Defying Borders and Barriers: The Pioneer Greek American Women of the Letters (1900-1950)

  Patrona, Theodora. "Defying Borders and Barriers: The Pioneer Greek American Women of the Letters (1900-1950)." CHS Research Bulletin 11 (2023).

Visiting Scholar in Comparative Cultural Studies 2022-23


The information on the Greek American women in the intellectual and literary circles of the first half of the twentieth century is very little. The majority of immigrant women of Greek descent, especially during the first decades of the twentieth century are usually perceived as illiterate and destitute; they arrive in the U.S. often as picture brides and homemakers for the blue collar bachelors, an image also projected in Pantelis Voulgaris’s now classic 2004 film Brides.  The very few women known to be involved in journalistic, publishing and intellectual pursuits are a mere handful, an exception to the rule. This research was part of a long project aiming to bring to the fore the Greek female cultural production of those early times resulting to a more nuanced portait of the American women of Greek origin and a better appreciation of these women’s contribution to both their communities as well as contemporary American culture. 

The project

Working on my doctoral dissertation on contemporary return narratives by Greek American and comparing them to those of Italian American women some fifteen years ago, I realized the scarcity of Greek female presence in the first half of the twentieth century. As the late 20th century authors of the dozen narratives studied in my dissertation also complained about in their own writings, there were not many women of Greek origin in the letters to look up to apart from a handful: Demetra Vaka Brown, Maria Sarantopoulou- Economidou, Corinna Canoutas, Theano Papazoglou Margaris. Trying to shed light on the obscure presence of women of Greek origin as well as the sociocultural and historical parameters facilitating or obstructing them, I have been doing research in old newspapers and magazines, as well as archives gathering material in Greece (Thessaloniki, Athens and Heraklion Crete) and the U.S. (Tsakopoulos Hellenic Collection, California State University in Sacramento State, research fellow in 2013 and 2022). This project has produced an article published in 2015 with the Journal of Modern Hellenism titled The Forgotten Female Voices of the Greek Diaspora in the United States and drafts of a book that I aspire to complete and publish shortly.

Among the most central goals of this research and publishing activity is to assist in the production of a nuanced portrait of Greek American femalehood, disproving the sweeping generalizations as regards women and their sole categorization as recluse home makers (Xenides 86, Saloutos 85-87); as such it intends to trigger gradual but significant changes in the perception and, most importantly, self-perception, of Greek American womanhood with the resurfacing of prominent women of the letters. Iphigenia Guica Copadis (1893-1985), novelist, editor and scholar can easily be characterized as one of the most salient, yet still largely unknown forces, molding and shaping Greek American female identity in the first half of the century. Born in Trikala Greece, Copadis was a published author since 1921 in Paris where she published, Το Κορίτσι της Ταβέρνας: Έρως, Μέθη, Αφύπνισις (The Tavern Girl: Love, Inebriation, Awakening). Three more works would be published in the United States, the novella Gia to Psomi discussing the troubles of migration in metropolitan New York under the pseudonym Ifi (or Iphi) Tanagra and Η Μάγισσα (The Witch) in 1929. In 1962, Copadis published another novel in English on the historical figure of the Byzantine poet and hymnographer Kassiani titled The Stamp of Fate. A leading member of GAPA (Greek American Progressive Association), Copadis was a very active member in the Greek American intelligentsia and even published in the forties from her home in Manchester New Hampshire the Greek monthly women’s magazine Hellenitha ( for six years, 1949-1955)  before selling it out to another woman named Milly Gregou- Mourginakis. Copadis was also the editor and the major contributor in this exclusive female project. The magazine offered information, education and company to its often solitary women immigrant readers of Greek descent across the U.S.. It was initially written in Greek, turning into a bilingual edition and, later, a sole English one, and, thus, aptly projected the changing Greek female profile and educational background (Patrona 93-94). Oscillating between assimilation in the American landscape and the preservation of Greek identity and culture, this unique publishing venture deserves to be further discussed and researched for its part in the formation of Greek American femininity as well as the distinct roles of its female contributors, journalists like Maria Vryonidou.

