You could probably count to fifty the number of American women who became doctors until the 1960s. Let’s imagine it’s 1930. My cousin Eleonora was 13. Her youngest sister Sadie had fallen off a stone wall–this was Pittsburgh with high hills. Holding Sadie’s hand on one side, with her mother, my aunt Jo, holding the other, Eleonora watched the doctor stitch up Sadie’s torn knee. As the doctor came downstairs and said good-bye, he patted Eleonora’s shoulder: “This young lady would make a wonderful nurse!”
“Oh, no, Doctor,” Eleonora responded, “I want to be a doctor just like you.” She’d watched their dogs give birth, she’d fetched water and cool cloths when her two younger sisters had fevers. She’d held slop basins for stomach flu. She was intrepid. But a doctor she was not to be because two things intervened: the Great Depression, and World War II.
I imagine it took great self-confidence in those days to claim for yourself a profession so entirely populated by men. Eleonora had it, in part because her father–in many ways the family’s nemesis–refused to see his three daughters mistreated. Eleonora began first grade a week late because the family took a brief vacation. When she entered the classroom and the teacher sent her to the blackboard, Eleonora broke the long piece of chalk. The teacher–nameless and featureless–hit her open palm with a ruler until it bled. Eleonora’s father was enraged. The next morning he accompanied her to school and asked the teacher to step out into the hall.
Remembering this now, Eleonora adds quickly, “My father could be charming, but he meant what he said. ‘If you hit my child, or any other child again and I hear about it, I’ll see you removed from the classroom.'” My branch of the family called him, years later, “Uncle Nick.” The last name Eleonora’s family used was “Carter,” though Sadie, grown-up but still rascally, would whisper to me, “Our last name was really ‘Capone,’ just like the gangster. But our father changed it. He didn’t want us associated with crime.” The whisper gave away the difficulty faced by Italian immigrants in the period before World War II. Often illiterate, speaking no English, they formed part of those “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” from Emma Lazarus’ poem written to raise money for the Statue of Liberty’s pedestal, then inscribed inside the base of the statue. It was easy for native-born Americans with English last names to discriminate against them. And Al Capone’s shenanigans didn’t help.
Now when I think about the Statue of Liberty, the last lines of Lazarus’ poem ring in my ears–
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost, to me
I lift my lamp beside the golden door–
I am deeply moved by the promise and the danger this entrance represented. So many immigrants were sent back–those with any perceived criminality, or illness, though Ellis Island did house and doctor some who were ill. Call It Sleep by Henry Roth, that modern classic first published in 1934 and republished thirty years later to sell one million copies in the Avon edition, educated me more fully about the lower East Side Jewish immigrant life than I could have gained any other way, outsider that I was, though living in New York and going to graduate school at Columbia.
But as I matured and became more attuned to what it meant to be an immigrant, especially those that entered the U.S. after the 1880s, those who found The Statue of Liberty both guarding the harbor and lighting their way forward, the more I grasped the wrenching, and often harsh environment waiting for them. For my father’s Italian-American family–beginning with my great-grandfather the Reverend Leonardo D’Anna who came through the port of New York in the early 1880s, as a religions refugee, a Protestant from Sicily–I know, truly outlandish–and ending with my grandfather’s entrance through Ellis Island in 1900–also a religious refugee of a sort, in that he’d renounced the priesthood, but hadn’t yet found his calling as a lawyer and Protestant minister–the immigrant experience deeply their psyche.
Even my father who married my German-American mother because, in addition to loving her, he wanted her to make him “thoroughly American,” even he, who moved us to South Carolina where he taught at The Citadel, even our family, so removed from the Italian clan in the north was deeply affected by confused ideas about who we were. It’s no wonder that I thrive teaching classes of students from Liberia, Somalia, Laos, Thailand, Mexico, and students whose ancestors were brought as slaves to this country, centuries ago. Emma Lazarus’ words included all our families: those “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” If Presidents’ Day means anything except a pro forma recognition of some who shone like beacons and others who threatened to sink the ship, it means a celebration of the captains that kept that promise of America burning, and opened the “golden door.”