While in recent decades labor historians have begun to pay closer attention to workers often excluded from traditional representations of labor history, women’s labor still struggles to obtain the same attention that male labor has commanded over time. The omission of minorities – or subalterns to adopt a Gramscian terminology – from traditional historical accounts of labor, coupled with a predominant attention to work defined only as «paid work in the public sphere» and a privileging of the economic over other aspects of everyday lives, has left us with a limited understanding of the overall history of labor. Ruberto’s book addresses some of these limitations by offering us a cultural analysis of four different forms of im/migrant women’s labor often through the analysis of non-traditional forms of historical documents such as songs, photographs, novels, testimonials, films, and documentaries. To fulfill her goal Ruberto adopts Antonio Gramsci’s thoughts on gender, work, culture and politics, coupling them with a feminist perspective that places intersectionality at its center. The result is an engaging work that guides the reader through very different sites ranging from Italian rice fields to California’s canneries, Italian-American homes as private spaces, and Italian homes as places of employment, weaving women’s labor with their experience of im/migration throughout most of the 20th century.
During this voyage Ruberto makes several important contributions. First of all, the book complicates labor history by making visible the work, both paid and unpaid, of subalterns, in this specific case Italian, Italian-American and immigrant women in Italy. This labor is often omitted, not only in traditional labor histories, as in the case of rice workers in Italy, but also from more popular cultural representations like the Italian American Hollywood films directed by Coppola and Scorsese. In their representations, the work of Italian American women, even the one performed in the private space of the kitchen, is ignored. In the process the book also highlights how work and the identity that stems from it differs according to different axis of inequality such as class, race/ethnicity, and nationality, but also by intersecting categories of culture, location, and generation. This theme, recurrent throughout the entire book, constantly reminds us of the importance of qualifying the category «woman», and that the labor of women, to be fully understood, needs to be examined as rooted in specific historical, economic, and geographical contexts.
Following Gramsci, Ruberto pushes the boundaries of what labor is, by demonstrating that work «does not end at the factory gates». She achieves that by closely analyzing the practices of every day life and thereby highlighting the continuum between productive and reproductive work, and the role of sexuality in informing all aspects of public life. In doing that she also challenges the artificial distinction drawn between private and public life, and shows, instead, how the two spheres constantly influence and redefine one another. This notion is made concrete in the separate chapters of the book through the analysis of: Renata Viganò’s 1962 novel Una storia di ragazze, the representations of paid domestic workers in Italy, and the figurations of Italian American women in the American cinematic tradition.
Additionally, and perhaps most importantly, Ruberto’s book engages with the complex issues of knowledge production in relation to consciousness raising and political change tackled by Gramsci. By juxtaposing different cultural representations of immigrant and migrant women and their labor in Italy and the U.S., Ruberto emphasizes their centrality to the production of culture, even when they are excluded from more mainstream hegemonic accounts. Moreover, she clearly delineates how the construction of their labor through different sites may alternatively support, challenge and redefine cultural hegemonic notions – showing us that cultural opposition is not necessarily linear but follows complex patterns that are not always easily understood by external observers.
Furthermore, by examining different cultural representations, some drawn from a more hegemonic cultural position, as in the case of the 1961 cookbook Ricettario della Felicità or the movies of Scorsese and Coppola, and others which, instead, center on the analysis of emigrant and immigrant women’s lived experiences, the author helps us understand how powerful a national (and potentially international)popular culture can be in providing an alternative to hegemonic cultural narratives. These alternative representations are particularly powerful when produced in collaboration with organic intellectuals who possess the tools to fashion these accounts of daily lives into coherent and effective counter narratives. This is the case, for example, for the live performance of the songs of traditional rice workers by Il Coro delle Mondine,the writings of Viganò, activist Thomas Martinez’s 1998-99 photo-inspired reunion project of former cannery workers in San Diego, ca, and to an extent, for the films Tarantella by Helen De Michiels and Households Saints by Nancy Savoca, as well as for Tina Modotti’s 1932 anti-war pamphlet addressed to the women workers of the world. Together these projects, while restoring women’s lives and labor to historical memory, provide also the opportunity for alliance-building, the promotion of class-consciousness, and a heightened awareness of subalterns’ overall function in the economic, political, and social spheres.
While overall Ruberto is successful in guiding the reader through her innovative interpretation of Gramsci’s work, in light of feminist theories, there is one concept that could use further development, that of international popular culture. In more than one instance throughout the book, Ruberto suggests that Gramsci’s concept of national popular culture, a notion elaborated in the context of the nation-state, should be transformed into that of international popular culture to transcend parochialism and to acknowledge the increasing complexity of modern cultures. This move is certainly useful to help adapt Gramsci’s thought to contemporary historical conditions. Yet, it does not seem to take into account either the complexity of knowledge production in a globalized world – where new popular cultures no longer emerge simply in relation to a single nation-states but often multiple ones – or the fractures created by globalization among different subaltern groups differently located in the current economic and political world order. This is not to say that Gramsci’s notion is no longer useful, rather that it needs to be re-imagined, taking into account the deep transformations of the contemporary world.
Aside from this, Ruberto’s book remains an innovative and engaging cultural product that, in making a significant contribution to Italian, Italian-American, Migration, and Gender Studies, will spark productive conversations in many classrooms.
Francesca Degiuli (College of Staten Island)