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Breeders, Workers, and Mothers: Gender and the Congressional Literacy Test Debate, 1896–1897

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  08 November 2010

Jeanne Petit
Hope College


In May of 1896, Richard Bartholdt, a Republican from Missouri and a German immigrant, stood on the floor of the House of Representatives and introduced a bill that would set off months of debate in the Fifty-Fourth Congress. The bill was H.R. 7864, which required all male immigrants between the ages of sixteen and sixty to prove they were literate in either English or some other language. While congressmen on all sides of the issue made passionate arguments for and against this bill, they nevertheless found some areas of agreement. The supporters and opponents of restriction all regarded southern and eastern European immigrants as racially different than those of northwestern European descent. Further, all congressmen understood the purpose of the bill to be as much about improving the United States citizenry racially as intellectually. Richard Bartholdt clearly stated the racial reasoning behind the literacy test when he introduced the bill to the House.

Copyright © Society for Historians of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era 2004

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1 In the 1890s, the issue of classifying European races had started to become a heated issue in academic and scientific circles. No popular language existed to demarcate European “races,” except for the vague Anglo-Saxon and “Hebrew.” Others were referred to by nationality. This changed in 1899 when Harvard Professor Alexander Ripley published The Races of Europe, in which Ripley divided Europeans into three races — Teutonic, Alpine and Mediterranean. See Ripley, Alexander, The Races of Europe: A Sociological Study (New York, 1899).Google Scholar See also Higham, John, Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism, 1860–1925 (New Brunswick, NJ, [1955] 1988), 154–56Google Scholar and Guterl, Matthew Pratt, The Color of Race in America, 1900–1940 (Cambridge, MA, 2001), 1622.Google Scholar

2 Some in Congress did declare that the nation needed an educated electorate, and indeed the need for an educated citizenry had been a theme in American political rhetoric since the time of the nation's founding. See Brown, Richard D., The Strength of A People: The Idea of an Informed Citizenry in America, 1650–1870 (Chapel Hill, 1996).Google Scholar However, the dominant theme of the literacy test debate in the Fifty-Fourth Congress centered on how the bill would exclude southeastern European immigrants and whether this was desirable.

3 Congressional Record, Fifty-Fourth Cong., First sess., 1896, 28, pt. 6:5418.

4 Ibid. Here are some of the illiteracy rates of immigrants from specific nations listed on the chart: Italy, 52.93 percent; Poland, 39.82 percent; Russia, 36.42 percent; England, 3.5 percent; The Netherlands, 3.38 percent; Germany, 2.49 percent; Sweden, 74 percent.

5 Ibid., 5423.

6 Congressional Record, Fifty-Fourth Cong., First sess., 1896, 28, pt. 6:5433.

7 King, Desmond, Making Americans: Immigration, Race and the Origins of the Diverse Democracy (Cambridge, MA, 2000).Google Scholar Recent scholarship has also tied immigration restriction to ideologies about whiteness, particularly Jacobson, Matthew Frye, Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race (Cambridge, MA, 1998)Google Scholar and Guterl's The Color of Race in America, 1900–1940.

8 Kessler-Harris, Alice, In Pursuit of Equity: Women, Men, and the Quest for Economic Citizenship in Twentieth Century America (New York, 2001), 6.Google Scholar

9 For works on the development of the relationship between work and middle-class manhood in the nineteenth century, see Ryan, Mary P., Cradle of the Middle Class: The Family in Oneida County, New York, 1790–1865 (Cambridge, UK, 1981)Google Scholar and Boydston, Jeanne, Home and Work: Housework, Wages, and the Ideology of Labor in the Early Republic (New York, 1990).Google Scholar

10 Baker, Paula, “The Domestication of Politics: Women and American Political Society, 1780–1920,” American Historical Review 89 (June 1984): 625–27.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

