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Widows in White: Migration and the Transformation of Rural Italian Women, Sicily, 1880-1920.

Widows in White: Migration and the Transformation of Rural Italian Women, Sicily, 1880-1920. By Linda Reeder (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003. xii plus 322 pp. $65.00 cloth, $27.50 paper).

White on Arrival: Italians, Race, Color, and Power in Chicago, 1890-1945. By Thomas A. Guglielmo (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. ix plus 280 pp.).

When we think about the dominating migration streams of the so-called "third wave" of immigration to the United States between 1880 and 1924 those of the Jews and Italians come to mind. Both migration streams have been well-documented in numerous historical monographs and comparative studies such that one might wonder what new contributions could possibly be made. The two books under review here both address Italian immigration and ably demonstrate that there are still original questions to ask, unmined archival materials to explore, and thus new dimensions to add to our understanding of the third wave of immigration. Reeder's book, Widows in White, takes up the relationship between gender and migration while Guglielmo's book, White on Arrival, focuses on the role of race and color in the immigrant experience.

Although E.G. Ravenstein's observed more than a century ago that women dominated short-distance population movements, women were not a focus of migration scholarship. However, since the 1980s, a number of books and articles by historians, sociologists, and anthropologists have drawn attention to women migrants. (1) What is less well researched is the impact of extensive male emigration on the lives of women left behind. Until Reeder's important and most welcome new book Widows in White, my own study Men Who Migrate, Women Who Wait was one of the few to consider women positioned at the other end of the migration continuum. (2) Indeed there are affinities in the way these women were labeled, "widows in white" in the Italian case, "widows of the living" in the Portuguese case.

Reeder grounds her analysis in the small central-western Sicilian town of Sutera, a point of origin, it seems, for many Italian men who went to the mines of Birmingham, Alabama and some other destinations in the United States in the latter 19th and early 20th centuries. Using a broad range of sources, including passport registers, passenger logs from steamships, official correspondence from the mayor's office, vital registers and land records, newspapers, novels, travelers accounts and other sources, she reconstructs the histories of more than 1,500 Suteran families who were involved in migration. Her central argument is that this mass male migration had a significant impact on the lives of Sicilian rural women, changing their ideas about motherhood, work and national belonging.

Reeder opens her book with a description of daily life in the agrotowns of nineteenth-century rural Sicily where many families were left out of landownership even after the collapse of feudalism. Honor, family and religion were the foundations of community, and women in particular were situated at the center of kinship networks through which information and labor were exchanged. Both push and pull factors stimulated the emigration of men, half of whom were married when they departed and approaching age thirty. Most were agricultural workers or artisans who left with the goal of earning enough money to improve their life at home. Reeder musters rich and convincing material to underscore the active role that women had in the decisions that sent their husbands and sons abroad. Their written permission was often evident on passport applications and in some cases women approached the local courts or police departments to register protests of their husband's decisions to emigrate (p. 88). Reeder's research lends further evidence to the argument that migration was a family rather than an individual strategy. Despite the absence of women in public spaces and the cultural images of male dominance and female deference, Reeder argues that women had considerable power in the domestic sphere and that this power was applied to the migration project, including its financing.

Perhaps one of the most original contributions of this book is contained in Part II where Reeder focuses her attention on the relationship between Sicilian women and the Italian State. She argues that male migration furthered women's integration into the nation. They were increasingly found in city halls, registering births and negotiating with government officials. They enrolled in school, and developed not only greater literacy but also a sense of civic duty. Reeder suggests that while the relationship women had with government was conservative, grounded in their roles as wives and mothers, it nevertheless awakened in them a "new kind of rights-based politics" (p. 201).

