The lives of Famine-era Irish immigrant women are far harder to trace than those of their male kinfolk. In most cases, an unmarried twenty-year-old immigrant working as a domestic servant in 1850 would have married and taken a new name by 1860, making it all but impossible to track her over a significant period of time. That is why Moving Beyond “Rags to Riches” tracks more Irish immigrant men than women.
The Emigrant Savings Bank records, however, allow us to reconstruct the lives of more female Famine-era immigrants than has previously been possible. The vast majority of Irish-born women who worked for pay in this era did so as either domestic servants or seamstresses, and you will find dozens of documents in this section on both those groups. We also provide a set of documents on female Irish business owners. Many of these women took over businesses that their husbands had run until they died. Others ran businesses even though they had a living husband who also worked at some other trade, while a few female business owners had never been married at all. The final document set organized around women is made up solely of widows. We imagined that these women, who typically had many small children, would be the poorest members of New York’s Irish immigrant community. But as this document set shows, many women, once given the chance, turned out to be better breadwinners than their husbands. Others got help from siblings, in-laws, or parents, while still others put their children to work. As a result, while widows’ bank accounts did have about 20% less, on average, than those of married women, widows were not typically as impoverished as we had imagined.