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Going to America Because of a Hat
by Vida Gorjup Posinkovic
Translated by Christina Strojan

There are many cases of decidedly female migrations in the history of Slovene emigration, from the "aleksandrinke" in Egypt and the »slamarice« or makers of straw hats in the USA to the "kostanjarice", women selling chestnuts, in Europe. Usually women migrated abroad to follow their husbands. From existing documentation we learn very little about these women, their education, their class or their reasons for leaving. Even their names are rarely found on the various lists yet they played a crucial role in preserving our emigrants' Slovene identity and roots.

Women expatriates were the subject of a three day international conference organised by the Institute for Emigration Studies at the Scientific Research Centre of the Slovenian Academy of Sciences and Arts (ZRC SAZU) at the end of October. Historians, sociologists, ethnologists, archivists, and guests from abroad took part in the discussion which presented female Slovene emigrants from many different perspectives. The result was a complex and multi-layered image of female emigration and the role women played in preserving Slovene culture abroad.

According to historian Dr. Marjan Drnovšek, female emigration was mostly connected with accompanying their husbands and less to the women's own wishes and initiative. Cases of exclusively female emigration were mostly confined to one region. Thus the "aleksandrinke", who found employment as nursemaids in Egypt during the construction of the Suez Canal originated from the Vipavska region whereas the »slamarice«, who left for America to manufacture hats, all came from Domžale. Nuns from Prekmurje left for France, while women from the Primorska region moved to Yugoslavia between the World Wars. The so-called slave trade has not yet been researched in detail.

The most common reasons among women for emigrating were to earn their dowry and to help their families. As Dr. Aleksej Kalc from the Science and Research Centre of Koper noted, their going abroad was a family decision made in order to help them recover from poverty though the move was considered temporary. However, despite the fact that these sisters and daughters left home with a heavy heart and a clear goal in mind, they seldom returned. In their new environment they quickly developed a social network and settled down. This environment was often more progressive and liberal than their home environment. This was most notable in the US where, at that time, the movement for the rights of workers and women was very strong.

The Custodians of Traditional Values

The role of women abroad of course depends on our point of view, emphasised sociologist Dr. Marina Lukšic Hacin. If we regard it from the standpoint of preserving our cultural heritage, their role was crucial. With emigration the processes which are vital for preserving our identity as Slovenes move from the public into the private sphere, which in a patriarchal society is ruled by women. In emigration, women pass on the main values and symbols of identity to the younger generation. They take care to preserve the mother tongue, usually in the form of dialect and to convey the emotional relationship with their homeland to their children.
However, despite all efforts to preserve them, values change with the second generation. First generation emigrants carry from their homeland things that are most dear to them, things that they can identify with. Because throughout history emigration was most common among the lower and middle classes, the symbols of identity, from music and books to food, comply with their social backgrounds. But for the young people who haven't had the opportunity to develop an emotional bond with their country of origin, these symbols seem remote; they therefore quickly adopt the symbols of their generation in their own environment.

This, of course, does not mean that they are neglecting their roots. Often the lack of tolerance older generations show towards a different perception of traditional values displayed by the young is the main reason for the generation gap in Slovene communities and accelerates the process of assimilation of the young. However it would be interesting to determine what importance the younger generation places on the original symbols of identity once it gets older, says Dr. Lukšic Hacin.

The American Dream

One of the most powerful emigration stereotypes is the conviction that all things abroad are better. Its origins are probably in the early years of the last century in the US and it has been preserved by a collective lie, both by the emigrants themselves and their relatives at home. In truth the conditions were bad, they lived modestly, and everything that was sent home was taken out of their own mouths. Sometimes life in America was even harder than at home, but acknowledging this would mean admitting that their decision to go abroad was bad and the sacrifice needless. Joe Valencic from the US remembers his mother telling him about the time she arrived in America, in 1929 during the Great Depression, when she faced harsher poverty and greater social insecurity than in her native Brkini.
On the other hand, the letters from America of a member of the Slovene minority in Hungary, presented by Marija Kozar Mukic, show a huge leap in the quality of social status. The young girl was shocked when she moved from the decidedly patriarchal environment of Porabje to America, the land of civil rights and the women's liberation movement. Regardless of the circumstances in which they lived, the emigrants were always fond of displaying their humble fortunes. And sometimes a lavish hat on the head of an immigrant would be enough to stir in the local wives and girls a fervent wish to go abroad.

The case of emigration to the US is also interesting because of the response of the majority population towards individual groups and the pressures on them to integrate. The idea of the famous melting pot, in which the many ethnicities should merge into one common American nation was, in the second half of the 20th century, reversed. Suddenly it was not enough to be an American, you had to have something else besides, and that something could only be ancestral roots leading back to your homeland. Nowadays ethnicity is no longer preserved in order to survive but to retain a sense of meaning.

According to Dr. Mirjam Milharcic Hladnik, who researched the life-stories of Slovene women in the US, America was especially attractive to women in the field of education and employment. But it is interesting that it was in the USA that women did not have the opportunity to pass their culture on to their children. While they were still mainly employed in the home, society was ruled by the influence of the melting pot and when »new ethnicity« came into being, women were, in general, already employed outside the home, and the children left in the care of public institutions.

Female Emigration Today

The history of female emigration is full of dramatic stories and great sacrifices along with great achievements and many happy moments. Thus Dr. Mihael Kuzmic presented the life and work of the school sisters in Bethlehem and the crucial role they played in educating and preserving the Slovene culture among the emigrants from Prekmurje from the beginning of the 20th century to the 1970s. Dr. Zvone Žigon spoke about Slovene missionaries while Joseph Valencic strolled through American film, presented the first film containing the Slovene words I love you or "ljubim te" and discovered a film diva of Slovene origins, Nora Gregor. He also mentioned the famous young emigrant Melanie, the beautiful bride of Donald Trump.

Modern women however who choose to emigrate belong to another story, presenting a different image of the female expatriate and her different attitude towards going abroad. According to Dr. Lukšic Hacin, women today certainly do not go abroad in search of lush hats or husbands. They leave mostly to gain knowledge. Their main goals are education, employment and later professional careers, where they are already catching up with the men. For some time now, women have been more successful in their studies than men, thus gaining access to scholarships and opportunities of studying abroad, which in turn leads to better jobs with more responsibility. If we add the effects of positive discrimination, enjoyed by women in certain social areas on account of their previous neglect, the complete image of her social status is much improved. As Slovene Women were always great fighters, there are an increasing number of success stories among the expatriates of today.

(Content abstracted from "Slovenija.svet December 2004" published by
Slovenska izseljenska matica.)