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-- Stan Iverson Anarchist Archives: Donne Sovversive: The History of Italian-American Womenís Radicalism
Donne Sovversive:
The History of Italian-American Womenís Radicalism

By Jennifer Maria Guglielmo

[Note: This article was found on the internet in 1999, but was no longer online in 2001; this copy is a mirror image of that article]

"To my women comrades, these are the thoughts of another woman worker dedicated to you: It is in my thoughts and the beating of my soul that I feel all the social injustices, that for centuries we have been humble and obedient slaves; it is in rebellion, to rise up against all of these inequities, that I invite you to struggle."1

In 1905 Maria Barbieri issued this call to action under the title "Ribelliamoci!" She wrote to her compagne in an anarchist-syndicalist circolo in Paterson, N.J., that included up to 90 Italian women and men, most of whom labored in the cityís silk factories.2 She wrote to other Italian women sovversive (subversives) throughout the United States who read her essay in one of the more popular Italian-American radical newspapers, La Questione Sociale.3 She spoke to all who would hear her.

"Weíve become human machines," she cried. "We stay locked in the immense industrial prisons where we lose our strength, our youth, where our rights are shattered before the greed of the bourgeois. And we don't rebel against these injustices for a right to our lives? And we donít shake with rage before the pompous and contemptuous lady who wears a silk shirt from our humble labor? We must rise up against our oppressors, all of us, and in us will shine the faith of a better future."4

Like many other Italian women who migrated to the United States to escape la miseria, Maria found her life absorbed by an industry that bought her labor cheaply, worked her into the ground, and gave her few opportunities for advancement. She shared her grievances with other working-class women who faced oppressive conditions not only in American factories and fields, but also in their homes, where women provided the bulk of domestic labor after a full day of wage work. She was not alone

. Throughout the 20th century many Italian-American women came together with a commitment to confront poverty, exploitation, and alienation in their daily lives. They wrote and published testimonies, spoke at rallies, organized their co-workers and neighbors. Revolution was the daily act of bringing about a collective, mutually beneficial society without coercive authority or unequal distribution of community resources.

The lives of these women demonstrate the variety and continuity of Italian womenís activism in the United States. Their stories enrich our knowledge of the dignity and determination of our ancestors and shatter the stereotypes of Italian women as passive victims of Old World patriarchal traditions, bound to their families and homes to suffer in silence, images that continue to fill popular imaginations. Within Italian-American communities the stories, legacies, and traditions of women who fought back, women who struggled, organized, and resisted have been passed down from one generation to the next.5

The history of Italian-American womenís activism within working-class movements leads us into many worlds, one of which was the radical cultures Italians crafted with other workers. It was here, on the front lines of the American labor movement, that many Italian women and men devised collective strategies and methods of resistance in the struggle for economic justice and dignity. Some were committed anarchists, socialists, communists, anti-fascists, anti-imperialists, and syndicalists; many drew inspiration from a variety of different radical ideologies and combined that which was meaningful to create their own individual world views. This history has also met with its own set of stereotypes. Images of bomb-throwing, stiletto-wielding, bloodthirsty criminals bent on overthrowing America through violent measures have also shaped popular imagery of Italian Americans and have hindered us from honoring the history of our revolutionary ancestors.

Traditions of protest and revolutionary activism were brought from Italy. At the turn of the century, widespread poverty, recurring economic depressions, labor upheavals, and violent government repression shaped the lives of most Italians. Throughout the peninsula workers formed organizations, such as the fasci dei lavoratori (unions of workers), and struggled for a reconstruction of society in which industry and government were brought under the control of workers. Peasant women led rallies through streets shouting "Viva il socialismo e abbasso il militarismo!"

They demanded, as did a woman from Palermo, that "there should no longer be either rich or poor. All should have bread for themselves and for their children. We should all be equal."6 The Italian government condemned these actions; newspapers were shut down, socialist leaders arrested and protests were brutally suppressed. Workers' demonstrations often culminated in bloody clashes with the military, in which hundreds of people were killed. Repression intensified as Mussolini came to power and sought to eradicate all proletarian opposition. The Italian labor movement extended internationally, as Italian migrants traversed the globe, taking with them traditions of militancy, protest, and rebellion.7

Maria Barbieri was one of many Italian revolutionary emigres who undertook the formidable task of politicizing and organizing the masses of Italian workers in America. Another young Italian woman, Maria Roda, crossed the Atlantic and settled in Paterson in 1892 after dedicating several years of activism to militant workersí struggles in Italy, France, Portugal, Spain, and England.8 She arrived with her partner, the prominent Spanish anarcho-syndicalist Pedro Esteve, and immediately impressed seasoned radicals and rank-and-file workers with her ability to rouse the masses with the spoken word.9 While raising eight children and laboring in the silk mills, Maria and Pedro became intellectual leaders within the Paterson circolo and led efforts to organize Italian textile workers into the industrial union movement that was rapidly spreading throughout the country. A charismatic and powerful speaker, Maria regularly accompanied Pedro to Tampa and New York City to assist and support the collective struggles of Puerto Rican, Mexican, Cuban, Spanish, and Italian textile, cigar, and dock workers.

