[This is further testimony about sexual harassment and abuse in steerage class, taken from testimony given by a female government inspector, disguised as an immigrant aboard ship, reporting in 1909 to the Dillingham Immigration Commission.]
“There was an outside main deck and an upper-deck on which the steerage were allowed. These were each about 40 feet wide by 50 feet long, but probably half of this space was occupied by machinery, ventilators, and other apparatus. There was no canvas to keep out the rain, sun, and continual showers of cinders from the smokestack. These fell so thick and fast that two young sailor boys were kept busy sweeping them off the decks.
“It is impossible to remain in one’s berth all the time, and as there were no smoking and sitting rooms , we spent most of the day on these decks. No benches or chairs were provided, so we sat wherever we could find a place on the machinery, exposed to the sun, fog, rain, and cinders. These not only filled our hair, but also flew into our eyes, often causing considerable pain.
“These same two outdoor decks were used also by the crew during their leisure. When asked what right they had there, they answered: ‘As much as the passengers’ No notices hung anywhere about to refute this. The manner in which the sailors, stewards, firemen, and others mingled with the women passengers was thoroughly revolting. Their language and the topics of their conversation were vile. Their comments about the women, and made in their presence, were coarse. What was far worse and of continual occurrence was their handling the women and girls. Some of the crew were always on deck, and took all manner of liberties with the women, in broad daylight as well as after dark.
“Not one young woman in the steerage escaped attack. The writer herself was no exception. A hard, unexpected blow in the offender’ face in the presence of a large crowd of men, an evident acquaintance with the stewardess, doctor, and other officers, general experience, and manner were all required to ward off further attacks. Some few of the women, perhaps, did not find these attentions so disagreeable; some resisted them for a time, then weakened; some fought with all their physical strength, which naturally was powerless against a man’s. Others were continually fleeing to escape. Two more refined and very determined Polish girls fought the men with pins and teeth but even they weakened under this continued warfa.re and needed some moral support about the ninth day. The atmosphere was one of general lawlessness and total ‘disrespect for women. It naturally demoralized the women themselves after a time. There was no one to whom they might appeal. Besides, most of them did not know the official language on the steamer, nor were they experienced enough to know they were entitled to protection.
“The interpreter, who could and should be a friend of the immigrants, passed through the steerage but twice a day. He positively discouraged every approach. I purposely tried on several occasions to get advice and information from him, but always failed. His usual answer was, ‘How in the d—do I know?’ The chief steerage steward by his own familiarity with the women made himself impossible as their protector. Once when a man passenger was annoying two Lithuanian girls, I undertook to rescue them. The man poured forth a volley of oaths at me in English. Just then the chief steward appeared, and to test him, I made complaint. The offender denied having sworn at all, but I insisted that he had, and that I understood. The steward then administered this reproof, ‘You let them girls alone or I fix you —— easy.’
“The main deck was hosed every night at 10, when we were driven in. The upper deck was washed only about four times during the voyage. At 8 each evening we were driven below. This was to protect the women, one of the crew informed me. What protection they gained on the equally dark and unsupervised deck below isn’t at all clear. What worse things could have befallen them there than those to which they were already exposed at the hands of both the crew and the men passengers would have been criminal offenses. Neither of these decks was lighted, because, as one sailor explained, maritime usage does not sanction lights either in the bow or stern of a vessel, the two parts always used by the steerage. The descriptions that I might give of the mingling of the crew and passengers on these outdoor decks would be endless, and all necessarily much the same. A series of snapshots would give a more accurate and impressive account of this evil than can words. I would here suggest that any agent making a similar investigation be supplied with a Kodak for this purpose.”
[Read more about immigrants and Ellis Island in my historical novel, Guardians of the Gate.]