did not prevent Alcott from hiring native-born women, The non-Irish women were either unable to do the work or were unwilling to stay with Alcott.

Strange that women raised in the U.S. were “frail.” I am guessing if they had been Irish and had not been able to perform their tasks they would have been otherwise characterized.

Jensen changed tack a bit and said that native-born maids were hard to find because. unlike the Irish, they were often frail from overwork.

She found S, a very nice American woman but she was physically too weak and lasted 4 months. She found J another American woman—but the census reports these were pretty rare in the cities. Alcott repeatedly says “most American women” had “overtaxed their strength” by working too hard & are too frail to be good maids; that is not a complaint she makes about the Irish.

alcott cartoon ninaIrish maids were often called “Biddy” no matter what their actual name was. Biddy is a contraction of Brigid. It is analogous to calling all Latinas “Maria.”

I wrote back:

Professor Jensen also ignores Alcott’s experience in looking for a servant. Alcott says she found five ads from “American women” (apparently Irish immigrants were not American) looking for positions as servants and she followed up on them. She does not describe most the American women as “frail” from overwork. In fact she seems to me to describe them as unwilling to perform the hard labor of serving.

Among the American women was a widow with a child. Alcott does not say why she would not hire her. She says that another was a woman who was obviously intent on having a sexual relationship with Alcott’s father.. Some of the others are characterized as women who did not intend to be servants themselves, but who “wished merely to order other servants about.” Another woman, Miss Amelia, “was too much dressed, and seemed rather afraid of work.”

Also, since Dr. Jensen offers the Alcott article as evidence of the difficulties faced by native-born women targeted by the “blacklist” where Alcott does say that the “American women” were subject to intimidation by the Irish women’s cabal?

Just so folks know what Dr. Jensen considers a “threat”, I turn again to the original article. According to Alcott, her Irish servant responded to the news that she had been fired as follows:

“You won’t get any one else, mum, so early in the season.”

That is it. That is the threat.

Not content to leave the servant at her own words, a servant that Alcott and Jensen refer to by the derogatory term “Biddy”, Jensen wrote:

Pat—you cut off the quote:

“My first edict was, “Biddy must go.” “You won’t get any one else, mum, so early in the season,” said Biddy, with much satisfaction at my approaching downfall. “ Biddy indicated an “approaching downfall”

To which I responded:

The words you add, Dr. Jensen, indicating the servant’s “satisfaction” at Alcott’s approaching downfall” was how Alcott characterized her servant’s state of mind. It was not something that the servant herself said. Hence, it was not part of any “threat” from the servant. I am surprised you did not realize that.

In any event, Alcott never characterizes it as a threat, only as a prophesy.

There are a few takeaways from this exchange. First, even beloved authors can be bigots. Second, a lot of respectable native-born women shared Alcott’s prejudices for her to present her recipe for discrimination publically and in print. Third, while women complained about their Irish maids and yearned for native-born servants, the “American” women were either too lazy or too proud to do this sort of work. In this case, immigrants were “stealing the jobs” Americans did not want anyway.Fourth, No Irish Need Apply was not restricted to signs and ads. For Americans like Alcott, it was a way of life. Final takeaway? Professors hard-pressed to defend discredited theories should not grasp at Irish straws.

I encourage you to read Alcott’s article. It is in the lower right corner of the newspaper I liked to.

The Immigrants’ Civil War is a series that examines the role of immigrants in our bloodiest war. Articles will appear twice monthly between 2011 and 2017. Here are the articles we have published so far:

1. Immigrant America on the Eve of the Civil War – Take a swing around the United States and see where immigrants were coming from and where they were living in 1861.

2. 1848: The Year that Created Immigrant America – Revolutions in Europe, famine and oppression in Ireland, and the end of the Mexican War made 1848 a key year in American immigration history.

3. Carl Schurz: From German Radical to American Abolitionist– A teenaged revolutionary of 1848, Carl Schurz brought his passion for equality with him to America.