11 The term “True Womanhood” refers to the 1966 essay by Welter, Barbara titled “The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820–1860,” American Quarterly 18 (Summer 1966): 151–74.CrossRefGoogle Scholar In this essay, Welter argued that literary and prescriptive literature aimed at women set up gender ideologies that oppressed women. Historians in the 1970s and 1980s named this gender ideology “Separate Spheres,” and argued that while the ideology had oppressive aspects, women also used it to empower themselves. See in particular Cott, Nancy, The Bonds of Womanhood: Women's Sphere in New England, 1780–1835 (New Haven, 1977).Google Scholar For an examination of how “separate spheres” developed as a historical category, see Kerber, Linda, “Separate Spheres, Female Worlds, Woman's Place: The Rhetoric of Women's History,” Journal of American History 75 (June 1988): 939.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Recent scholarship has challenged “Separate Spheres” as a paradigm for understanding nineteenth century women's history because it does not take into account the variety of women's experiences, it simplifies the ways Americans continually re-made gender ideologies and it sets up a false dichotomy between a public and private sphere. In a symposium for the Society for the History of the Early American Republic, historian Carol Lasser argued that we need to “begin to see ‘public’ and ‘private’ not so much as opposites, but rather as angles of vision. In doing so, we begin to understand gender as an unstable, vital, and fluid relation, not as the enclosed space that has imprisoned our thinking.” “Redefining Womanly Behavior in the Early Republic: Essays from a SHEAR Symposium,” Journal of the Early Republic 21 (Spring 2001): 123. See also No More Separate Spheres: A Next Wave American Studies Reader, eds., Cathy N. Davidson and Jessamyn Hatcher (Durham, NC, 2002).

12 Jones, Jacqueline, Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow: Black Women, Work, and the Family from Slavery to the Present (New York, 1985), 1143Google Scholar; Stansell, Christine, City of Women: Sex and Class in New York, 1789–1860 (Urbana, 1986), 41, 68–75.Google Scholar

13 Even during the time of the early Republic, women had begun to make a case for citizenship by arguing that their roles as mothers had national significance. See Kerber, Linda, Women of the Republic: Intellect and Ideology in Revolutionary America (Chapel Hill, 1980Google Scholar; repr., New York, 1986). For work on nineteenth century women and political activism, see Ginzberg, Lori, Women and the Work of Benevolence: Morality, Politics, and Class in the Nineteenth Century United States (New Haven, 1990)Google Scholar and Isenberg, Nancy, Sex and Citizenship in Antebellum America (Chapel Hill, 1998).Google Scholar The link between white supremacy and women's political activism is made most explicitly in Newman, Louise Michele, White Women's Rights: The Racial Origins of Feminism in the United States (New York, 1999).Google Scholar

14 Historians have also shown that African Americans, and especially African American women, saw the contradictions in hegemonic racial and gender ideologies. These individuals realized that the dominant white society linked civilized gender systems to the white race as a way to maintain power and control over the African American population of the United States. Two such women were Maggie Lena Walker, who developed what Elsa Barkley Brown calls a “womanist consciousness” and became the first woman bank president in the United States in 1903, and Ida B. Wells, a prolific writer on race issues at the turn-of-the-century who challenged white myths about lynching. See Brown, Elsa Barkley, “Womanist Consciousness: Maggie Lena Walker and the Independent Order of Saint Luke,” Signs 14 (Spring 1989): 610–33CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Bederman, Gail‘Civilization,’ the Decline of Middle-Class Manliness, and Ida B. Wells's Anti-Lynching Campaign (1892–94),” Radical History Review 52 (Winter 1992): 530.CrossRefGoogle Scholar See also Higginbotham, Evelyn Brooks, Righteous Discontent: The Women's Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880–1920 (Cambridge, MA, 1993).Google Scholar

15 Books that deal with the relationship between race and sexual power include Jacquelyn Hall, Dowd, Revolt Against Chivalry: Jessie Daniel Ames and the Women's Campaign against Lynching (New York, 1979)Google Scholar; Blee, Kathleen, Women of the Klan: Racism and Gender in the 1920s (Berkeley, 1991)Google Scholar; MacLean, Nancy, Behind the Mask of Chivalry: The Making of the Second Ku Klux Klan (New York, 1994).Google Scholar See also Hale, Grace Elizabeth, Making Whiteness: The Culture of Segregation in the South, 1890–1940 (New York, 1998), 199239.Google Scholar

