Book Review: Immigrant Girl, Radical Woman

This illustrated memoir allows a granddaughter to delve into the incredible life of her grandmother, labor activist Matilda Rabinowitz.

MATILDA RABINOWITZ, seen here circa 1912 (photo credit: COURTESY ROBBIN HENDERSON)
MATILDA RABINOWITZ, seen here circa 1912
Imagine a single mother in the 1920s. Now imagine her on the forefront of nascent unionism, leading thousands in strikes for their working rights while embodying the ideals of feminism and free love, reveling in motherhood and well in the fray. This is the story of Matilda Rabinowitz.
Immigrant Girl, Radical Woman, written by her and her granddaughter, has been published as an illustrated memoir more than 50 years after Rabinowitz’s death. Small in stature, but huge in spirit, Rabinowitz was one of the few female labor organizers in the early 20th century. She writes about her start as a young girl in a Russian Jewish shtetl through emigrating to the tenements of New York and beyond. With only an eighth-grade education, Rabinowitz became a dedicated and effective activist galvanizing workers – especially other immigrants – to stand up for their basic rights at a time when a 55-hour work week was standard and there was no minimum wage.
She was fiercely independent, not beholden to religion, parental expectations or societal mores. She had a decade-long love affair with a married man (would-be thespian Ben Légère) and chose to be an unwed mother, raising her baby girl, Vita, alone.
Immigrant Girl, Radical Woman is an incredible glimpse into the experiences and inner workings of an equally incredible woman.
The chapters are divided into two distinct sections: A snippet of memoir by Matilda herself, and a subsequent analysis by her granddaughter, daughter of Vita, artist Robbin Légère Henderson. This contrast is jarring at first, with a sudden and unexplained shift in narrative voice, but quickly becomes the most enchanting aspect of the work. The entire volume is fully illustrated in striking etchings by Henderson, adding a deeply personal and modern touch.
Rabinowitz’s story is remarkable, but the writing itself is not particularly so. It is direct and to the point, with scant description and few enduring characters.
“Little is given to introspection or self-criticism, she rarely examines her psychological state,” Henderson notes. At times it reads as if Rabinowitz were writing for scholars of labor issues. She references her philosophies only in a vague way, and assumes prior knowledge on such issues as rivalries between labor organizations, knowledge of labor leaders or important legal events in organizing. Henderson at times attempts to clarify some of these concepts, but some elements are still confusing.
It is engrossing to watch a granddaughter grapple with the complex life of her grandmother a century before. Henderson’s research was obviously meticulous. She followed her grandmother’s story across the US, conducting archival research and hunting down abandoned buildings where Rabinowitz had once mounted a soap box. Henderson points out tantalizing holes in Rabinowitz’s tale, historical contradictions and loose ends. She does not shy away from pointing out when her illustrious grandmother was obscuring the truth, deliberately omitting information or leaving out key details.
Rabinowitz’s relationship with Judaism is never truly addressed, although it touches her life consistently through the years. One of her early jobs gave her Shabbat off, and she later worked for the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society and the L.A. Jewish Welfare Agency.
On the other hand, Matilda uses what Henderson calls “Jewish stereotypes” to describe personages in her life (“short, swarthy, near-sighted”), and was dismissive of Horace Kallen, a Zionist who coined the term “cultural pluralism” and pushed for a diverse society. Henderson says Rabinowitz found this “an incongruous attitude for a supporter of a state exclusively for Jews.” This is jarring when talking about a woman who refers to “commies,” plainly states how the “mulatto” babysitter was what she could afford, and can’t seem to reference Italians (individuals or as a group) without mentioning their spaghetti-eating. It’s admirable that Henderson did not seek to censor these aspects of her grandmother, typical of her time though they may be, but the concurrent absence of commentary is a bit unsettling.
At the memoir’s conclusion, Henderson notes that Rabinowitz was “an internationalist and an anti-Zionist” and that she “looked upon Israel as a theocracy and was opposed to the Zionist project. The notion of Jewish exceptionalism offended her democratic sensibilities and her internationalist beliefs.”
Also under-analyzed is her abusive relationship with Légère. At first, it seems he is merely a tramp and a flirt, but it becomes clear that he was violent, throwing Rabinowitz against a wall. Henderson notes that Rabinowitz “saw marriage as an institution that confined and abused women and refused to submit to its conventions.” While that’s possible, it was Rabinowitz who was abused and confined even outside the ties of marriage, and it’s a sadly underdeveloped theme.
But these riddles and lacunae are part of Immigrant Girl, Radical Woman’s charm. How does a woman like Rabinowitz survive? How does she recall that survival, and then choose to present it, and then how does her granddaughter pass on and enhance the tale? The intergenerational call-and-answer of the text is as complicated as it is inviting – both into their lives and into confronting our own histories.
The writer is the deputy managing editor of and previously worked at Kav LaOved - Worker’s Hotline, an NGO that works to protect the labor rights of those who work in Israel, especially disadvantaged populations.