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.
This 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.
Irish 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.
5. …And the War Came to Immigrant America -The impact of the firing on Fort Sumter on America’s immigrants
10. Immigrant Day Laborers Help Build the First Fort to Protect Washington-The Fighting 69th use their construction skills.
12. Immigrants Rush to Join the Union Army-Why?– The reasons immigrants gave for enlisting early in the war.
17. Immigrant Regiments on Opposite Banks of Bull Run -The Fighting 69th and the Louisiana Tigers
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.
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.
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.
54. Making Immigrant Soldiers into Citizens-Congress changed the immigration laws to meet the needs of a nation at war.
60. Emancipation 150: “All men are created equal, black and white”– A German immigrant reacts to the Emancipation Proclamation
106. The Draft Riots End in a Sea of Blood-July 14-15, 1863.
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.
Immigration Vacation -Civil War Sites