16 Hale, , Making Whiteness, 46.Google ScholarBederman, Gail, Manliness and Civilization: A Cultural History of Gender and Race in the United States, 1880–1917 (Chicago, 1995), 4653.CrossRefGoogle Scholar For an examination of the formation of Jim Crow Laws, see McMillen, Neil R., Dark Journey: Black Mississippians in the Age of Jim Crow (Urbana, 1989).Google Scholar For an examination of scientific racism at this time, see Haller, John S. Jr, Outcasts from Evolution: Scientific Attitudes of Racial Inferiority, 1859–1900 (Urbana, 1971).Google Scholar

17 Painter, Nell Irvin, Standing at Armageddon: The United States, 1877–1919 (New York, 1987), ix–xiiiGoogle Scholar; Higham, , Strangers in the Land, 107–09.Google Scholar

18 For work on the changing conditions of working class men, see Montgomery, David, “Workers' Control of Machine Production in the Nineteenth Century,” Labor History 17 (Fall 1976): 485509CrossRefGoogle Scholar and Halle, David, America's Working Man: Work, Home, and Politics among Blue Collar Property Owners (Chicago, 1984).Google Scholar For work on the implications of these changes on gender ideologies, see Baron, Ava, “An ‘Other’ Side of Gender Antagonism at Work: Men, Boys, and the Remasculinization of Printer's Work, 1830–1920,” in Work Engendered: Toward a New History of American Labor, ed., Baron, Ava (Ithaca, NY, 1991).Google Scholar

19 For an in-depth examination of the relationship between ideologies of independence and manhood, see Fraser, Nancy and Gordon, Linda, “A Genealogy of Dependency: Tracing a Keyword of the U.S. Welfare State,” Signs 19 (Winter 1994): 323–42.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

20 For work on how white, middle-class women articulated political and economic places for themselves at the turn of the century, see Muncy, Robyn, Creating a Female Dominion in American Reform, 1890–1935 (New York, 1991), 137Google Scholar; Koven, Seth and Michel, Sonya, eds., Mothers of a New World: Maternalist Politics and the Origins of Welfare States (New York, 1993).Google Scholar

21 Takaki, Ronald, Strangers from a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans (Boston, 1989), 197212.Google Scholar For the way the Chinese exclusion act shaped future immigration legislation, as well as the administrative and judicial approaches to immigration, see Lee, Erika, “The Chinese Exclusion Example: Race, Immigration, and American Gatekeeping, 1882–1924,” Journal of American Ethnic History 21 (Spring 2002): 3662Google Scholar and Salyer, Lucy E., Laws Harsh as Tigers: Chinese Immigrants and the Shaping of Modern Immigration Law (Chapel Hill, 1995).Google Scholar

22 When it came to Chinese immigration, historian Saxton, Alexander argues, “racial identification cut at right angles to class consciousness.” The Indispensable Enemy: Labor and the Anti-Chinese Movement in California (Berkeley, 1971), 1.Google Scholar See also Kwong, Peter, Forbidden Workers: Illegal Chinese Immigrants and American Labor (New York, 1997), 145–51.Google Scholar

23 Shah, Nayan, Contagious Divides: Epidemics and Race in San Francisco's Chinatown (Berkeley, 2001), 77.Google Scholar For work on the gender ratio of Chinese immigrants and the migration of Chinese women, see Peffer, George Anthony, If They Don't Bring Their Women Here: Chinese Female Immigration before Exclusion (Urbana, 1999).Google Scholar Nineteenth century California doctors also linked Chinese immigration to the opium trade, which they argued threatened white domesticity by degenerating bodies and increasing the sexual appetites of women. Ahmad, Diana L., “Opium Smoking, Anti-Chinese Attitudes, and the American Medical Community,” American Nineteenth Century History 1 (Summer 2000): 59.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

