In the late nineteenth century, an era in which social mobility was measured almost exclusively by the success of men, Irish American women were leading their ethnic group into the lower middle class occupations of civil service, teaching, and health care. Unlike their immigrant mothers who became servants of the rich, Irish American daughters became servants of the poor by teaching in public school classrooms. The remarkable success of Irish American women was tied to their educational achievements. Unlike many of their contemporaries, the daughters of Irish America attended four-year academic programs in high schools, followed by two to three years of normal school training. By the first decade of the twentieth century, Irish American women were the largest single ethnic group among public elementary school teachers in cities such as Boston, Chicago, and San Francisco.
Janet Nolan argues that the roots of this female-driven mobility can be traced to immigrant women's education in Ireland. Armed with the literacy and numeracy learned in Irish schools, Irish immigrant women in America sent their daughters, more than their sons, to school in preparation for professional careers. As a result, Nolan contends, Irish American women entered white-collar work at least a generation before their brothers. Servants of the Pooris a pioneering work which looks at the teaching profession at the turn of the century from the perspective of the women who taught in Irish and American classrooms.
Drawing on previously unpublished archival and manuscript sources, including memoirs and letters, Servants of the Poor will be of considerable value to those interested in Irish, Irish American, educational, and women's history.
Janet Nolan is professor of history at Loyola University Chicago.
“Janet Nolan examines the role single women played in the education and upward mobility of women in Ireland and the United States. In particular, Nolan focuses on public education and the critical part female teachers played in advancement of the Irish immigrant population in cities such as Boston, Chicago, and San Francisco. An excellent addition to any women's or immigrant history course.” —The Catholic Historical Review
“. . . a relatively short but well-researched and important contribution to American and modern Irish social history, particularly to U.S. education, immigration, and Irish-American history. . . . In the end, Nolan's scholarly but also deeply personal book is important not only for the ethnic and gender 'success story' it relates but for the other, more ambiguous, and even painful issues that it raises.” —Journal of Social History
"This engaging and highly readable book demonstrates the place of Irish immigrant women schoolteachers in American labor history." —Journal of Interdisciplinary History
"Servants of the Poor tells a story of immigrants, of women, and of teachers. It is marked by the scholarship of a historian, the commitment of a feminist, and the heart of a teacher. This study by Janet Nolan is a valuable contribution to the general history of the Irish diaspora, but it has two particular points of further interest. First, it has a specific focus on Irish women who emigrated from their homeland to America. Second, it locates these women in terms of their early education in Ireland and of their own or their children's subsequent careers in teaching in America." —Teachers College Record
"Nolan's book would be a rich resource for undergraduate and graduate students in the study of the history of education as it adds a social, political, and critical element to the consideration of how US school systems were shaped by Irish American women and how these women were able to move from the working class to the educated lower middle class, paving the way for their male counterparts to be more likely to achieve similar status. Highly recommended." —Choice
"Offering statistical as well as anecdotal sources to support her arguments, Nolan verifies what students of Irish American history recognize as footnotes in other works: that Irish and Irish American women made up significant, if not majority, proportions of the public school faculty at the turn of the twentieth century. This is a fascinating window on the past, particularly in light of contemporary battles in the classroom and the state of the public school in America. . . . Her valuable work only begins to tell us the contributions and controversies that the Irish brought to American education." —American Catholic Studies
"Servants of the Poor is a model of detailed research and skillful writing. From letters, memoirs, interviews, family lore, and photographs, the generations of women come alive. Nolan's study emphasizes the female-driven group mobility of Irish Americans that came through teaching. . . Because the accounts are so compelling, the reader is left wanting more." —The Journal of American History
“Janet Nolan's Servants of the Poor adds to the growing literature on the role that women played in Irish assimilation and social mobility in the United States . . . The Irish-American women public school teachers studied here offer information both on women's lives and on the dynamics of Irish assimilation . . . a major accomplishment.” —New Hibernia Review
"This book should appeal not only to readers with Irish connections to all three cities examined but also to teachers, students in education courses, or anyone interested in the rise of unions in the United States." —Cistercian Studies Quarterly
"In this slim, engaging volume, Janet Nolan examines the role of education and teaching in the lives of Irish Americans in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. . . Nolan's work is impressive. . .She has provided an informative description of Ireland's educational system and has offered many new insights into the challenges that Irish American teachers faced. This work will appeal to readers interested in Irish America, women's history, and the history of education." —American Historical Review