ITALIAN WOMEN IMMIGRANTS

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1 ITALIAN WOMEN IMMIGRANTS by MARY E. FUTRELL Between 1880 and 1913, almost 4 million Italians left their homeland and its chronic under-employment, low wages, increasing population pressures, and worsening agricultural conditions. 1 Males in search of work led the migration chain, seeking immediate employment to earn money, improve their family s economic fortunes, and eventually return to Italy. Wives and mothers typically stayed behind, managing both the family s domestic and economic affairs. Sociologists commented that Italians do not come to America to find a home, (they) come to earn money to help their dire financial conditions at home. Many leave Italy with the firm intention of returning home. But when they are here, many do indeed stay. 2 Once settled permanently in the United States, men sent for their wives and children to join them. In America, Italian women had to adapt to a new social and economic situation. While family and community remained central to Italian social and economic life, as well as the basic tasks of raising children and providing for the family, women demonstrated both flexibility and resourcefulness in meeting these obligations to work and family. 1

2 Family Life Family dominated the lives of Italian women. Whether a woman worked outside the home or not, most of her activities were influenced by family demands. While men typically dominated family affairs, demanding deference and respect from their wives, women often made critical decisions about family strategies, especially during the process of migration when the frequent, extended absences of husbands led to wives acting as decision-makers by default. The powerful emotional role played by Italian wives and mothers is reflected in the proverb If the father should die, the family would suffer; if the mother should die, the family ceases to exist. 3 The marital relationship that sustained the family was considered an inviolate lifetime commitment. Men usually entered into marriage in their twenties and women in their late teens. Divorce was uncommon. Both men and women had well-defined roles: men were the primary breadwinners and protectors, while women were responsible for the household and the children. 2

3 Italian family has been called "father-dominated but mother-centered." 4 The males typically dominated family affairs, and women were expected to be submissive and respectful of their husband. However, women often made critical decisions about family strategies that affected all members of the household, especially during the period of migration when frequent and often extended absence of the led to the wife acting as decision-maker by default. An Italian proverb testifies to the importance of the woman in the household: "If the father should die, the family would suffer; if the mother should die, the family ceases to exist." 5 Italians traditionally considered marriage a lifetime commitment. Men usually entered into marriage in their twenties, and women in their late teens. Divorce was uncommon. Within the household established by marriage, the economic and family roles were closely related and both men and women had well defined roles. Men were the primary income-producers and protectors, and women were responsible for the household and children. The head of the family takes the responsibility of protecting the women and girls very seriously, and for this reason women have little life outside their homes. Within the homes, however, the wife directs the household and it is not unusual for her to take the lead in family affairs, such as the expenditure of money, plans for the children, or the choice of friends. 6 Their supervision of the domestic economy gave women a large measure of influence in the household. They exercised 3

4 control over the family finances. All wage earners were expected to turn over their earnings to the mother, who would distribute the money as needed to cover expenses. Most of the money went to cover costs associated with food and shelter. But wives were clearly in a position to influence how any surplus was distributed or spent. Women also played the crucial role in raising children and training them for adulthood. For example, mothers would teach their daughters how to perform household duties, decide if the daughters should attend school, and take part in finding them suitable husbands. Traditionally marriages were arranged for the marrying parties by the parents of the bride and groom. 7 To ensure that a daughter could secure a suitable marriage partner, the girl was strictly supervised after she reached adolescence. When a girl reaches twelve her freedom comes to an end; she is considered old enough to put away childish things. Until she is married she is not supposed to have any interest outside her home except school or work, and with these two exceptions she is not supposed to be out of her mother's sight. 8 This Italian strict system of chaperonage meant that girls above the age of twelve were not permitted in the company of unrelated males unless they were accompanied by a female relative. 4

5 Married women s responsibilities kept them close to home among family and neighbors. While kin and neighbors made up the social world of Italian women, men inhabited a separate social sphere from their wives, and usually enjoyed more recreational time as well. Since women often spent months with no husband, father, or brother at home, as the men followed seasonal employment opportunities, female social networks became a crucial part of women s lives. These networks, rooted in cooperation between family and neighbors, promoted the well being of the entire community. 9 5

6 Working Women married Italian women worked outside the home, concluding: The greater part of the Italian women of the city attend to household duties in the home and do not go out to employment. This is in accord with the customs of Italian families throughout America. 10 Other surveys, however, indicate that the number of Italian women that worked outside the home was In the struggle to survive, every member of the Italian family played a role in its economy. Most Italian families in America were large, poor, and headed by men whose unskilled labor brought low wages. The precarious economic status of many Italian families required them to stray from the traditional patriarchal ideal in order to survive. Women and children occasionally found it necessary to find employment outside of the home, and some women took in boarders. In 1919, the Chicago Department of Public Welfare conducted a survey indicating that only 2.78% of higher. The fact that these surveys do not distinguish between married and unmarried women suggests that many of these workers were single women. 6