24 Daniels, Roger, Coming to America: A History of Immigration and Ethnicity in American Life (New York, 1990), 188.Google Scholar

25 In 1890, Mississippi became the first state to pass a literacy test as a means to disenfranchise African Americans, and some poor whites. See McMillan, , Dark Journey, 3848Google Scholar and Ayers, Edward L., The Promise of the New South: Life after Reconstruction (New York, 1992), 145–49.Google Scholar By 1908, seven Southern states (Mississippi, South Carolina, Louisiana, North Carolina, Alabama, Virginia and Georgia) had a literacy provision for suffrage. Kousser, J. Morgan, The Shaping of Southern Politics: Suffrage Restriction and the Establishment of the One-Party South, 1880–1910 (New Haven, 1974), 239.Google Scholar

26 Higham, , Strangers in the Land, 113.Google Scholar

27 Ibid., 103–04.

28 The bill Lodge introduced (S. 2147) was not the literacy test bill that ultimately passed through both houses of Congress. Lodge's bill, however, was essentially the same as H.R. 7864, which was introduced in the House of Representatives in May of 1896.

29 Many accused the supporters of the so-called Lodge Force Bill of trying to limit the power of Southern Democrats in Congress, which was no doubt partly true. But the supporters of election reform also did want to help enfranchise African Americans, who did subsequently have their voting rights severely curtailed in southern states. Welch, Richard E. Jr, “The Federal Elections Bill of 1890: Postscripts and Prelude,” The Journal of American History 52 (December 1965): 511–26.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

30 A record of the strong connection between Lodge and the Immigration Restriction League can be found in a scrapbook titled “Records of the Executive Committee of the Immigration Restriction League and the Meetings of the League, May 1894-December 1902, Volume 1,” Box 2, Records of the Immigration Restriction League, Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA. See also, Charles Warren, “Immigration Restriction League Annual Report of the Executive Committee for 1895,” submitted January 13, 1896, Box 7, Records of the Immigration Restriction League. See also Solomon, Barbara Miller, Ancestors and Immigrants: A Changing New England Tradition (Cambridge, MA, 1956).CrossRefGoogle Scholar

31 Lodge, Henry Cabot, “The Restriction of Immigration,” The North American Review 152 (January 1891): 2736Google Scholar and “Lynch Law and Unrestricted Immigration,” Ibid. (May 1891): 602–12. In the second article, Lodge decried the lynching of eleven Italians in New Orleans who had allegedly murdered a sheriff, but he accused the men of being part of the mafia, warning that an increase in southeastern European immigration would only increase the incidents of lynching because of the immigrants' connections with crime and vice.

32 Kline, Wendy, Building a Better Race: Gender, Sexuality, and Eugenics from the Turn of the Century to the Baby Boom (Berkeley, 2001), 5.Google Scholar

33 Bederman, , Manliness and Civilization, 5.Google Scholar

34 In his 1891 article, Lodge said that “The nations of Europe which chiefly contributed to the upbuilding of the original thirteen colonies were the English, the Scotch-Irish, so called, the Dutch, the Germans, and the Huguenot French. With the exception of the last they were practically all people of the same stock.” Lodge, , “The Restriction of Immigration,” 30.Google Scholar

35 Congressional Record, Fifty-Fourth Cong., First sess., 1896, 28, pt. 3:2819.

36 Ibid., 2820.

37 Often these definitions contrasted men with women, who did not possess these qualities. See Russett, Cynthia Eagle, Sexual Science: The Victorian Construction of Womanhood (Cambridge, MA, 1989), 81Google Scholar, 91. See also Rotundo, E. Anthony, “Learning about Manhood: Gender Ideals and the Middle-Class Family in Nineteenth Century America,” in Manliness and Morality: Middle-Class Masculinity in Britain and America, 1800–1940, eds., Mangan, J.A. and Walvin, James (New York, 1987), 3551.Google Scholar