Reeder's book makes an important contribution not only to the study of the impact of migration on gender roles and gender identity, but also to historical and anthropological debates about transnationalism, particularly whether or not it is something new--i.e. pertaining largely to the post-1965 fourth wave of immigration. Italian men who left for America in the late 1800s and early 1900s had a high rate of return. An astounding 75 percent of the men of Sutera eventually repatriated. While they were away men sent remittances back to their wives who in turn invested the money in property, land, and businesses, thereby collectively altering the position of women within local and national economies. Reeder is certainly correct in suggesting that by focusing on the women left behind we can understand better the significance of transnational networks and how they link the local, to the national, and to the global. Most telling is her observation that "in rural Sicily, the masculization of production accompanied the feminization of consumption" (p. 167)--the former abroad, and the latter at home.

If there is something to fault in this well-researched book it is the sometimes overly optimistic picture that Reeder presents of the lives of the women left behind. They are prosperous and empowered. But surely some of them faced difficult challenges in the absence of their men and others must have been abandoned completely and left relatively destitute, economically and politically. In addition it would have been helpful for Reeder to engage in some cross-cultural comparison. For example, it is striking to me that rates of illegitimacy in Sicily in the absence of men remained low while they rose steadily in northern Portugal as migration increased. Fertility was sharply moderated by migration in northern Portugal but it did not fall as rapidly in Sicily. These differences cry out for further explanation. While Reeder draws on feminist anthropological literature to help her explore the differences in domestic and public spaces, she does not fully contextualize her problem of women left behind in the broader theoretical and comparative literature on this topic. Indeed, several anthropologists have asked the question of whether the migration of men is disempowering or empowering to women who remain behind, and whether changes in gender roles bring changes in gender ideology and gender hierarchies in the sending society. (3) Some researchers have shown that migrating men tend to leave other male relatives in charge of their households resulting, therefore, in little change in the power and/or authority of women. Still another body of research has tended to emphasize that any gains that women have in the absence of their husbands are temporary at best and that when men return they reassume the roles they had prior to departure. What happened when the men returned to Sicily? While early research in the social sciences tended to emphasize a household strategy of migration involving consensus between husband and wife about male departure, recent research has presented a more complex picture. In some cases women are left out of the decision-making process precisely because of gendered hierarchies of power in the home community.

If Reeder's broader argument is that the process of migration is deeply gendered, Guglielmo helps us to realize that it is also deeply racialized. Prior to the 1990s few studies of immigration addressed the issue of race, but today it is fundamental to the analyses of migration scholars who focus, for example, on how new Caribbean immigrants forge an identity, or on how the Irish and other Eastern and Southern European immigrants became white. (4) Guglielmo's makes an important contribution to this literature on whiteness, moving the debates forward by making an intriguing and subtle conceptual distinction between race and color. Italian immigrants, he argues, "did not need to become white; they always were in numerous, critical ways ... [But] if Italians's status as whites was relatively secure, they still suffered ... from extensive racial discrimination and prejudice as Italians, South Italians, Latins, and so on" (p. 7). Only in the 1930s and 1940s in the context of dramatic geopolitical changes in the world did race and color come to mean the same thing, such that Italians became an ethnic or nationality group rather than a race. It was at this point that they openly "mobilized around a white identity" (p. 11).

Drawing on the experience of Italian immigrants in Chicago, Guglielmo tracks this transformation. This is an excellent locale in which to explore the relationships among race, color, and migration since Chicago was the primary destination for African-Americans migrating from the American South, as well as the home for one of the major national voices for this community, the Chicago Defender. After a chapter that paints the picture of the migration and settlement of Italians in the race and color hierarchies of Chicago, Guglielmo takes up a series of historical events, local, national, and international, that shaped the Italian experience with racialization. Among these are the Color Riot of 1919, the national debate on immigration that eventually resulted in the restrictive laws of 1924, the rise of organized crime, the emergence of fascism in Italy and the Italian-Ethiopian War of 1935-36, and the rise of unionism and radicalism in the pre World War II period.

