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Italian American Women

Much has been written of the Italian male immigrant – of his intrepid desires and accomplishments. But what of the tenacious Italian woman who came to America in search of success – her numbers are also strong and many.

Between 1901 and 1910, nearly nine million immigrants came to the United States. Large ratios of these immigrants were young Italian women, who bravely left their small towns and villages to follow the shadows of their ancestors.

In 1910, both my Italian grandmothers were among those dauntless young women who left their little towns and villages to come to America. It took a special kind of bravery for a young woman to leave her home and family and make that voyage of a lifetime. It’s that same unifying, inherited, spirit that lives within every Italian-American woman – past, present and future.

Italian American Women making old garments as good as new - saving material during WW11
Italian American Women making old garments as good as new – saving material during WW11

My grandmothers Maria and Isolina, like their peers, had at their core a strong belief in their destiny, an adventurous spirit, and a desire to succeed. Their beliefs were simple but deep and abiding. Grandma Maria would often say, “What we become in this world is the result of our personal desires and our thoughts.” She was right, of course, what we achieve all starts out with a single thought. What we think, we become. Every Italian woman, who boarded a ship for America knows this to be true. First was the thought, then her belief in that thought. Wave after wave of Italian women found within themselves the courage to seek their dreams, and to leave their homeland to find a better life… a better fate.

In 1889, during the third wave of Italian immigrants, (1870’s-1960) almost twenty years before my grandparents’ generation arrived at Ellis Island, the most renowned Italian-American woman of the 20th century, Saint Francis Cabrini emigrated here from her native town of San Angelo, Italy. Maria Francesca Cabrini was born July 15, 1850 and at an early age felt her calling. Mother Frances Cabrini, was the first Italian American saint, she founded 14 American colleges, 98 schools, 28 orphanages, eight hospitals, three training schools, and a score of other institutions with the help of over 4,000 sisters she recruited for the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart, a group she also founded. Mother Cabrini immigrated to the US in 1889 and became a US citizen in 1909. She died in 1917 and was canonized in 1949.

With a similar dedication to her goals, other Italian-American women have also climbed the ladder of success to find notoriety in their chosen field. One of the earliest Italian-American women to star in her chosen world of politics was Ella T. Grasso of Connecticut. She was the first woman ever elected governor in her own right. Born in 1919, she was elected to U.S. House of Representatives in 1970. According to the Library of Congress, Mrs. Grasso was also the first Italian-American woman elected to Congress. She served until 1975 when she was elected Governor of Connecticut.

But the best was yet to come for the Italian-American women’s political image. It came in the person of Geraldine Ann Ferraro, the first woman to run for Vice President of the Untied States. Mrs. Ferraro earned a place in history as the first woman Vice-Presidential candidate on a national party ticket. In 1984, Mrs. Ferraro ran on the presidential ticket with Walter Mondale, but lost to the popular ex-movie ‘idol’ Ronald Reagan. Ms. Ferraro was born in Newburgh, New York on August 26, 1935. Her father, an Italian immigrant, died when she was eight. Her mother worked as a seamstress. She skipped three grades, finished high school at 16, and won a college scholarship. She then taught second grade in the New York public schools for five years. During that time, she also put herself through Fordham Law School at night. She served in Congress, representing the Ninth Congressional District in Queens, New York, from 1979 to 1985.

In the medical world, the first woman ever to edit The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) in its 116-year history is Catherine De Angelis, M.D. Vice-Dean at Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, she became a nurse, then put herself through college and medical school. A pediatrician and child advocate, she was born in Pennsylvania where her father worked in a silk mill. Dr. De Angelis became JAMA editor in 2000.

In the world of celebrity, Sophia Loren is considered to be the most famous Italian actress of all time. Though she is not American by citizenship, her many years of living in Hollywood and working in American films gives her the honorary status. Miss Loren was born Sofia Villani Scicolone on September 20, 1934. She grew up during World War II in Pozzuoli, a town near Naples, where she gained the famous nickname “toothpick” because she was so thin. But that skinny little girl had a dream to raise herself from poverty and use her talents to achieve her goals. By the second half of the 1950s, her star began to rise in Hollywood, with films such as 1957’s “Boy on a Dolphin” and “The Pride and the Passion” (in which she co-starred with Frank Sinatra).

Loren became an international film star with a five-picture contract from Paramount Studios. Among her films at this time: “Desire Under the Elms” with Anthony Perkins (based upon the Eugene O’Neill play), “Houseboat” (a romantic comedy again co-starring Cary Grant), and George Cukor’s “Heller in Pink Tights.” Loren demonstrated considerable dramatic skills and gained respect as a dramatic and comedy actress, especially in Italian projects where she more freely expressed herself, although she gained proficiency in the English language. In 1960, her acclaimed performance in Vittorio De Sica’s “Two Women” earned her a multitude of awards and, along with the Cannes, Venezia and Berlin festivals’ best performance prizes, the distinction of being the first actor to win a major category Academy Award (Best Actress) for a non-English language performance.

A generation earlier, actress, director and writer, Ida Lupino, made her mark as a film director. Lupino’s family originated back during the renaissance in Naples, Italy, where they were entertainers, actors, jugglers, and puppeteers. Her determination to make it as a film director in a field dominated by men was greeted with great skepticism by Hollywood. But with her dauntless determination she achieved success as one of Hollywood’s rare female directors. Ida Lupino was one of the first women to be elected to the prestigious Hollywood Director’s Guild. She has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for her contributions to the fields of television and motion pictures.

A generation later, in a profession still dominated by men, actress Penny Marshall (Carole Penny Masciarelli) made the tough and remarkable transition from star of a hit TV series “Laverne & Shirley,” to one of the few successful women directors in Hollywood. Her second film, “Big” in 1988 made her the first woman director in American history to direct a film that earned $100 million. Her other films include “Jumping Jack Flash,” “Awakenings,” and “A League of Their Own.”

In the early 1900s, Angela Bambace, an 18-year-old Italian American woman who worked in a shirtwaist factory in New York, organized the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) in New York and Maryland. She was elected Vice President of the ILGWU in 1956, becoming the first woman to penetrate the all-male leadership of the ILGWU. She retired in 1972.

In the medical field, California has children’s and maternity wards in every county hospital, thanks to Dr. Mariana Bertola.

The woman who inspired the image of WWII icon “Rosie the Riveter” was Rosie Bonavita of Long Island, New York.

In the world of commercial business, Celeste Lizio could hold her own in this competitive male dominated market. An Italian American woman entrepreneur, she came to America during the 1930s and opened a restaurant in Chicago. She founded Mama Celeste’s Pizza; a line of frozen Italian foods and the rest is commercial history.

Our immigrant ancestors shared the same traits of determination to succeed at their goals, and whether it was business, politics, the arts, or medicine, they believed in three important things, education, handwork and honesty. These same traits and determinations connect the Italian American woman, one to the other, in her foresight and dedication to find success in whatever they desire to dream.

By Cookie Curci

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4 years ago

In Canada we have experienced similar non-representation especially in creative writing and literature which is overflowing with stories of immigrants, gangsters and food. My collection of short stories based on the lives of italian/canadian women living in Toronto was published in 2016 and it is one of the only books dedicated to the stories of these women whose contributions and struggles matched their male partners.

Maria Chaparro
4 years ago

I found the start of the article to be fascinating but then it veered off to a totally different topic. I would have preferred more information on how these single women, or possibly spoke for young women succeeded. Even if they never became household names it would seem many of them left successful children and grandchildren.