38 Congressional Record, Fifty-Fourth Cong., First sess., 1896, 28, pt. 3:2819.

39 Ibid., 2820.

40 Ibid., pt. 6:5433.

41 Ibid., 5478.

42 Ibid., pt. 3:2820

43 Ibid., Second sess., 1897, 29, pt. 2:1936.

44 Ibid., First sess., 1896, 28, pt. 6:5435.

45 Ibid., 5436.

46 Ibid., Second sess., 29, 1897, pt. 2:1677.

47 Ibid., 1234.

48 Ibid., First sess., 1896, 28, pt 6:5422–23

49 Ibid., Second sess., 1897, 29, pt. 2:1230.

50 Ibid., 240.

51 Ibid., 1232.

52 Ibid., First sess., 1896, 28, pt. 6:5436.

53 Louisiana had a high percentage of Italian immigrants and Italian-Americans in their population, particularly in New Orleans, so it would make sense that Louisiana congressmen would stand up and defend Italian migration. Daniels, , Coming to America, 192–93.Google Scholar However, by the 1890s, Italians in Louisiana were facing more hostility. See Cunningham, George E., “The Italian, a Hinderance to White Solidarity in Louisiana, 1890–1898,” The Journal of Negro History 50 (January 1965): 2236.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

54 Congressional Record, Fifty-Fourth Cong., Second sess., 1897, 29, pt. 2:1926.

55 Ibid., First sess., 1896, 28, pt. 6:5481.

56 Ibid., Second sess., 1897, 29, pt. 2:1425.

57 Ibid., First sess., 1896, 28, pt. 6:5417.

58 Ibid., Second sess., 1897, 29, pt. 1:45–46.

59 Ibid., 72.

61 Lodge's contention that immigrant women posed a racial threat by their breeding foreshadowed eugenic arguments against immigrant women in the early twentieth century. See Irving, Katrina, Immigrant Mothers: Narratives of Race and Maternity, 1890–1925 (Urbana, 2000)Google Scholar and Nicolosi, Ann Marie, “‘We Do Not Want Our Girls to Marry Foreigners’: Gender, Race and American Citizenship,” NWSA Journal 13 (Fall 2003): 121.Google Scholar

62 Another interesting change was made in the conference that ended up being taken out. Some advocates of restriction also maneuvered to exclude a particular race they saw as undesirable — “Hebrews.” While the original House bill made literacy in “the English language or some other language,” after the bill had gone through the conference committee, it reemerged with the stipulation that immigrants read in English or the language of their “native country.” Lorenzo Danford, a representative from Ohio, admitted that the reason for this was to reach Russian Jews, many of whom could read Yiddish or Hebrew, but not Russian. Representative Henry Johnson of Indiana believed the change in language was necessary, for even though many Jewish immigrants could read, they were “utterly unable to discharge the duties of American citizenship. They add to our burdens and responsibilities without adding anything whatever to our energies and resources.” See Congressional Record, Fifty-Fourth Cong., Second sess., 1897, 29, pt. 2:1219, 1227.

63 Ibid., 1222–23.

64 Ibid., 1228.

65 Ibid., 1677.

66 Ibid., pt. 1:73–74.

67 Ibid., pt. 2:1921.

68 Ibid., pt. 3:2668.

69 Higham, , Strangers in the Land, 104–05.Google Scholar

70 Eugenicist Harry Laughlin, when testifying in favor of immigration restriction in the early 1920s, epitomized the change in attitude about immigration restriction when he said in his testimony, “the economic policy…is giving way in the United States to the biological, which weighs primarily the future basic or family stock welfare of the whole nation.” Ludmerer, Kenneth M., “Genetics, Eugenics and the Immigration Restriction Act of 1924,” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 46 (Spring 1972): 68, 76–78.Google ScholarPubMed

71 Daniels, , Coming to America, 284.Google Scholar

72 Congressional Record, Sixty-Eighth Cong., Second sess., 1924, 65, pt. 6:5902.

73 Ibid., 5669