Linda Gordon’s historical monograph entitled, The Great Arizona Orphan Abduction, discusses the shifting ideas about race, class, and gender in twentieth-century Arizona. This book investigates a case that involved Irish children, from New York, who were being taken to Arizona in hopes of a better life. This “better life” was more invested with class and preventing poverty than it was about race. Gordon’s central theme of the book discusses the intersection of “Mexican-Anglo relations” (x). Gordon presents this story in a multifaceted way by looking at the Anglo’s motive and intentions, while also discussing how race and class differed within the same nation. The story starts out with a grim depiction of immigrant life in New York. Children were suffering at the hands of poverty and were struggling to survive. In the nineteenth and twentieth-century religious organizations, specifically the Catholic Church, were intervening and removing children from impoverished living conditions and re-locating them with different families. Gordon discusses these particular event in 1904 in North Clifton Arizona. In this particular event Gordon focuses took Irish immigrant children to new families that could provide an adequate life for them in Arizona. The one difference was the race of the children did not match the race of their new families. Instead it matched their socio-economic status.
This is where we see the intersection of race, class, and gender in this monograph.
In Arizona the potential parents were Mexican and the type of labor that was common among this group seemed to be the best fit for the orphan immigrants. This was not seen as an improper race placement but a proper class and religious placement. The immigrant children were being placed with class appropriate family structure. Gordon notes this as the “‘wageworkers’ frontier,’” in which the affiliation to ones class would structure the whole way of life (25). The national movement to find better jobs and more opportunity was not only in the working class adults frontier but also in children’s frontier history.
Out of competitive class structures race and gender became more solidified and produced a ridged rhetoric by the twentieth-century. In the case of the orphan train from New York to Arizona, race was being constructed in a very gendered way. The train pulled up to Clifton Railroad Station on the evening of October 1, 1904, with the children prepared to enter their new lives, with the families that would best fit them in terms of class and religion. But something in particular happened on that night, a racialized lens of ownership came upon those children by Anglo women who watched these children come off the train and go home with their new Mexican parents. The Anglo women noticed their light skin and proposed that the children needed to be with them and not the Mexican women and families (41). This started a several month long battle that would end up constructing notions of race, class, and gendered politics for Clifton Arizona. Race was dictated in this case not only by looks but in how these children should be raised, ultimately by white mothers. Motherhood then became one of the most controversial constituter of race in the case of the orphan abduction of Arizona in 1904. This is a provocative historical case study and would be interesting for those interested in United States history and women and gender studies history. I will warn it is a long text but it is filled with historical details that provide to her overall study and thesis.