4. Immigrant Leader Carl Schurz Tells Lincoln to Stand Firm Against Slavery.

5. …And the War Came to Immigrant America -The impact of the firing on Fort Sumter on America’s immigrants

6. The Rabbi Who Seceded From the South

7. The Fighting 69th-Irish New York Declares War

8. The Germans Save St. Louis for the Union

9. New York’s Irish Rush to Save Washington

10. Immigrant Day Laborers Help Build the First Fort to Protect Washington-The Fighting 69th use their construction skills.

11. Carl Schurz Meets With Lincoln To Arm the Germans

12. Immigrants Rush to Join the Union Army-Why?– The reasons immigrants gave for enlisting early in the war.

13. Why the Germans Fought for the Union?

14. Why Did the Irish Fight When They Were So Despised?

15. The “Sons of Garibaldi” Join the Union Army

16. The Irish Tigers From Louisiana

17. Immigrant Regiments on Opposite Banks of Bull Run -The Fighting 69th and the Louisiana Tigers

18. The St. Louis Germans Set Out To Free Missouri

19. Wilson’s Creek Drowns Immigrant Dream of Free Missouri

20. English-Only in 1861: No Germans Need Apply

21. After Bull Run: Mutineers, Scapegoats, and the Dead

22. St. Louis Germans Revived by Missouri Emancipation Proclamation

23. Jews Fight the Ban on Rabbis as Chaplains

24. Lincoln Dashes German Immigrants Hopes for Emancipation

25. When Hatred of Immigrants Stopped the Washington Monument from Being Built

26. Inside the Mind of a Know Nothing

27. The Evolution of the Know Nothings

28. The Know Nothings Launch a Civil War Against Immigrant America

29. The Know Nothings: From Triumph to Collapse

30. The Lasting Impact of the Know Nothings on Immigrant America.

31. Lincoln, the Know Nothings, and Immigrant America.

32. Irish Green and Black America: Race on the Edge of Civil War.

33. The Democratic Party and the Racial Consciousness of Irish Immigrants Before the Civil War

34. The Confederates Move Against Latino New Mexico

35. Nuevomexicanos Rally As Confederates Move Towards Santa Fe—But For Which Side?

36. The Confederate Army in New Mexico Strikes at Valverde

37. The Swedish Immigrant Who Saved the U.S. Navy

38. The Confederates Capture Santa Fe and Plot Extermination

39. A German Regiment Fights for “Freedom and Justice” at Shiloh-The 32nd Indiana under Col. August Willich.

40. The Know Nothing Colonel and the Irish Soldier Confronting slavery and bigotry.

41. Did Immigrants Hand New Orleans Over to the Union Army?

42. Did New Orleans’ Immigrants See Union Soldiers As Occupiers or Liberators?

43. Union Leader Ben Butler Seeks Support in New Orleans-When General Ben Butler took command in New Orleans in 1862, it was a Union outpost surrounded by Confederates. Butler drew on his experience as a pro-immigrant politician to win over the city’s Irish and Germans.

44. Union General Ben Butler Leverages Immigrant Politics in New Orleans

45. Thomas Meager: The Man Who Created the Irish Brigade

46. Thomas Meagher: The Irish Rebel Joins the Union Army

47. Recruiting the Irish Brigade-Creating the Irish American

48. Cross Keys: A German Regiment’s Annihilation in the Shenandoah Valley

49. The Irish Brigade Moves Towards Richmond-The Irish brigade in the Peninsula Campaign from March 17 to June 2, 1862.

50. Peninsula Emancipation: Irish Soldiers Take Steps on the Road to Freedom-The Irish Brigade and Irish soldiers from Boston free slaves along the march to Richmond.

51. Slaves Immigrate from the Confederacy to the United States During the Peninsula Campaign

52. The Irish 9th Massachusetts Cut Off During the Seven Days Battles

53. Union Defeat and an Irish Medal of Honor at the End of the Seven Days

54. Making Immigrant Soldiers into Citizens-Congress changed the immigration laws to meet the needs of a nation at war.

55. Carl Schurz: To Win the Civil War End Slavery

56. Carl Schurz: From Civilian to General in One Day

57. Did Anti-German Bigotry Help Cause Second Bull Run Defeat?

58. Immigrant Soldiers Chasing Lee Into Maryland

59. Scottish Highlanders Battle at South Mountain

60. Emancipation 150: “All men are created equal, black and white”– A German immigrant reacts to the Emancipation Proclamation

61. The Irish Brigade at Antietam

62. Private Peter Welsh Joins the Irish Brigade

63. Preliminaries to Emancipation: Race, the Irish, and Lincoln

64. The Politics of Emancipation: Lincoln Suffers Defeat

65. Carl Schurz Blames Lincoln for Defeat

66. The Irish Brigade and Virginia’s Civilians Black and White

67. The Irish Brigade and the Firing of General McClellan

68. General Grant Expells the Jews

69. The Irish Brigade Moves Towards Its Destruction At Fredericksburg.

70. Fredericksburg: The Worst Day in the Young Life of Private McCarter of the Irish Brigade

71. Forever Free: Emancipation New Year Day 1863

72. Private William McCarter of the Irish Brigade Hospitalized After Fredericksburg

73. The Immigrant Women That Nursed Private McCarter After Fredericksburg

74. Nursing Nuns of the Civil War

75. The Biases Behind Grant’s Order Expelling the Jews

76. The Jewish Community Reacts to Grant’s Expulsion Order

77. Lincoln Overturns Grant’s Order Against the Jews

78. Irish Families Learn of the Slaughter at Fredericksburg

79. Requiem for the Irish Brigade

80. St. Patrick’s Day in the Irish Brigade

81. Student Asks: Why Don’t We Learn More About Immigrants in the Civil War?

82. Missouri’s German Unionists: From Defeat to Uncertain Victory

83. Missouri Germans Contest Leadership of Unionist Cause

84. German Leader Franz Sigel’s Victory Earns a Powerful Enemy

85. Immigrant Unionists Marching Towards Pea Ridge

86. German Immigrants at the Battle of Pea Ridge: Opening Moves

87. Pea Ridge: The German Unionists Outflanked

88. German Immigrants at the Battle of Pea Ridge

89. The Organization of the “German” XI Corps

90. The Irish Brigade on the Road to Chancellorsville

91. The “German” XI Corps on the Eve of Chancellorsville

92. The “Germans Run Away” at Chancellorsville

93. The New York Times, the Germans, and the Anatomy of a Scapegoat at Chancellorsville

94. An Irish Soldier Between Chancellorsville and Gettysburg

95. Lee’s Army Moves Towards Gettysburg: Black Refugees Flee

96. Iron Brigade Immigrants Arrive at Gettysburg

97. Iron Brigade Immigrants Go Into Battle the First Day at Gettysburg

98. The “German” XI Corps at Gettysburg July 1, 1863

99. An Irish Colonel and the Defense of Little Round Top on the Second Day at Gettysburg

100. A Prayer Before Death for the Irish Brigade at Gettysburg: July 2, 1863

101. The Irish Regiment that Ended “Pickett’s Charge”: July 3, 1863

102. Five Points on the Edge of the Draft Riots

103. Before the Draft Riots: The Cultivation of Division

104. The New York Draft Riots Begin

105. Convulsion of Violence: The First Day of the New York Draft Riots

106. The Draft Riots End in a Sea of Blood-July 14-15, 1863.

107. Pat Cleburne: The Irish Confederate and the Know Nothings

108. Killing Pat Cleburne: Know Nothing Violence

109. Pat Cleburne: Arresting a General, Becoming a General

