Women’s Enslavement: Yezierska on Marriage and Children

Initially I expected that I would focus my Anzia Yezierska research on cross-class relationships, but while reading Louise Levitas Henriksen’s biography of her mother today I came upon some juicy passages on marriage and having children. Clearly Yezierska had a fraught relationship with marriage and family and felt she was much more suited for a bohemian artist’s life without the shackles of domestic duties. Her daughter’s book is replete with descriptions of her spotty housekeeping and distracted and self-centered parenting.

After a very brief marriage to lawyer Jacob Gordon in 1910, (Yezierska left him the night after her marriage) she rekindled her relationship with Arnold Levitas. Gordon’s suit for separation from Yezierska six months after their wedding made the papers due in part to Yezierska’s rather unusual ideas about marriage, unusual as judged by the standards of the time. She states in the newspaper report in the New York American (May 23, 1911) that she had believed marriage was an “ideal state of perfected friendship, of flawless mental companionship” and “the work of propagating the race can be carried on by those whose convictions are in accord with natural lines upon this subject” (qtd. in Henriksen 37). Apparently she had married a man she admired greatly but was not sexually attracted to him. Curiously this article earned Yezierska a flurry of letters from people across the country praising her statement about the power of the platonic marriage.

In July of 1911 Yezierska married Levitas in a religious ceremony, but never had a civil ceremony because the annulment of her marriage to Gordon was not final.  Yezierska was about 30 at the time. In May 1912 gave birth to Louise during a lengthy stay at her sister Fannie’s house in Los Angeles. Louise’s father would ultimately adopt her to make her “legitimate.” According to Henriksen, almost immediately upon returning to New York and life with Levitas Yezierska began taking notes for a “true-confessions-style” piece entitled “The Supported Wife.” Yezierska writes:

Women who have known the independence of earning their own livings before marriage . . . feel most poignantly the humiliations they have to live through while being ‘supported.’ If there was some way out, they would all rush back to the offices, shops or factories. But they cannot go back . . . . By the time they realize the full meaning of being ‘supported,’ they have a baby or two to care for. A baby is like the ball and chain of the prisoner that keeps him bound to his cell. (qtd. in Henriksen 58)

A man can always put on his hat and go, I said bitterly to myself. But a woman with a baby– The massed social pressure of the entire world is against the mother who wants to get away from her place of bondage. . . . They do not have to use dogs . . . to hound the slave back to [her] master, they simply make it impossible for her to leave her baby anywhere (qtd. in Henriksen 58).

Henriksen suggests that many of Yezierska’s insights about marriage, money, and oppression come from her reflections about the marriage of her older sister Annie as “a poor man’s wife” (qtd. in Henriksen 60). After Louise was born Yezierska would often visit her sister Annie to commiserate about the drudgery and the inequality of their situations. Annie lived downtown on the Lower East Side in a crowded apartment with her husband and six children (six children at that time–more children were on the way), where she was also active in reform projects and local organizing. An experience Annie had with a social welfare agency was the original inspiration for Yezierska’s first published story “The Free Vacation House.”

By the time that Louise was four Yezierska and Levitas’s relationship was at its end. At this point Yezierska had already left once without advance word for more than a month to stay with her sister Fannie in California (this time without Louise), and then after spending nine more desperate months living with Arnold Levitas in the Bronx she moved out, coming back a few days later, during the workday, to retrieve her daughter from the nursemaid. Sometime soon after that Yezierska took Louse to California. Levitas learned that Yezierska had taken Louise and moved to California from a letter he received from a friend of his wife. In California she lived with her sister Fannie near Los Angeles, and then moved to San Francisco to pursue a relationship with poet Hugo Seelig. Seelig rebuffed her advances and Yezierska was devastated. In late October 1916 Yezierska’s sister Fannie took Louise back to New York to live with her father and paternal grandmother. After the age of four Louise lived primarily with her father, but visited her mother and seemed to maintain a close relationship with her especially in adulthood.

In December 1917, now back in New York and casting about for fulfilling work, Anzia Yezierska marched into the office of Columbia University Professor John Dewey with the intention of getting him to help her find a job in the public school system. Dewey had recently given a speech in which he decried the unjust firing of three teachers and she challenged him to put his words into action. She however had never liked the teaching positions that she had as a cooking teacher and didn’t really want another one, but she didn’t want the other jobs she could get either. In the end Dewey did not help her get a teaching job, but instead ended up giving her first typewriter to her, giving her a job with his Philadelphia project, and becoming the great love of her life. Their relationship lasted less than a year, but when it ended she threw herself into four years of self-imposed exile during which she wrote and enjoyed seeing one story after another in publication.

At this point Yezierska was free of the shackles of marriage and motherhood. She was no longer a “supported woman” but a working artist who made her own living, paid her own rent, and was free. Though life for Yezierska was never easy, even during her most successful years in the 1920s. She was an intense, intemperate, albeit charismatic woman who was driven to work and create at the expense of those around her.

Henriksen, Louise Levitas. Anzia Yezierska: A Writer’s Life. New Brunswick: Rutgers U P, 1988

3 thoughts on “Women’s Enslavement: Yezierska on Marriage and Children

  1. You don’t emphasize this, but I think it’s so fascinating that Henriksen is LOUISE LEVITAS Henricksen. Fascinating and problematic. Do you think this causes some difficulty in taking her as a source?

  2. I agree with you that it is simultaneously fascinating and problematic. One of the things that makes her biography so easy to read is that she crafts dialogue and settings that must be fictional or loosely based on what she knows of the past and her mother’s relationships. This is obviously enticing, but not verifiable.

    In her defense I think there are many insights that Henriksen may have thanks to her proximity to her subject that are invaluable to have documented. Also, Henriksen seems to have been able to offer the reader a rather convincing depiction of her mother’s personality and her interpersonal relationships that I haven’t found in other sources. Most sources that depict any of that information use Henriksen as a resource.

    Another difficulty with Yezierska is that much of her work appears to be semi-autobiographical, while being described as fiction and apparently the biographies that she wrote for magazines and publishers over the years are semi-fictional. So, getting a clear read on who Anzia Yezierska is difficult because there is so much information out there, but much of it is unreliable.

  3. I am working on a play about Anzia and her Stories. It will receive a reading in Philadelphia, PA. June 9, 2014. Are you still interested in these materials? Do you have any information about Anzia’s late stories? I believe she wrote stories about the Latino immigration to the Lower East Side of New York.. I am curious about that as well as any information about the letters and poems John Dewey wrote to Anzia.

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