What We’re Worth

There are many stories from Ellis Island. This is just one.

In 1917, Pauline Notkoff from Poland arrived at America’s standard point of entry for immigrants. And she faced the standard battery of questions for immigrants.

But she saw something that was not standard.

“They asked questions,” Ms. Notkoff said in a 1985 interview. “‘How much is two and one? How much is two and two?’ But the next young girl, also from our city, went and they asked her, ‘How do you wash stairs, from the top or from the bottom?’ She said, ‘I don’t go to America to wash stairs.'”

In that moment, the next young girl from Poland told America what she was worth.

Which is not standard.

It is standard to let the world tell us our worth. What we’re capable of. What we deserve.

And the world can lowball us.

Work might not pay us what we’re worth, partners might not love us for what we’re worth, friends and family might not recognize us for what we’re worth.

But it’s not their job to set our price.

Katharine Hepburn’s real name was Katharine Hepburn. She didn’t change it, like Francis Gumm to Judy Garland or William Henry Pratt to Boris Karloff.

Ms. Hepburn’s refusal to change herself made her rise to fame a bumpy one. And still she rose.

“It was not stubbornness,” Ms. Hepburn told reporters in the 1930s. “It was faith in myself.”

Faith in ourselves, determining our worth is our job, bumpy and non-standard though it may be. Such is our work.

And we cannot cede it to others. We didn’t come here to do that.

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