As he discusses each of these events, Guglielmo notes the ambiguities if not contradictions in the process of identity construction. Nothing is simply black and white! During the 1919 Color Riot, Italians found common cause with other white immigrants--Poles, the Irish, Swedes and Jews--and yet their color consciousness, Guglielmo argues, was still underdeveloped. Rather they emphasized a racial identity as Italianata. This Italianata identity solidified as the anti-immigrant racialism leading up to the Immigration Act of 1924 became more intense. Italians wanted to distinguish themselves from the Asian and Mexican populations. They responded in equally ambiguous fashion to the gangster stereotype that emerged during Prohibition and the reign of Al Capone. What is certainly well documented by Guglielmo during this particular phase of Chicago's history is the discourse that colorized and racialized Sicilians in particular as "simian and swarthy savages" (p, 87). And yet, in the mayoral politics of the same period Italians were increasingly appealed to as white.

Racial and color identity was then further complicated as Italians watched their patria undertake a civilizing mission in Ethiopia. "Chicago Italians," writes Guglielmo, "clearly viewed themselves as racially superior to the 'backward' Ethiopians" (p. 120), but their victory was celebrated as one of the Italian race, not the white race. In this chapter on the war in Ethiopia Guglielmo draws interesting comparisons with the response to the same conflict within the African-American community. "In their condemnation of Italian civilization, African Americans confirmed--rather than questioned--Italian whiteness. Whereas most Italians ignored color, many African Americans stressed it" (p. 121).

The lesson that is reaffirmed by reading Guglielmo's engaging analysis of the Italian experience with race and color in the city of Chicago is that identity is constructed in a social context and in relation to an 'other' that is variously defined and constantly shifting. Guglielmo concludes his story by describing the emergence of an American identity in the context of the racial segregation in the public housing projects of the wartime and post-war years. Italians in Chicago finally embraced a white identity that non-Italians had been assigning to them for several decades. Italian Americans, concludes Guglielmo, chose whiteness but whiteness also chose them.

This book is gripping, highly original, and subtle in its arguments. What I was expecting at the end was a return to the theoretical issues of race, color, and whiteness--that is, some assessment by the author himself of where he thinks this debate is or should be going in the historical and social scientific study of immigration in light of what his own research has revealed.


1. E. G. Ravenstein, "The Laws of Migration," Journal of the Royal Statistical Society 48 (1885): 167-277. For discussion of women migrants see Floya Anthias and Gabriella Lazaridis (eds.), Gender and Migration in Southern Europe: Women on the Move (Oxford, 2000); Gina Buijs, ed., Migrant Women: Crossing Boundaries and Changing Identities (Oxford, 1996); Donna Gabaccia, ed., Seeking Common Ground: Multidisciplinary Studies of Immigrant Women in the United States (Westport, CT, 1992); Donna Gabaccia, From the Other Side: Women, Gender, & Immigrant Life in the U.S. 1820-1990 (Bloomington, IN, 1994); Gregory A. Kelson and Debra L. DeLaet, Gender and Immigration (New York, 1999); Silvia Pedraza "Women and Migration: The Social Consequences of Gender," Annual Review of Sociology 17 (1991): 303-325; Patricia Pessar, "Engendering Migration Studies: The Case of New Immigrants to the United States," American Behavioral Scientist 42 (1999): 577-600; Patricia Pessar, "The Role of Gender, Households and Social Networks in the Migration Process: A Review and Appraisal," in Charles Hirschman, Philip Kasinitz and Josh DeWind, eds., The Handbook of International Migration: The American Experience (New York, 1999), pp. 53-70; Rita James Simon and Caroline B. Brettell, eds., 1986. International Migration: The Female Experience (Totowa, NJ, 1986); Katie Willis and Brenda Yeoh, eds., Gender and Migration (Cheltenham, UK, 2000).

2. Caroline B. Brettell, Men Who Migrate, Women Who Wait: Population and History (Princeton, 1986).

3. See for example Kimberly M. Grimes, Crossing Borders: Changing Social Identities in Southern Mexico (Tucson, 1998); Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo, Gendered Transitions: Mexican Experiences of Immigration (Berkeley, 1994).

4. See for example Noel Ignatiev, How the Irish Became White (New York, 1995) and Mary Waters, Black Identities: West Indian Immigrant Dreams and American Realities (New York, 1999).

Caroline B. Brettell

Southern Methodist University
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Author:Brettell, Caroline B.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2005
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