Italian-American womenís activism was not confined to the exceptional efforts of a few radical women. Often Italian-American women operated within a network of community organizing where they took the lead in collective action and in recruiting support. Throughout the early 20th century, Italian-American women took to the streets alongside men in several worker uprisings and industry-wide strikes in Paterson, N.J.; Lawrence, Mass.; New York City, Tampa, Fla., and other cities throughout the United States. Many strikes, such as that which shut down textile production in Lawrence in 1912 drew community-wide support; children were sent to neighboring towns for protection and Italian women stayed behind, often risking or sacrificing their lives, as did Annie Lo Pizzo, who was shot and killed by police during the protest. Italian-American women organized their co-workers and neighbors, employed direct action tactics, and built alliances within the Industrial Workers of the World, an immigrant/migrant working-class movement that united workers across lines of gender, ethnicity, race, and religion.10

Italian-American women not only gave voice to the exploitation they endured within the factories, but also exposed and opposed the abuse of authority and power within their families and communities. Some women wrote using pseudonyms. One of the more prolific anarchist women authors was an Italian immigrant woman who wrote under the alias "Titi" (possibly Maria Roda). In 1906 she began a series of essays with the title Alle Donne, Emancipiamoci! (To the Women: Letís Emancipate Ourselves!), in which she declared:

"I have the right to uphold my individuality and submit only to myself. But I write this because we have still not put this to the test . . . There is a beautiful saying: I am an anarchist, I am free in my house, I benefit from my freedom and donít believe that a father, brother, or husband should exercise physical or moral coercion over me. All of this would be true to say, but in the end, when we canít have bread without the say of men with whom we live, if we canít have a roof, a bed, clothes without the money of our comrades necessary to buy them, we are slaves and we must suffer for better or for worse to the will of those who keep us . . . We should take a glance not only at the bourgeois society but at ourselves, workers who are part of the anarchist family."11

Often it was Italian-American women radicals who applied the anarchist-syndicalist doctrines that called for the rejection of governmental structures and coercive authority to their families and communities.

Mussoliniís rise to power in Italy sent additional waves of exiles -- who sought refuge from persecution, violence, and poverty -- to the United States. In 1928, Virgilia díAndrea fled fascist police and came to New York City. Throughout the Great Depression, Italian-American workers filled meeting halls to capacity to hear her speak. She was a woman whom fascist police in Rome considered one of the most threatening of the Italian anti-fascists abroad.

Virgilia was born in the Abruzzi town of Sulmona in 1888 and raised in Firenze. By all accounts, she was a woman who had been "raised in pain." Her mother died when she was a child, and as a teenager she and her brother witnessed the murder of their father at the hands of his second wifeís lover.12 After years of work as an elementary schoolteacher, Virgilia became an organizer for the Italian socialist party and was soon assigned the task of establishing a womenís section. Dubbed the "maestrina del popolo," Virgiliaís sense of economic, political, and social injustice was sharpened by the widespread suffering she witnessed in Italy. While teaching and organizing, she became deeply influenced by the anarchist movement that was spreading throughout the peninsula, whose leaders considered her to be "an indomitable fighter," dedicated to spreading the gospel of proletarian revolution.

Virgiliaís skill as an orator and writer gained recognition during World War I, and by the 1920s the prefect of Bologna expressed his fear at her ability to handle and manipulate any circumstance, to impress and agitate "the masses" with ease. In 1922 she published her first book of poems, titled Tormento. Italyís fascist police seized and banned all copies, charging her prose with the ability to disrupt public order and incite class hatred. Although she continued to publish her writing throughout the period, she devoted the majority of her time to activism, believing that organizing workers was critical to concrete social change. In her own words, anarchism meant "freedom and justice . . . the abolition of suffering, of hate, of superstition; the abolition of manís oppression of man." ? After several years of organizing nationwide workersí uprisings in Italy, Virgilia left to escape the continual surveillance and threats of the fascist government and joined her campanion, famed-anarchist writer Armando Borghi, in the United States.

