WOMEN WRITING RESISTANCE: Teaching Italian Immigrant Women's Radical Political Testimonies
Guglielmo, Jennifer, Transformations
"These women were not just ahead of their time, they were ahead of ours," a student says as we begin class discussion. "I never even thought feminism was like this back then. I mean, these women were talking about inner transformation as fundamental to revolutionary change." Sitting in a circle, in the elite women's uberai arts college in the Northeast where I teach, we settle in for our discussion on the writing of women whose lives unfolded far from these ivy-covered buildings, one hundred years ago. We have read a set of essays that were produced by working-class Italian immigrant women anarchists from the early twentieth century. Most had little formal education, few economic resources, and worked in New Jersey's silk mills or New York City's garment sweatshops. Until recendy, these writings were buried in archives.Yet, their words remain with us because in their day they were published in the Italian-language anarchist press.Together, these essays provide a doorway into early twentieth-century feminism as it was imagined by women on the margins.
I assign this material in my course, "Women Writing Resistance," which is designed for students to study nineteenth- and twentieth-century US history from the perspective of women cultural workers. We study how women have creatively unmasked power relations in their confrontations with colonialism, racism, patriarchy, war, and capitalism, to envision and enact alternative ways of being. Our focus is on women's writing-including speeches, journalism, letters, and memoir - in connection with other forms of creative expression, such as music, spoken word, storytelling, visual art, dance, theater, performance art, and political action.
My goals are to provide a space for students to think critically about the production of knowledge, to rethink what constitutes history, and to consider how/why women's representations of their lives change over time. Students learn from these primary sources how women experienced and shaped the defining events of the past, and how both scholars and artists today make meaning of and shape our understanding ofthat history. They also recognize the power of cultural work and see writing as a tool not only for self-discovery but for radical social change. For young people today, coming of age in a time of war, women's testimonial writing provides tools for living in deeply challenging and disturbing times. As students struggle to understand the motivations, rationalizations, and consequences of American empire-building in the twenty-first century, women's cultural work helps them to consider the human costs of US expansionism. Most students do not know this history, and the way, as historian Matthew Jacobson has written, "the modern state was built, and modern nationalism generated, in close relation to the imperialist project" (263). Women's cultural work makes this history visible. It helps students to make connections, for example, between US wars against American Indian nations in the nineteenth century, or the US war in the Philippines in the early twentieth century, and the wars in Central America, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East in the latter part of the twentieth century. Moreover, they are able to assess the collateral damage of US ascendancy to global power.
This essay explores the pedagogical practices I have developed in one section of this course, the two weeks we spend studying Italian immigrant women's radical political writing. This collection of writing was produced by women who were self-identified anarchists and activists within local grassroots revolutionary working-class movements. They were among the twenty-six million migrants who left Italy between 1870 and 1970, in search of work, and to escape poverty and government repression in Italy. They were mothers, grandmothers, factory workers, performance artists (they wrote and performed short plays and skits), and labor organizers. They were also organic intellectuals in the manner that Antonio Gramsci has explained: they were self-educated working-class activists whose politics were shaped by the needs of their communities and their desire to dismande oppressive systems of power. …