The Men and Women We Want

The Men and Women We Want

Gender, Race, and the Progressive Era Literacy Test Debate

Jeanne D. Petit

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Examines the gendered dimension of Progressive-Era debates about literacy and immigration in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century America.
Should immigrants have to pass a literacy test in order to enter the United States? Progressive-Era Americans debated this question for more than twenty years, and by the time the literacy test became law in 1917, the debate had transformed the way Americans understood immigration, and created the logic that shaped immigration restriction policies throughout the twentieth century.
Jeanne Petit argues that the literacy test debate was about much more than reading ability or the virtues of education. It also tapped into broader concerns about the relationship between gender, sexuality, race, and American national identity. The congressmen, reformers, journalists, and pundits who supported the literacy test hoped to stem the tide of southern and eastern European immigration. To make their case, these restrictionists portrayed illiterate immigrant men as dissipated, dependent paupers, immigrant women as brood mares who bore too many children, and both as a eugenic threat to the nation's racial stock. Opponents of the literacy test argued that the new immigrants were muscular, virile workers and nurturing, virtuous mothers who would strengthen the race and nation. Moreover, the debaters did not simply battle about what social reformer Grace Abbott called "the sort of men and women we want." They also defined as normative the men and women they were -- unquestionably white, unquestionably American, and unquestionably fit to shape the nation's future.

Jeanne D. Petit is Associate Professor of History at Hope College.

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Table of Contents

Breeders, Workers, and Mothers: The Beginning of the Literacy Test Debate
Parents and Progeny: The Dillingham Commission Report
Muscle, Miscegenation, and Manhood: The Literacy Test at the Height of the Progressive Era
Practical Aid and Sympathetic Understanding: Grace Abbott's Alternative to the Literacy Test
World War I and the Literacy Test
The Legacy of the Progressive Era Literacy Test Debate


Jeanne D. Petit's new monograph on Progressive Era debates over immigration restriction through the lens of the literary test is a well-researched, thoughtful, and provocative addition to the historiography. Petit is one of the first historians of this subject to focus on the intersection of gender and race as central, intertwined elements in the arguments for and against immigrant restriction. JOURNAL OF AMERICAN HISTORY

The xenophobia exacerbated after the 9/11 attacks in America brings to sharp focus current immigration policies. . . The Men and Women We Want represents a timely contribution to the study of such policies by focusing on the debates about immigration restriction in America in the late nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century. . . thus [the book] can become a point of reference in contemporary debates over immigration. EUROPEAN JOURNAL OF AMERICAN STUDIES

In her insightful new book. . . Jeanne Petit offers a thorough and detailed history of the immigration literacy test, from its genesis in the 1890s to its passage in 1917. [This book] is an essential contribution to the scholarship on the vital policy issue of the literacy test. . . sheds new light on the rise of restrictionist immigration policies in the United States. JOURNAL OF AMERICAN STUDIES

Petit has added notably to the understanding of this historical controversy by elucidating the influences of sex and gender as well as the activities of female participants. . . [offers] innovative interpretations of early 20th century US reaction to its increasingly diverse popultation. Recommended. CHOICE

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