As a noted organizer and renowned "campagna poetessa," Virgilia was invited to speak throughout the United States. From city to city, as far west as California, she spoke before thousands of Italian workers. She told of the metal workers who took over their factories in Italy, of her own imprisonment during the strike, and of the escalating campaign of violence and physical intimidation throughout the country.13 She spoke out against the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti, her comrades in the movement. She called on workers to oppose Italian nationalism and imperialism, "attentarono colle conquiste coloniali, alla indipendenza dei popoli di colore" (based as it was in colonial conquest and the subjugation of peoples of color), and argued instead for a "cittadino del mondo, figlio del padre Sole e della madre Terra" (citizen of the world, children of father Sun and mother Earth).14 She spent her life in exile organizing and speaking on behalf of international working-class solidarity in order, as she said, to "feel useful to someone." She did so while suffering continual illness from the cancer that was consuming her body, the dark premonitions that plagued her, and periodic blackouts.

When she died in 1933, Italian-American workers remembered that "every time she spoke, she left behind seeded ground." She was, in their words, a "profuga ribelle" [refugee rebel], a woman who had devoted her life to assisting Italian workers with her energy and creativity.15

Almost 30 years after Italian anarcho-syndicalist-feminist women took up their pens and took to the streets and in the same year Virgilia passed away, 60,000 garment workers in New York City, the majority of whom were Italian-American women, walked off their jobs in one of the largest strikes of the Depression era. The Italian women dressmakers who orchestrated the strike, such as Angela Bambace, Tina Catania, Antonetta Lazzaro, Tina Gaeta, Margaret di Maggio, Lucia Romualdi, and Albina Delfino, followed in a long tradition of Italian womenís workplace militancy.16

This time the streets were filled not only by immigrant women, but also by their American-born daughters. Although some women garment workers joined the radical union movement on their own, many were introduced by mothers, aunts, sisters, cousins, and grandmothers. Following the strike, many Italian women garment workers rose within the ranks of the union to become prominent organizers and leaders, and struggled to build an anti-fascist labor movement that was committed to socialist revolution.

Like the women who had come before them, they chose different courses of action. Some chose to organize only Italian-American workers within the Italian Dressmakersí Local 89 of the International Ladiesí Garment Workers Union and remained within a moderate socialist milieu. Others, such as Angela Bambace and Albina Delfino, allied themselves with anarchist, communist, and syndicalist insurgents within the union, across lines of ethnicity, and struggled for more democratic union representation. Angela devoted her energies to organizing women textile workers in the South and to the Civil Rights movement. Albina became the first Italian woman paid organizer for the Communist Party and traveled across the country combating discrimination and racism within Italian immigrant communities.

When movements against racism, sexism, colonialism, militarism, and poverty erupted across the United States in the 1960s and 1970s, Angela, Albina, and other women activists from older generations could be found in the ranks. These movements also drew younger women, such as Silvia Baraldini.17 Silvia was an early activist and supporter of the Black Panther Party and the Puerto Rican independence movement. She campaigned for an end to apartheid and colonialism in Africa and was invited to attend the inauguration of the new government in Zimbabwe. In addition, she investigated the FBIís COINTELPRO program that conducted surveillance within these movements.

In 1982 Silvia was arrested for participating in the successful prison escape of Assata Shakur, a Black Panther activist who was falsely accused and convicted of murder. Today Silvia remains in prison, having already served 15 years of a 43-year sentence. An international coalition movement of peace and social justice activists, based in Italy, struggles for her release and return to the land where she was born. They argue that she is a political prisoner held for her beliefs; had she been convicted only for her actions, she would have been released after 40 to 52 months in prison. She has now served more than 175 months. Like the women who came before her, she has requested the support of the Italian-American community in her struggle.

While in prison she has organized an ongoing AIDS prevention project and completed her bachelorís and masterís degrees in history. Currently, she teaches African-American history, English as a second language, and Italian to other prisoners.

As we reflect on the 70th anniversary of the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti, let us remember the women -- our grandmothers, mothers, aunts, cousins, sisters, and ourselves -- who devoted their lives to justice and to shaping a world where collective self-development takes precedence over economic expansion and imperial development; women who continue to devote their lives to building liberatory movements; women who continue to invite us to struggle.

Jennifer Maria Guglielmo is third-generation Napolitana/Basilicatana from New York City. She is a doctoral candidate in history at the University of Minnesota and serves as the research assistant for the OSIA Archives Project, at the universityís Immigration History Research Center, in St. Paul, Minn.