7 Some Italian women pursued the option of homework to supplement the family income. In general, women and young children dominated the homework industry. The garment industry, for example, was highly decentralized and women could take in pieces to do finishing work at home. The garment industry also provided many factory jobs as well. In general, Italian mothers supervised homework, and the children, usually the daughters, would assist. Women that did enter the workforce were primarily single and typically employed as unskilled labor in workshops. This suggests that the traditional, patriarchal ideal of keeping daughters close to home until marriage was not an adaptive strategy in America. A 1905 New York City survey revealed that 45.7% of Italian women worked outside the home, while 6.4% took in work at home (no distinction made between married and single women). 11 The fashion industry, including garments, millinery, and artificial flowers, accounted for 80% of employed Italian females. The remaining 20% were in the paper box, candy, and tobacco industries. 12 7

8 Workshop conditions for Italian women were harsh. Most factories required workers to work quickly and paid by the piece. Whether the work was done by machine or by hand, there was constant pressure to keep up the pace and fill orders quickly. Many women suffered physically from the work, such as eyestrain from hours of close work in poorly lit rooms. Many of the materials women worked with were also harmful: the glue fumes in paper box factories caused nausea; analine dyes in flower factories irritated the throat and skin. In addition, many of these materials were highly flammable. Most working Italian women were exposed to filth, harmful conditions, physical exhaustion, and long working hours six days a week. 13 Young women that entered the workforce moved into new surroundings unfamiliar to their immigrant parents and away from their supervision for many hours a day. Working outside the home gave Italian girls an opportunity to make new friends outside the family circle and to become a part of the burgeoning youth culture. Italian women tended to work with other Italian women, establishing social networks within their own ethnic group. While opportunities for an independent social life were limited due to long working hours, young women were able to participate in some recreational activities such as 8

9 socializing informally while walking to and from work. Movies were also a popular form of recreation, providing images for young women to emulate in dress and behavior. Many working girls spent a significant portion of their income on clothing and makeup, but Italian women as a group spent more money on clothing than any other ethnic group. 14 Because finding a suitable husband was such a high priority for young women, many dressed well with this goal in mind. After a young woman was married, she usually left the work force to manage her new household. Children were expected to participate in the family economy as well, and as they reached adolescence, their contribution increased. As youngsters, girls typically assisted their mothers with household chores such as washing, cleaning, and sewing. When a girl reached adolescence, her contribution to the family economy increased. While many young, single girls remained at home until marriage, many also participated in wage labor. In either case, the involvement in the family economy limited a girl s time in school. The need for children to contribute to the family economy reduced the value of education for the Italians, especially for girls. Young children usually attended school only to learn to read, write, and do basic arithmetic. Once a child reached adolescence, further time spent in school diminished the child s ability to contribute to the family income and could actually be a liability for the family economy. After the age of fourteen, many Italian girls left school for the factories or to help with homework. Boys continued school at a 9

10 higher rate than girls, but this education was often geared toward vocational training. A 1905 census in New York City indicated that for first generation Italian children between the ages of ten and thirteen, 94% of boys and 83% of girls were attending school. However, between the ages of 14-16, the proportions dropped to 41% of boys and 26% of girls. 15 Clearly, after fourteen most children left school to enter the workforce. In America Italian women confronted new social and economic realities. Their cultural values, which put a high priority on the family unit, remained strong as they adapted to their new circumstances. While Italian women maintained their traditional values, they were also quite flexible and creative in adjusting to new demands and finding ways to support their families. 1 Virginia Yans-McLaughlin, Family and Community: Italian Immigrants in Buffalo, (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1882). 10

11 2 Robert E. Park and Herbert A. Miller, Old World Traits Transplanted (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1921) 3 Leonard W. Moss and Walter H. Thompson, The South Italian Family: Literature and Observation, Human Organization, v. 18 (Spring 1959), p Ibid., p Moss and Thompson, p Marie Leavitt, Report on the Sicilian Colony in Chicago. Manuscript quoted in Park and Miller, Old World Traits Transplanted, p Frank Orman Beck, The Italian in Chicago (Chicago: Bureau of Surveys of the Department of Public Welfare, 1919), p Leavitt, p Donna Gabaccia, Immigrant Women: Nowhere at Home? Journal of American Ethnic History 10 (Summer, 1991): Frank Orman Beck, The Italian in Chicago. (Chicago: Bureau of Surveys of the Department of Public Welfare, 1919), p Miriam Cohen, Workshop to Office: Two Generations of Italian Women in New York City, , (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1992) p Cohen, p Cohen, p, For fuller treatment of workshop conditions for Italian women, see Louise C. Odencrantz, Italian Women in Industry (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1919). 14 Cohen, p Cohen, p

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