Academic journal article Labour/Le Travail

Women, Work, and Protest in the Italian Diaspora: An International Research Agenda

Academic journal article Labour/Le Travail

Women, Work, and Protest in the Italian Diaspora: An International Research Agenda

Article excerpt

Donna Gabaccia and Franca Iacovetta, "Women, Work, and Protest in the Italian Diaspora: An International Research Agenda," Labour/Le Travail, 42 (Fall 1998), 161-81.

HOW DO WE THEORIZE global migration, family economies, and labour activism from a women-centred perspective? How do feminist and gendered frameworks challenge histories of diasporas, nationalisms, and the international proletariat? We aim to explore these questions by focusing on the roughly 27 million people who in the 19th and 20th centuries left the geographical expression called Italy. Our work brings together colleagues from four continents in a collaborative project on Italian working women in Italy, Europe, North and South America, and Australia. (1)

We intend to probe persistent myths and distorted images of Italian women, and rethink some of the categories central to migration and diaspora scholarship. Indeed, our project should help historicize social scientific analyses of migration that treat step-migration, return migration, and transnationalism as new phenomena characteristic of today's migrants in contradistinction to the settler immigrants of the past. The latter term has emerged in anthropological studies of contemporary migration, which generally focus on one migrant group in the sending and receiving regions (usually the US) and depict transnationalism as a life-style or an identity facilitated by a post-modern, high-tech, late 20th century global economy. (2) This approach slights the long history of migration and the migrant workers who in the past also criss-crossed the globe and built cross-border lives.

The sheer volume of Italian migrations of the past two centuries suggests the centrality of migration to modern Italian life. The total number of Italians who left home in these years about equalled the population of the newly unified Italian nation. The demographic impact abroad was dramatic and enduring. Early 20th-century Buenos Aires and Sao Paolo emerged as semi-Italianized cities. Both New York and Toronto at times have claimed Italian populations larger than Rome's. Italians have also composed a sizeable component of the labour forces of France, Switzerland, and Germany. Today, the numbers of descendants of Italian migrants, estimated at more than sixty million, exceeds the population of Italy. Still, historically, Italian immigrants did not fit the settler profile very well. Between 1870 and 1970, about half of Italy's migrants returned home, and a large but unknown proportion emigrated repeatedly over several decades. Migration thus became an ordinary way of life for generations of people. Most of Italy's citizens probably enjoyed ties of kin and friendship to Italians abroad. In certain regions of heavy emigration, such ties persisted, giving rise to a culture in which emigration, transnational families, and politics abroad were normal and integrated features of everyday life. (3)

Reflections on Current Scholarship

HERE, WE REFLECT critically on the theoretical implications of recent scholarship for writing a woman-centred, gendered, and proletarian history of the Italian diaspora. Diaspora scholarship generally highlights questions of identity and language, usually to the neglect of analyses of class, state, and society. Recent comparative studies in Italian migration, including one now underway on labour migrants and militants, have appropriately drawn attention to class, politics, economy, and culture, but have not satisfactorily integrated women's lives or gender dynamics into their frameworks. (4) In considering the relevant literatures, we offer some suggestions for rethinking the connections among gender, culture, class, and state in the history of immigrant workers and communities. So doing, we have had to confront a wide variety of national historiographies and considerable variation in quality and quantity of research undertaken on Italians in different nation states. More particularly, we explore the complex ways in which economy and culture have shaped male and female agency during periods of Italian migration and labour activism. …

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