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Jennifer Guglielmo, Living the Revolution: Italian Women’s Resistance and Radicalism in New York City, 1880-1945

Chapel Hill, North Carolina, The University of North Carolina Press, 2010, pp. 432, $ 39.95.

By the dawn of the twentieth century Italians had become, along with Eastern European Jews and Spaniards, the principal disseminators of working-class radicalism in the Mediterranean and Atlantic basins. Italian loci of anarchism and revolutionary socialism – movements that overlapped in ideology and praxis – could be found then from Alexandria to London and Buenos Aires to New York. The book under review focuses on the latter city and neighbouring towns in north-eastern New Jersey, but retains a diasporic perspective that provides both a comparative framework and a lens into transnational connections with the homeland and its overseas offshoots.

The first third of the book develops this perspective. It explores female forms of sociability, solidarity, and resistance in the Italian Mezzogiorno, the region stretching from Campania to Sicily that furnished the bulk of the emigrants to the United States. The author trashes the stereotype of southern Italian women as apolitical, submissive victims of Mediterranean patriarchal controls and does so in a way that uncovers expressions and mechanisms of empowerment not only in secular radicalism but also in folk religion, mysticism, and quotidian behaviors related to the sex imbalance created by male emigration. Guglielmo then examines women’s work in the Mezzogiorno, the feminization of manufacturing labor there (particularly in the garment and textile industries), the formation of a proletarian diaspora in the Americas, and of racialized stereotypes about southern Italian women in both Italy and the United States.

The stereotypes related to race, color, and complexion tended to portray southern Italians as dark, swarthy, and either of partial «Negroid» ancestry or, more commonly, as racially inferior whites. These applied equally to women and men. The images related to behaviors were also gender neutral at a broad level insofar as they stressed cultural backwardness in general. But they did so in a dichotomous and dependent way, with men often appearing as violent mafiosi and controlling machistas, and women as the passive victims of Italian men’s primitive patriarchalism. In the United States this was contrasted unfavorably not only with the putative gender egalitarianism of native Anglo-Saxons but also with the presumed greater female independence and initiative among Ashkenazi Jews, the other large immigrant group arriving contemporaneously with Italians. The latter contrast surfaces with particular frequency in the historiography of the labor movement in the United States, where the activism of Jewish workingwomen is compared to the relative passivity of their southern Italian sisters.

Here Guglielmo again challenges common assumptions. She acknowledges that there were indeed significant differences between Jewish and Italian female workers. The latter entered the city’s needle trades at the bottom of the ladder, accounting for 98 per cent of the home-workers in the garment industry, and were thus less likely to work in factories and consequently less likely to join pre-existing labor unions. But the author uncovers a wide range of feminine action and power in a variety of activities and sites. Some of these are the type of spaces normally overlooked by laborhistorians: the home, the kitchen, the neighborhood, immigrants’ hometown associations, churches, etc. In Guglielmo’s apt words, the book enters these spaces «and moves them to the forefront of the analysis» (p. 3). In the process she encounters scores of strong willed women. Some were rough and with «a stevedore’s heart and mouth» (p. 111), as Natalia Garavente was described, although her son, Frank Sinatra, would claim that «the neighborhoodwas tough. She was firm.» Others were smooth or sly and more likely to project power through subterfuge. Whatever their personalities, Guglielmo demonstrates that southern Italian women constructed veritable webs of female sociability and contestation in spaces that are often dismissed or denounced as domestic and restraining.

The book’s focus shifts then to the more formal terrain of working-class politics. The first case could actually be called the politics of anti-politics. Anarchists refused to take part in electoral politics and indirect democracy, opting instead for direct organization and action. Women participated in anarchist circles, schools, theaters, and newspapers. They formulated a radical, class-conscious brand of feminism independent from the type based on bourgeois political demands that dominates the historiography of the women’s movement in the United States. A wave of strikes during the second decade of the twentieth century increased the participation of Italian immigrant women in industrial unions and led to the appearance of Italian local chapters of national labor organizations. The 1920s witnessed a peak in intra-Italian conflict with thousands of men and women joining, or more often siding with, fascist and anti-fascist groups. Divisions lessened in the following decades as the increasing presence of blacks and Puerto Ricans in Italian neighborhoods heightened fears, anti-black phobias, Italian ethnic unity, and white racial identity.

Guglielmo detects two distinct and somewhat contradictory forces here. On the one hand, conflict with new migrants was channelled through collective practices that reflected an ethos of working-class communalism not totally dissimilar from the ideologically antithetical movements of the anarchist heydays in the early twentieth century. On the other hand, Italians were engaging in the common practice of discriminating against the latest arrivals to strengthen their claims of membership in the receiving society and polity. Germans and Irish had used Italians for that purpose. But this time the process had a stronger and more permanent racial component.

Living the Revolutionis not without shortcomings. Race and whiteness are such leitmotivs that one is likely to forget that these were not critical concerns for Italian immigrants for most of the period the book covers, and that tensions with blacks actually peaked in the decades following World War ii. Presentism distorts the interpretation of the past in other occasions. Early twentieth-century anarchist women would have been surprised to learn that they were trying to emancipate themselves from «imperialism» and «white supremacy» (p. 270). «Libertines» appears translated as anarchists (p. 163), apparently because the term was confused with «libertarians» by the author. American «capitalism» appears more as an omnipresent trope than as an analytical category, and it is depicted in such monochromatically dark tones that one has to wonder about the judgment of the millions of Italians, and others, who decided to come to the United States. Upward socioeconomic mobility is never mentioned, except when it is dismissed as a myth. Yet it was precisely the desire for, and possibility of, upward mobility that explain why so relatively few women and men «lived the revolution» and why the revolution was so tame in the United States and other countries of mass immigration-countries that, we must remember, had the least repressive regimes anywhere in the world regarding labor organization and militancy.

But these flaws are irritating precisely because otherwise this is an outstanding work of scholarship, one that is deeply and creatively researched, beautifully written, often poetic and touching, and replete with information, illuminating ideas, and keen insights.

 

José C. Moya (Barnard College)

 

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