`Cowering Women, Combative Men?': Femininity, Masculinity, and Ethnicity on Strike in Two Southern Ontario Towns, 1964-1966

By Ventresca, Robert A. | Labour/Le Travail, Spring 1997 | Go to article overview

`Cowering Women, Combative Men?': Femininity, Masculinity, and Ethnicity on Strike in Two Southern Ontario Towns, 1964-1966


Ventresca, Robert A., Labour/Le Travail


Robert A. Ventresca, "'Cowering Women, Combative Men?': Femininity, Masculinity, and Ethnicity on Strike in Two Southern Ontario Towns, 1964-1966," Labour/Le Travail, 39 (Spring 1997), 125-58.

ON THE AFTERNOON of 31 August, 1964, 450 women employed at the Lanark Manufacturing Company, an auto parts plant in the southern Ontario town of Dunnville, walked off the job; the bargaining committee for local 523 of the United Electrical Radio and Machine Workers (UE) announced that negotiations with Lanark management had yet again broken down. Filomena Carbone, an Italian immigrant from the Abruzzi region of southern Italy, who had been working at the factory for only a few months, went home instead of joining her co-workers on the picket lines. Though the strike lasted five months, Carbone stayed away only until mid-October when, at the prodding of her husband, she crossed the picket line to resume work at the Lanark along with about a hundred other workers. Far from expressing solidarity with her striking co-workers, Carbone declared the strike to be, in her own words, "stupid." "Why people got to stay out when people need the job?" she asked. "It was five, six months with no pay, and for what?" (1)

In February 1966, 1200 male workers employed at the Page-Hersey and Camrose Tubes pipe-manufacturing factories in nearby Welland, Ontario, walked off the job when their union -- also local 523 of the UE -- rejected the last-minute offer from the owners, the Steel Company of Canada (Stelco). Prior to the strike, Angelo Rocco, an Italian immigrant from the Catanzaro province of Calabria, had no experience with labour militancy, and had been employed in factory work for only a few years. Yet Rocco joined the strike with little hesitation or deliberation. Confident of his rights as a worker, and in his status as a Canadian, mindful of his role as family breadwinner, and indignant at management's attempts to do away with certain privileges, Rocco joined forces with other immigrant and Canadian-born workers to defend class interests. "I knew my rights .... I knew I could be there [on the picket lines] like anybody else and fight for my own rights," he declared. "It doesn't matter if I was Italian or German or French, ... we all were there for the same reason." (2)

The contrasting stories of Carbone and Rocco harken back to assumptions about culturally-ascribed gender roles among southern Italians which defined the scholarly literature on the subject since the late 1960s. Filomena Carbone, for her part, seems to fit neatly the early orthodoxy of commentators which emphasized the subordination of the southern Italian woman. (3) The simplistic description of the submissive Italian woman in the earlier works of anthropologists, sociologists, and some historians, in turn, helped contribute to an equally simplistic thesis among North American labour historians (when they bothered to broach the subject of labour militancy among Italian immigrant women at all) which placed undue emphasis on Italian women's docility, if not their outright hostility to unions. Endowed with a world view that dictated obedience and submissiveness, the argument went, Italian immigrant women made for poor union-material, proving difficult to organize, and sometimes even acting as strikebreakers, often with the encouragement, if not at the insistence of their families. (4)

Angelo Rocco, too, seems to provide an anchor to the so-called model of male dominance-female submission. (5) Rocco's active participation in the 1966 strike may very well have been expected from someone born and raised in a society in which male privilege was exercised largely within the public sphere. Freed from the constraints of a patriarchal order that dictated the strict supervision of women's public activities, but obligated men to take a public role as the family's "representative," chief decision-maker and principal breadwinner, Rocco saw participation in the 1966 strike as a duty to be done in order to fulfil familial obligations and defend his own masculine self-identity. …

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