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Women, Gender, and Transnational Lives: Italian Workers of the World.

Women, Gender, and Transnational Lives: Italian Workers of the World. Edited by Donna R. Gabaccia and Franca Iacovetta (Toronto: University of Toronto Press. xvi plus 433 pp.).

The size, diffusion, and complexity of Italian mass migration continues to challenge scholars seeking to understand this process. Between 1870 and 1970, some 27 million individuals left various parts of Italy for destinations in five continents abroad. About half of them returned yet many of them went back and forth between Italy and multiple destinations abroad at least one or more times. Among these migrations were men and women, adults and children, peasants and artisans, skilled and unskilled workers, small business people, political activists and others who came from all parts of Italy. Their reasons for emigrating and the resources they brought with them differed. Given the variation in the geographical, chronological, economic, social, political and cultural dimensions of this migration it is obvious why obtaining an in-depth understanding of it continues to challenge us.

Yet with the passing of each year and each decade, and with the emergence of new generations of migration scholars, the challenge is gradually being met; collectively we are paying increasing attention to the neglected aspects of Italian migration and in so doing we are redefining some of the major contours of the subject as well as capturing its finer nuances and subtleties. We now know as much about the experiences of Italians in Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Australia, France, Germany, and Switzerland as we do about Italians in the United States. The global/transnational dimensions and the ongoing ties among individuals in the various towns and villages of Italy with family and paesani in multiple destinations abroad have become central to our understanding of the process of Italian migration. And women and gender have increasingly received their rightful attention as integral parts of the subject.

The book of edited essays by Donna Gabaccia and Franca Iacovetta, accurately entitled Women, Gender and Transnational Lives; Italian Workers of the World, is an important contribution to the recent literature on Italian mass migration, and especially on the role of women in it. The editors, well known long-time contributors to the debates and dialogues regarding the nature of Italian migration history, make clear their intent in the introduction. Their purpose is to continue to redress some of the imbalances in past studies of Italian migration, most notably the male-centeredness and United States-centeredness. With regard to women, their concern is to include the majority of women who waited at home as well as the minority of females among the emigrants, and to evaluate unpaid women's work as well as paid work. And finally, they intend to integrate women into the history of Italian radicalism and especially to investigate women's radical activities both outside traditional labor, political and radical movements as well as within them. As they sum up, "Our hope was not just to make women more visible in a migration literature focused on male migrants, but to pinpoint also the origins of persistent stereotypes of Italy's women in a literature disproportionately focused on immigrants to the United States." (ix)

Their approach is global/transnational, comparative and collaborative. One of the editors' major contributions is the global/transnational perspective they employ and their concomitant rejection of the traditional United States-centered histories of Italian migration. They remind their readers in the introduction that between 1870 and 1970 only one-third of these migrants went to the United States, and of those approximately half returned to Italy. They emphasize two specific advantages of viewing Italian migration in a global/transnational context: first, it draws attention to the impact of emigration on Italy as a sending nation, and second, it establishes the basis for comparing Italians of similar backgrounds in various destinations. Of the twelve essays in the volume, only three are devoted exclusively to the experiences of Italians in the United States. Others focus on France, Argentina, Belgium, Canada and Austria.

The book is divided into four parts. Part I demonstrates that although there were important regional variations among men and women in Italy as workers, family members and potential migrants, women were not "passive dependents, or 'housewives,' waiting in idleness for remittances sent by emigrated men...." Part II focuses on the minority of Italian women who migrated and the kinds of work--both paid and unpaid, they did abroad. It provides the context for understanding the militants described in Part III. Part IV looks at identity and especially at the way outsiders constructed Italian women's identities as workers, familists, or in some cases as militants.

The quality of the essays throughout the book is high, but I found the contributions in the sections on Italian women as militants and on identity to be the most innovative and compelling. The five essays on women militants provide an excellent comparative introduction to the subject. They significantly revise the historiography that compared the passivity of Italian women in the United States to the aggressive activity of their Jewish counterparts in politics and the labor movement, and the fact that this historiography attributed the Italians' behavior to their rural backgrounds, familism, and Catholic moral conservatism. "Italy's female militants," the editors conclude, "could be found everywhere Italians migrated, but that they--like Italian men--more easily found common ground with other workers in labor movements shaped by anarchists, syndicalists or, later, communist ideals, not those of central Europe and German social democracy or Anglo-American labor reform." (20) Their main conclusion is that Italian women became radicals and practiced their radicalism as members of families. Here again it is comparison that makes the point so effectively; Italian women's militancy manifested itself in different ways according to the specific circumstances involved in different contexts abroad.

The section on identity is especially important because it emphasizes the fundamental fact that Italian women's identity simultaneously involved a number of overlapping loyalties. As the editors elaborate, "... women workers were often simultaneously communists and Catholics, activists and mothers, rebellious and accommodating family members." (25) This and the comparison of contexts explains why Italian women behaved differently in the various destinations in the Italian diaspora.

This is an important book that greatly helps us meet the continuing challenge of understanding Italian migration. the case studies add to our knowledge and combined they do much to enhance our conceptual understanding of Italian women migrants both in Italy and in the multiple destinations abroad. The editors are right to call for more biographies of women activists and chronologies of strikes and organizing and political action all over the world. And they do, as they intend to, succeed in integrating women into the history of Italian radicalism. The challenge of the future is to continue the efforts to integrate this material into the national histories of the United States, Italy, Argentina, Belgium, France, Canada and other countries. This will help these national histories incorporate the gender, global/transnational, and comparative perspectives this set of essays so well embodies.

Samuel L. Baily

Rutgers University
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Author:Baily, Samuel L.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 2005
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