The role that immigrant and first generation Italian women played in the workforce before 1960 is not well-documented. Aside from such dramatic and tragic stories such as the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, immigrant women and their daughters have not been given sufficient credit for their role in America’s factories and canneries.
Less known, as well, is the role that women, more often as silent but important partners, played in the formation of labor unions, from the east to the west coasts. Anthony Riccio’s Farms, Factories, and Families is an important contribution to the role that Italian women have played in American life, especially the workforce.
As an oral history, it includes scores of women whom Riccio interviewed in nursing homes, senior centers, and their homes. In their own voices, the women give us an intimate view of what their lives as family members, wives, and working-class Italian women were like in Connecticut.  Since this is an aging population, it is also a very timely work. Many of the immigrant women Riccio interviewed were well into their eighties and nineties, and their stories would have been lost forever if he had not documented their experiences. Oral history is vitally important. It tells historians where to look for the real story of America, insuring that official histories do not just focus on the history of powerbrokers: politicians, industrialists, and generals.

The only correction that needs to be made to Riccio’s work is his comment that “Italian American culture is largely unwritten yet transmitted through the spoken words.” The Italian American narrative, the novel and memoirs, dates to the nineteenth century. By 1974 Rose Basile Green in her The Italian-American Novel: A Document of the Interaction of Two Cultures listed more than three-hundred and fifty Italian American novels in Italian and English. Today, hundreds more have added to the Italian American narrative.
Riccio divided his interviews into fifteen chapters, covering Southern Italian history, women’s journey to America, and their struggle for settlement in their new home in Connecticut.
Other chapters cover their roles as wives, farming women, factory workers, labor organizers, and work in war-time factories during WWII.
A point that Riccio makes that is too often overlooked in official histories is that women in the workforce in America before 1960 often made more than their husbands, especially immigrant women before 1945.

He tells us that “women working in the shirt and dress factories made more money than their husbands or fathers did.” The reason is that men more often worked for an hourly wage while women worked piece work. Another fact often overlooked is that women working in clothing factories or in canneries were skilled laborers, whose skill could not be duplicated in the short run by new workers. It would take weeks if not months for an inexperienced worker to reach the production of an experienced, highly skilled woman worker on a line or sewing machine.
In California before WWII, hundreds of canneries serviced both the fishing and the agricultural industries, employing over thirty thousand women. Often the workforce in these canneries would be composed of eighty to ninety percent women, while the men worked the heavy equipment and dock loading, jobs that did not require a highly skilled worker.
By 1920, for example, in California’s canneries, experienced adult women typically made up to sixteen dollars a day. Because of the skill level required, new hires under eighteen were started at lower wages, about twenty-five cents an hour, which increased as they became more proficient at canning. Common labor for men in the fields was little more than $1.50 to a $1.75 a day while unskilled factory workers made up to $5.00 a day. Skilled workers in the building trades in California made between $ 4.50 to $8.00 a day. Coal miners’ wages ranged from $2.50 to about $5.00 a day before World War I.
On the family farm at the time, from Connecticut to Seattle and California, women were integral to the operation of the farm. As Erminia Ruggerio reports, “If you were old enough to walk you could work on the farm. Five or six years old you started carrying bushels of eggplants, cabbage.” She tells Riccio, “I never had a childhood. . . . I didn’t have one toy when I was a child.”
Erminia’s mother had her and her eight siblings at home with the aid of a midwife. “After two, three days,” Erminia says, “she was back to work on the farm.” Erminia’s is a familiar story. While women were central to the operation of the family farm, they additionally shouldered the burden of having the children, raising them, and maintaining the household. Included in her work was canning the surplus of the annual crops, fruits and vegetables. As Erminia says, it was a labor-intensive, full-day’s process. Canned fruits and vegetables were essential to the family’s winter diet.
As skilled workers, outside the home and farm, women have been unsung participants in the American labor movement. They, after all, were the skilled workers who could not be replaced overnight without seriously damaging production, especially in the canning industries where perishable fruits, vegetables, and fish could not wait to be processed. In the chapter Italian American Women Raise their Voices: Empowerment in the Union Movement, Riccio interviewed Nick Aiello and Natalie Aiello Adamczyk who report that the young women in their garment factory went on strike first and were followed only later by the men. Jill Iannone became a labor organizer. Being trilingual, speaking Italian, English, and Spanish, she could communicate with all the women in the factory. Riccio records more than a dozen other such stories in which women took leadership roles in unionization.
With the outbreak of World War II, women entered the factory jobs vacated by men. Their contribution to the war effort is as indelible as it was central to the outcome of the war.   In Italian American Women Entrepreneurs, Italian immigrant women owned business, from grocery stores, restaurants, and taverns to dress shops and factories. From these visible positions many women went on to become community leaders as alderwomen and congresswomen. Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro explains that her mother was an alderwoman for thirty-five years, “the longest political career in New Haven’s history.”
Riccio has made an invaluable contribution to the Italian American woman’s narrative. The women he interviewed speak in their own voices, unfiltered by the bias that too commonly has marginalized women in history. It is the type of research that dismantles stereotypes and gives women a more visible place in our social order. It is a study that will serve as a resource for broader works about the role of Italian American women throughout the U.S.
Ken Scambray is the author of A Varied Harvest: The Life and Works of Henry Blake Fuller, The North American Italian Renaissance: Italian Writing in America and Canada, Surface Roots: Stories, and Queen Calafia’s Paradise: California and the Italian American Novel.

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