A published novelist within the same time frame, the late forties, Avra (Aura) Ginieres Watson (1922-2014) is an additional example of a sophisticated and influential woman in education and her community. Born and raised in Lowell Massachusetts, the daughter of a Protestant minister, Ginieres Watson apparently spent some time in Thessaloniki working as a teacher for Anatolia, the American College of Thessaloniki, around 1945, following her graduation from Boston University. Processing her first-hand experience of the civil war creatively in her MA thesis for Boston University in 1949 titled Whirlwinds Lick The Dust, Ginieres Watson used this as the basis for her novel Meridian, published by Houghton- Mifflin in 1951. A rare novel by a Greek American woman,  daring to reflect on recent and painful atrocities, Ginieres Watson’s overall work and also her personality remain largely obscure to the scholar of Greek American studies. Completing her Ph.D. in Anthropology from the University of Pittsburgh, Ginieres Watson became a  Professor  at the University of Saskatchewan in Canada, interested in social change and gender among other fields. Her involvement in the local Greek Orthodox Church and community is a field that attract attention for further study. 

During the fellowship

With Copadis and Ginieres Watson being only two of the women of this ambitious research project, the Harvard Fellowship in Comparative Studies and the access key this provided to the wealth of the Harvard Library was obviously a unique opportunity to further add to my findings. Through Hollis I traced archival material on one of the earliest Greek American women novelists Mary Vardoulakis and the letters she exchanged with an important journalist, author and activist of the early twentieth century. Though this requires physical presence on campus, students of the CHS summer school program with whom I spent a week last summer discussing on Greek culture have promptly responded to my pleas for assistance and will photograph the rare material for me. The Harvard Key allowed me to download numerous clippings from newspapers on the early Greek American authors, mostly reviews on their works I had little idea of or access on. These reviews on the works of Ariadne Thompson, Ginieres Watson and Vardoulakis confirm my hypothesis that these women’s works, in stark contrast to the current lack of recognition, did not go unnoticed but were commented on.  The reviewers’ notes showcase the reception of the respective novels-mostly positive- and raise interesting questions as to the  acceptance of  the Greek ethnic community with special emphasis on female intellectuals. As American born women of Greek origin enter the higher U.S. educational institutions and enter  the literary production mostly from the 1940s onwards, the stereotypical depiction of Greeks as backward and illiterate people seems to be  changing with the process of “whitening” for this ethnic group further accelerated (Anagnostou 26). In this same train of thought, reviewers from the 1950s already mention the noteworthy works of women of Greek origin that add to to their contemporary so called melting pot literature and culture.

The last angle of my findings has to do with unpublished doctoral dissertations that I had not found before. Starting with as early as the 1950s and until the late 1990s  I downloaded from the Harvard digital library  numerous theses written on a gamut of topics ranging from acculturation and assimilation to the Greek media and women’s projections in them (Paraskevoudakis) . Taking the necessary time to carefully study them I believe will enable me to form a clearer idea of the context in which these women worked and produced possibly providing me with more leads to follow.


From a first examination of the book reviews, I have uncovered details on the lives and works of some of these women which have enriched the material I already had providing me with new names and book titles. Through these new entries, I have been fortunate enough to discover archival material in a Canadian University bestowed by one of the authors. I have not managed to read all the old dissertations but those I did look into contain useful information and bibliography that will surely help me better contextualize these early women of Greek origin in the U.S. intellectual circles  


I will optimize the findings for the completion of my book project. The contribution of the CHS fellowship will be mentioned in any articles related to this project as well as the book publication in the future. 

Selected bibliography

Anagnostou, Yiorgos. Contours of White Ethnicity: Popular Ethnography and the Making of Usable Pasts in Greek America.  Ohio UP, 2009.

Paraskevoudakis, Smaroula G. The Image of Women in Two  Leading Greek American Newspapers, 1900-1949. Unpublished Doctoral Dissertation. University of Maryland at College Park, 1997.

Patrona, Theodora D. The Forgotten Female Voices of the Greek Diaspora in the United States, Journal of Modern Hellenism Vol 31 (2015). 

Saloutos, Theodoros. The Greeks in the United States. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1964

Xenides. J,P. The Greeks in America. New York: Henry H. Doran Company, 1922.