Migration is essentially a life changing experience for people immigrating to a foreign nation that contains foreign customs, family values and structures, languages and laws. For many Cuban and Vietnamese women that had come to the United States during the 1960s and 1970s, the lives that they had once known no longer existed, as their public and private lives in America had become revolutionized. Before migration, women’s roles in the public and private domains were controlled by their family patriarchs, either by their husband or father, who had secluded them to a life of domesticity. Migration, especially to America, changed this ‘way of life’ for women as they experienced changes that would not have been possible without migration.
The Immigration and Nationality Act 1965
The multicultural America that we all know today would not have been made possible without the signing of the Immigration and Nationality Act by President Lyndon Baines Johnson in 1965. This act presented a historic turning point in American history as America opened its doors to welcome huge groups of immigrants from around the world, especially refugees from Vietnam and Cuba. Previous to the Immigration Act, the 1924 Johnson-Reed Act had put a restriction on immigrants who looked anything less than an Anglo-Saxon. This law evidently prohibited immigrants coming from Asian countries such as Vietnam and China, who were immediately rejected from entering the US based on their physical appearance.
American Society during the 1960s and 1970s
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Americans had experienced significant social changes that played a key role in changing the lives of Americans and immigrants. The civil rights movement in the 1960s fostered a major shift in racial politics that demanded racial equality in America. The 1965 Immigration and Nationality was essentially born out of the civil rights movement and the 1964 Civil Rights Act, as racial prohibition was no longer acceptable in America. Furthermore, Robert D. Schulzinger, in A Time For Peace: The Legacy of the Vietnam War (2006), notes that changes in American society during the 1960s and 1970s were “the greatest for women.” Before the women’s liberation movement in the US, women had already begun to step outside of their domestic spheres and into the workforce to gain social and economic independence. The formation of the women’s liberation movement in the 1960s had given women the opportunity to publically fight for radical social change in relation to gender issues.
Changing Gender Roles of Immigrants
As a result of the social changes, immigrant families were presented with a country that no longer maintained the traditional family structures that required the woman to stay within the domestic context. In their attempts to assimilate into American society, immigrant families experienced a breakdown in traditional patriarchal order. However, the effects of this breakdown did not have the same positive effect for men, as it did for women. Immigrant men found this breakdown to be an extremely difficult experience as they had lost their authoritative and dominant roles. Nazli Kibria quotes a Vietnamese immigrant man, in Family Tightrope: The Changing Lives of Vietnamese Americans (1993), who commented on his lack of authority in his family:
“In Vietnam the man of the man of the house is king. Below him the children, then the pets of the home, and then the women. Here, the woman in king and the man holds a position below the pets.”
As immigrant men lost their traditional modes of power, women started to gain more power and autonomy in both their public and private lives through these social changes. During this period of time, Americans still valued the idea of the nuclear family in which women were the domestic housewives and the husbands were the breadwinners. In the domestic spheres, immigrant women had become the authority figures in their homes as a result of the value put on women in America. Female immigrants benefited from this social value put on them as they were no longer subject to traditional male authority in the domestic spheres. The greatest impact migration had on the lives of migrant women was the opportunity to gain an income – earning money was not always available or considered to be a ‘woman’s job’ in Vietnam and Cuba. Therefore, women found income earning empowering and fulfilling as it had allowed them to contribute to caring and providing for their family’s needs.
Did migration really impact the lives of migrant women?
Social change in America evidently impacted the lives of immigrant women, as their traditional domestic roles were no longer the only occupational opportunities available to them. To immigrants, America represented a nation of opportunity and freedom that was not previously available to them. Consequently, many immigrant women had welcomed American social change into their lives as it had given them the opportunity to challenge their traditional subordinate roles, and to seek more independent and autonomous positions that were available to them in America.
Gabaccia, Donna. From the Other Side: Women, Gender, and Immigrant Life in the U.S., 1820-1990. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994.
Hondagneu-Sotelo, Pierrette. “Feminism and Migration.” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 571 (2000): 107-120.
Kibria, Nazli. Family Tightrope: The Changing Lives of Vietnamese Americans. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993.
Schulzinger, Robert D. A Time for Peace: The Legacy of the Vietnam War. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.