  1. La Questione Sociale, Nov 18, 1905, 3. My knowledge of the Paterson Italian immigrant anarchist women began when Salvatore Salerno shared his research on them with me. For more background on their stories see his essay, "Italian Anarcho-Syndicalists and the IWW," paper presented at The Lost World of Italian-American Radicalism: Labor, Politics, and Culture Conference, City University of New York, New York City, May 14-15, 1997.
  2. See Salerno, "Italian Anarcho-Syndicalists;" George Carey, "'La Questione Sociale,' an Anarchist Newspaper in Paterson, Newe Jersey (1895-1908)," in Italian Americans: New Perspectives in Italian Immigration and Ethnicity, ed. Lydio Tomasi (Staten Island: Center for Migration Studies, 1985) and Carey, "The Vessel, the Deed, and the Idea: Anarchists in Paterson, 1895-1908," Antipode 10-11 (1979); Rudolph J. Vecoli, "'Free Country:' The American Republic Viewed by the Italian Left, 1880-1920," In the Shadow of the Statue of Liberty: Immigrants, Workers and Citizens in the American Republic, ed. Marianne Debouzy (Saint Denis, France: Presses Universitaries de Vincennes, 1988).
  3. Paul Avrich, Anarchist Voices (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995) and Avrich, Sacco and Vancetti: The Anarchist Background (Princeton University Press, 1991). My thanks to Neil Thomas Proto for drawing my attention to several Italian-American women anarchist activities in this and later periods.
  4. La Questione Sociale, Nov 18, 1905, 3.
  5. For a survey of published literature on Italian-American women see Donna Gabaccia,"Italian American Women: A Review Essay," Italian Americana, Fall/Winter 1993: 38-61.
  6. Lucia Chiavola Birnbaum, liberazione della donna. feminism in italy (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1986), 25, 13; Jole Calapso, Donne Ribelli: Un secolo di lotte femminili in sicilia (Palermo: S.F. Flaccovio, 1980); Franca Pieroni Bortolotti, Alle origini del movimento femminile in Italia, 1848-1892 (Torino: Einaudi, 1975); Camila Ravera, Breve storia del movimento femminile in Italia (Rome, 1978).
  7. Rudolph J. Vecoli,"Pane e Giustizia, La Parola del Popolo 26 (September-October, 1976).
  8. Salerno, "Italian Anarcho-Syndicalists."
  9. Emma Goldman, Living My Life (Garden City, N.Y.: Garden City Publishing Company, Inc. 1931), 150.
  10. Salerno, "Italian Anarcho-Syndicalists." and Salerno, Red November, Black Nove. Culture and Community in the Industrial Workers of the World (Albany; State University of New York Press, 1989).
  11. La Questione Sociale, July 7, 1996.
  12. I am indebted to Roberto Ventresca for sharing his research on d'Andrea with me. All of my knowledge of her comes from his important project of uncovering d"Andrea's life story. See his recent paper, "A Touch of Night: Virgilia d"Andrea and Italian Anarchism in America," paper presented at The Lost World of Italian American Radicalism: Labor, Politics, and Culture Conference, City University of New York, New York City, 1997. D'Andrea's writing can be found at the Immigration History Research Center, University of Minnesota, which holds several of her original publications.
  13. Poster from Il Circolo di Cultura Operata announcing Virgilia d"Andrea's lecture at la Casa del Popolo in Somerville, Mass., Feb. 22, 1929, Orste Fabrizi Papers, Immigration History Research Center.
  14. Virgilia d"Andrea, "I Delitti della Patria Borghese, I Diritti della Patria Umana," lecture given at Somerset Hall, Somerville, Mass., Dec. 3, 1931, reprinted in d'Andrea, Richiamo All'Anarchia, Protesta e proposta anarchica in otto conferenze pronunciate in terra d'eslio durante la dominazione fascista (Edizioni L'Antistato Cesena, 1965), Immigration History Research Center Print Collection, 142, 147.
  15. Poster from Il Circolo di Cultura Operata
  16. Jean Scarpaci, "Angela Barnbace and the International Ladies Garment Workers Union: The Search for an Elusive Activist.' in Pane e Larvoro: The Italian American Working Class, ed. George Pozzeta (Staten Island: American Italian Historical Association, 1980); Columba M. Furio, "The Cultural Background of the Italian Immigrant Woman and Its impact on Her Unionization in the New York City Garment Industry, 1880-1918," in Pane e Lavoro; Furio, "Immigrant Women and Industry: A Case Study. The Italian Immigrant Women and the Garment Industry, 1880-1950" (Ph.D. dissertation, New York University, 1979); Charles Zappia, "Unionism and the Italian American Worker: A History of the New York City 'Italian Local' in the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, 1900-1933" (PH.D. dissertation, University of California, Berkeley, 1994).
  17. I am grateful to miei fratellini, Marco Vesuvio e Tomaso Angelo, for bringing Silvia's story to my attention.

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