Living the Revolution: Italian Women’s Resistance and Radicalism in New York City, 1880-1945

Living the RevolutionGuglielmo, Jennifer.  Living the Revolution:Italian Women’s Resistance and Radicalism in New York City, 1880-1945.  Chapel Hill:  The University of North Carolina Press, 2010.

Jennifer Guglielmo subverts the stereotype of the domestic Italian immigrant woman with her study of multiple generations of feminine political activism for the working class in Living the Revolution:  Italian Women’s Resistance and Radicalism in New York City, 1880-1945. [1]  In her book, she gives voice to the thousands of women who immigrated from Italy to America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, particularly those who engaged in anarchist movements and labor organization. Guglielmo demonstrates how the mass exodus of Italian men forced Italian women to learn strategies of community and political involvement far beyond the domestic sphere, and that these women brought those skills with them to the United States and passed them on to their daughters and coworkers. Using oral histories, state and federal legal documents, and public and private archives, Guglielmo offers compelling biographical histories of some of the women involved in radical politics at the turn of the twentieth century.  Guglielmo illustrates how the identity of Italian-American women was influenced by constant tension between the family and the community, the racialization of Italians and the quest for American assimilation.

Guglielmo seeks to highlight the great accomplishments made by Italian immigrant women who championed causes of anarchy, socialism, and labor organization. She explores the “numerous ruptures and contradictions embedded in the stereotypical myths about Italian women:  ‘silent’ women ignored employers’ threats and took to the streets; ‘ignorant’ women smashed factory windows with rocks while on strike; and ‘hopeless’ women created revolutionary political cultures to birth a new world.”[2] Guglielmo argues that the political world of Italian-American women was particularly diasporic and transnational, and that one of the reasons scholars largely overlooked these women was that they did not fit neatly with first-wave feminists.  Because they rarely sought redress from the nation-state, nor did they “seek inclusion or authority” there, they were outside of more established networks like trade unions and alliances with middle-class women’s movements; instead, “they turned most often to strategies of mutual aid, collective direct action, and to the multiethnic, radical subculture that took shape within their urban working-class communities.”[3] Guglielmo also claims that another reason Italian-Americans were often outside of popular discourse surrounding political activism is the racialization of southern Italians in particular, and she investigates the sources of the political project of whiteness. One feature of the Italian-American community is both its embrace and rejection of whiteness, and her book traces the trajectory of Italian-American women from outsiders to insiders, immigrants to independent Americans.

This independence was reflected in the early twentieth-century wave of strikes and union formations that Guglielmo details in the last few chapters of her book. In January 1913, more than 150,000 workers of all ethnic backgrounds had walked off their jobs in four sectors of garment production, yet after the strike the union organizers signed an agreement with manufacturers with neither the consent of the workers nor the consideration of the needs of Italian women.[4] Guglielmo describes how the women rushed the stage at the union event, picketed the streets and threw rocks through factory windows, starting a wave of protest that led to Italian women leaving the International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union in favor of the more militant Industrial Workers of the World.[5] Guglielmo points out that “While the press, union leaders and some other workers considered hurling rocks through factory windows as riotous and evidence of Italian immigrant women’s inability to organize, this was a direct-action strategy firmly rooted in the struggles of their homeland.”[6] Although American-born Italian women would eventually join the domestic labor unions, recent immigrants favored transnational anarchist and revolutionary socialist movements, ultimately creating a union culture that was truly Italian-American.[7]

Much of the radical fervor that enveloped Italian-American working-class women reached its climax on Valentine’s Day in 1920, in Paterson, New Jersey.[8] Over four million workers had walked off their jobs in previous years, due in large part to the effectiveness of female organizers who “momentarily found themselves in an unprecedented position of power because strikes could block war production and force employers to the bargaining table.”[9] For the first time in American labor history, female Italian immigrant workers had agency within the institutional space of the movement, and they created their own local unions where they could assert their identities and mobilize for change. However, the February 1920 raid in Paterson would bring some of that motion to a grinding halt- over one hundred federal agents raided the homes of anarchist group leaders, arresting “whomever they could find,” confiscating documents and threatening suspects with deportation.[10] Guglielmo emphasizes the effect of this government-sanctioned repression against the Left: “[it] taught Italian immigrants a powerful lesson: admission into the U.S. nation was contingent on their rejection of anarchism and other forms of opposition to capitalism, imperialism, and white supremacy.”[11] Ironically, as Italian-American workers “sought the acceptance of mainstream labor and political institutions, they accommodated to the pervasive antiradicalism that defined U.S. politics,” which led to new forms of ethnic nationalism and all forms of contradictory collective identities.[12] Italian immigrant women endured a cycle of marginalization, radicalism, and assimilation over the course of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

At the conclusion of her study, Guglielmo revisits some of the oral histories she has collected, noting that among third-generation Italian-American women, activism has been more community-based than radical. She reflects upon the drastic changes the world has undergone since the late nineteenth century, and notes that most of the second-generation women came of age “amid aggressive antiradicalism, coercive nationalisms, and pervasive xenophobia,” which “forced a profound change in the focus of their activisms, as they increasingly turned away from revolutionary strategies toward more reformist and accommodationist visions of change.”[13] Urban renewal took them out of their urban communities and into the suburbs, in turn weakening some of the allegiances that had been formed in factories and neighborhood kitchens. In light of contemporary struggles against capitalism and patriarchy, Guglielmo highlights some of the lessons to be learned from the revolutionary women of the turn of the century:  “They compel us to remember the infinite possibilities present in every moment, especially in periods of intense repression and despair.”[14] “By embodying and living the freedoms they desired,” Guglielmo asserts, these women planted a seed of activism that continues to grow today.[15]

-M.M. Dawley


[1] Jennifer Guglielmo, Living the Revolution:Italian Women’s Resistance and Radicalism in New York City, 1880-1945 (Chapel Hill:  The University of North Carolina Press, 2010), 1.

[2] Ibid. 4

[3] Guglielmo, Living the Revolution 4

[4] Ibid. 176

[5] Guglielmo, Living the Revolution 176-7

[6] Ibid. 177

[7] Ibid. 177-8

[8] Ibid. 199

[9] Ibid. 197

[10] Ibid. 199

[11] Ibid. 200

[12] Guglielmo, Living the Revolution 201

[13] Ibid. 267

[14] Ibid. 270

[15] Ibid.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *