Living the Revolution

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





In Living the Revolution, Jennifer Guglielmo argues that Italian women were able to resist and challenge their oppressive conditions as a result of mass migration. As their men left home in search of work in places like Brazil, Argentina, and North America, women became responsible for household duties and were then put into positions of power. In Italy, the absence of men led to women forging relationships with the nation-state such as filing various complaints. This absence also led to women creating social spaces where they learned to challenge inequalities and demand economic and social justice. As seamstresses and laborers in the garment and textile industries in America, they became activists in the anarchist feminist movement. Guglielmo notes that these radical Italian women defined their activism as emancipazione (emancipation) as a way “to distinguish their activism from bourgeois feminisms” (location 1990). This term also “signified their commitment to freedom from oppression in all forms” (location 1990). On the shop floor, resistance could be a simple as humming a tune since talking and singing were prohibited. Resistance also took place on much larger scales with uprisings and strikes such as the 1913 strike that involved four thousand Italian women garment workers. She notes that this uprising was possible because of the Italian women’s “solidarity and militancy” (location 2521).
Guglielmo contends that southern Italian immigrant women were not the stereotypical “silent,” ignorant,” hopeless,” and “invisible” women they have been depicted as in previous works. These women and their American-born daughters created a world in which they “formulated strategies of resistance and survival that called into question systems of power and authority within their families, communities, and the larger society” (location 66). Guglielmo faults this invisibility to previous historians’ dependence on English language sources whose accounts mainly focus on men and other groups such as Irish and Jewish. She also credits this invisibility to Italian radical newspapers that were filled with writings from men involved in the movement; only on occasion did these papers contain essays written by women.
Other European American immigrant women felt that these Italian women were invisible because of their inability to be organized. Elizabeth Gurley Flynn wrote in her autobiography that Italian women were not a part of the movement because they “were always in the background, cooking in the kitchen, and seldom even sitting down to eat with the men” (location 57). Guglielmo negates Flynn’s claims stating that Italian women were indeed active in the movement especially in locations where Flynn herself organized workers. This history becomes visible through the extensive bilingual primary source materials such as oral histories, memoirs, interviews, and archival materials in Italy and America.
Guglielmo’s discussion on race and race relations as they pertain to Italians embracing whiteness and the privileges that go along with being white is an important contribution. Although Italians were considered white, they learned that in America there were varying degrees of whiteness therefore they were seen as racially inferior to other white Americans. However, they were accepted as white by the state and thus gained white privilege. They also become politically and economically powerful during the 1930s and 1940s.
In the essay “The Triumph of Capitalism: Efficiency or Class War?” the themes major discussed are transnational culture and the intersection of women’s history and labor history. Guglielmo’s discussions of these themes add the voices of Italian immigrant women to the overall conversation of labor history in America. Living the Revolution demonstrates how transnational culture is important to familial relationships among women. Similar to the scholarship of Jefferson Cowie, Guglielmo also demonstrates how these transnational bonds were important to labor organizations. For Cowie and Guglielmo, women created spaces to strengthen their bonds. The historians that have studied the intersection of women’s history and labor history understand that these topics are “intertwined and indispensable to understanding the major problems in American history” (Couvares et al, 69). For Guglielmo, these topics are important not only to American history but Italian history as well. The Italian women were crucial to the labor movements of America and Italy.           


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