Women's voices, America's history.
The most remarkable part of National Public Radio's new 10-part series is its voices. Voices of hardship. Voices of wisdom. Voices of people who have left behind one way of life for a completely different one.
Voices of America's immigrant women.
Beginning today (check local listings for premieres and repeats) is NPR's The Golden Cradle: Immigrant Women in the United States. It's the story of some of the country's most rugged heroes.
There's Pauline Newman, a survivor of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911 and one of the organizers of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union. She vividly recalls the sweatshops:
''You worked seven days a week, and if you didn't come in on Sunday you were fired on Monday.'' Caught talking, you were fired as well. She and a friend survived the fire because they left the work area to complain that their paychecks were 25 cents short.
There's another immigrant woman whose deep desire was to understand English. ''(When I went) to the movies . . . they were silent movies (then), I watched those letters, (though) I didn't know English at all. . . . Every time I walked New York streets I would look at the signs and I would try to put it together. And I learned how to read. Just like that.''
For many, the trip to America was made as much for learning as for getting enough to eat.
We visit some immigrant neighborhoods. Women in the Lower East Side of Manhattan speak of the squalor of early immigrant tenements. A woman in Lowell, Mass. - where industrial America, many say, was born - talks about look-down-the-nose discrimination in earlier years against those of non-English background. And from New York's Chinatown there's a worrisome story of overcrowding.
''It is the greatest migration human history has recorded,'' remarks series host Mandy I. Bynum. During the past century and a half, she continues, 46 million people have come to the US. They came from Europe - from Russia to Ireland - and from across the world in China and Japan. Today it's continuing, many coming from Central and South America.
But the program is not about population statistics. It's about the lives and experiences of these immigrants, many of whom were not easily accepted by their adopted country.
The struggle for education and for a more just standard of living, their contributions to the arts, and the challenges waiting for those who choose to come today - these topics develop among the stories and descriptions of those who became Americans.
It's a legacy on tape. A visit through voices with early 20th-century immigrants - and today's newcomers. And it's a record that one hopes will survive.
As such, it's regrettable that on this, so significant an aural document, voices of the men were not saved, too. This said, it is understandable that a particular immigrant experience - the experience of women - would be chosen to be told. The men have been the stars of so many historical accounts.
At the same time, one cannot escape the feeling that the program's writers began with a sociological and emotional agenda - that of a narrow-minded country reluctantly accepting and often persecuting its worthy immigrants. That may in many cases have been true. A bit more could have been said about the great opportunities that were provided in America - and its willingness, albeit reluctantly, to accept this tremendous wave of people. This would have lent more balance.
Nonetheless, this is an eminently worthwhile effort. And the voices breathe life into one of this country's most poignant and important stories.
Soundscape Inc., an independent, nonprofit organization, created ''Cradle'' for NPR, with Deborah George and Louise Cleveland as coproducers. Views from Deborah George
''My grandmother was a good storyteller. (She had) a sense that her life was an adventure,'' says Deborah George, part of the team that made ''Cradle.'' It was her grandmother, and recent reprints of writings by novelist Anzia Yezierska about immigrants, that inspired her role in producing the series.
Ms. George grew up in an immigrant community, so she speaks with some authority. ''The immigrant experience is a lifelong experience. You are always caught between two worlds. When the older people in my (Greek and Italian) family used the term 'American,' they meant 'others.' ''
And how were the people found whose voices create the wealth of this program? ''We put the word out (to) churches, social-service agencies (and other organizations).'' In one case, however, an idle chat on a train trip resulted in their finding - and interviewing - two survivors of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire.
''Many of the women were very eager (to talk). Younger women not so much.'' Older women, she continued, often become accomplished storytellers. But ''their memories were very stylized. It was almost a memory of a memory.''
But why not include something about the nation's early settlers, who were also immigrants?
Their reasons, she said, were ''very practical.'' The program was already a huge undertaking, and to include the complete immigrant experience would have required 20 parts.