110. The Immigrant Story Behind “Twelve Years a Slave”

111. A German Immigrant Woman’s Gettysburg Address

112. Pat Cleburne: The Irish Confederate’s Emancipation Proclamation

113. Pat Cleburne: The South Can’t Use Black Soldiers Without Ending Slavery

114. The Suppression of Pat Cleburne’s Emancipation Proposal

115. An Irish Immigrant Colonel’s Warnings Ignored at Chickamauga

116. An Immigrant Colonel’s Fighting Retreat at Chickamauga

117. August Willich: German Socialist at Chickamauga

118. Hans Heg:at Chickamauga: Norwegian Commander on the Eve of Battle

119. Ivan and Nadine Turchin: Russian Revolutionary Aristocrats at Chickamauga

120. German Immigrants Pinned Down at Chickamauga

121. Hans Heg: To Die for His Adopted Country at Chickamauga

122. Patrick Guiney: An Irish Colonel on the Edge of the Wilderness

123. Immigrants March Out of The Wilderness and Into a Wicked Hail of Gunfire

124. Peter Welsh in the Irish Brigade’s Purgatory at Spotsylvania

125. Peter Welsh: What Sacrifice Must the Immigrant Make for His Adopted Land?

126. A Second Irish Brigade’s Catastrophe at a Forgotten Fight Near Fredericksburg

127. An Irish Man and a French Woman Between Spotsylvania and Cold Harbor

128. Two Irish Brigades Swept Away by a Hurricane from Hell at Cold Harbor

129. Petersburg: The Start of a Ten Month Siege that Devoured Men and Disabled the Irish Brigade

130. A Volcano in Virginia: The Battle of the Crater

131. 1864 Election: The Immigrant Voter & Abraham Lincoln

132. August Belmont: The German Jewish Immigrant Who Led the Opposition to Lincoln’s 1864 Reelection

133. Lincoln and the Superiority of the “Negro” over the Irish

134. Lincoln’s Germans and the Election of 1864

135. Lincoln’s German Lawyer Comes Out Swinging in the Election of 1864

136. Lincoln Wins the Election of 1864 With Immigrant Votes

137. American Refugee Camp in Civil War Kentucky Destroyed by Union Soldiers

138. Kentucky Civil War Refugee Camp Reborn and Reconstructed After Expulsions

139. Immigrant German “Hamburgers” Tormented and Captured at Petersburg

140. German General Weitzel and His African Canadians at Petersburg

141. Irish Regiment at the Beginning of the End of the Confederacy at Five Forks

142. Richmond Burning: The German Immigrant and Black Troops Who Saved the City

143. Appomattox: The Capture of a Confederate Army & the Fall from Grace of an Immigrant General

144. Lincoln Assassinated: John Wilkes Booth’s Immigrant Conspirators

145. Immigrants Hunt Lincoln’s Killers and Help Capture the Confederate President

146. Lincoln’s Murder and the New York Irish American

147. Lincoln’s Funeral in Immigrant New York

148. German General Carl Schurz Begins His Investigation of the Post-War South

149. Carl Schurz Warned That a “System of Terrorism” Was Taking Hold in the Post-War South in 1865

150. Immigrants in the Union Navy: Minorities in the Majority

151. How Immigrants Were Recruited into the United States Navy

152. African Canadian Sailors in the Union Navy

153. High School Student Proves Professor Wrong When He Denied “No Irish Need Apply” Signs Existed

154. The Fallout from No Irish Need Apply Article Spreads Worldwide

155. No Irish Need Apply Professor Gets into a Fight With Our Blogger Pat Young Over Louisa May Alcott

156. Professor Behind No Irish Need Apply Denial May Have Revealed Motive for Attacking 14 Year Old Historian

157.  A Scottish Socialist and a German General Work to Help Slaves Become Freedpeople-Robert Dale Owen, Carl Schurz and the founding of the Freedmen’s Bureau.

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