What 97 Orchard Street’s First Woman Voter Can Teach Us About American Identity
November 7, 2016

(originally posted on Huffington Post June 15, 2016)

As Hillary Clinton became the first woman to win the nomination of a major party in a presidential election, I thought about Sarah Burinescu, an immigrant mother who lived at 97 Orchard Street (now part of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum). In 1920 Burinescu was the building’s first woman to vote for president, a result of the 19th Amendment, and a milestone in US history. She registered as a Socialist, so she likely cast her first vote in 1920 for Eugene V. Debs, who won close to one million votes. While we can’t imagine who she would have voted for almost 70 years after her death, I can’t help but think how excited she might have been by Bernie Sanders’ progressive ardor, Clinton’s historic accomplishments, and the fact that children of immigrants—Sanders, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio— ran for the nation’s highest office. I am certain, however, that she would have been disheartened by the anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim and anti-woman sentiments surfacing in this election year.

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Burinescu’s experience as an immigrant mother, living in a tenement and a neighborhood teeming with first and second generation Americans of diverse origins and religions, helped her forge a cosmopolitan worldview that remains relevant at this political juncture. Care for their families bound immigrant mothers to a life of mind-numbing, repetitive and often unpaid labor, and they negotiated complicated economic hardships in the nation’s most crowded neighborhood. Mothers cleaned homes, tended to boarders, and raised children, all in 325-square foot apartments, just a scant few inches from their neighbors’ doors, their airshaft windows offering direct views onto neighbors’ apartments.  Burinescu, like others, turned tenement hardships into connections to neighbors, despite potentially differing backgrounds.

In 1920 the thirty-five year old Burinescu had five children. Having lost her beloved husband, Jacob, in the flu epidemic of 1918, she eked out a living cleaning homes and sewing clothes. Her daughter Jacqueline, born in the tenement just a few months after Jacob’s death, told the Museum how Sarah carried her to the factory in a basket, and how “I used to think she never slept because I went to bed, she was still up. And then when I got up in the morning she was up.”

Lacking a formal education, Burinescu was nonetheless well-schooled in the art of neighborly relations. She spoke English and Yiddish, and also conversational Spanish, Italian and Polish: “at the time they bargained, and she’d talk to you in your own language …” She might have spoken to vendors in these languages to get the best prices on cabbage and fish, but they also conversed about the weather, child-rearing, landlords’ demands, job opportunities, politics. She tended to sick neighbors, bringing them food, and helping to tidy their homes. Sharing hallways and toilets with neighbors from a variety of countries and shopping in a neighborhood that hummed with a variety of languages didn’t offer the space to cultivate extreme, hard-lined prejudices.

And as tenement dwellers overcame potential fears of difference, they often reaped the benefits of cross-cultural relationships. Jacqueline and her sister befriended Chinese sisters from the neighborhood who invited them to their home for meals, and also loved Burinescu’s potato pancakes. But these connections did not end with food:

“My mother says, “You learn to judge people by themselves and not what they are.” And that’s how we made friends, we weren’t taught bigotry or anything. There’s good and bad in every race, creed, or color. So you stay away from troublemakers and you make friends with the nice people.”

Shared experience in complex circumstances helped foster philosophies as simple and as sophisticated as Sarah Burinescu’s, and remind us that the tenements offer not just a window on prior waves of immigrants, but also lessons on women’s labor, ethnic interactions and working class challenges that are just as relevant today as they were a century ago. From the constricting tenement spaces and immigrant neighborhoods, an expansive and inclusive American identity gathered new energy, force and ambition. In this election season of heightened anxieties and xenophobia, the model of Sarah Burinescu and her neighbors urges us to uphold this expansive and inclusive American identity, and to “stay away from troublemakers” who use anti-immigrant, anti-woman and anti-Muslim invective.

  • Annie Polland, Senior Vice President for Programs & Education at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum