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Early Rough Draft of a Research Paper

First Generation Italian Women Immigrants in Toronto

In this paper I will examine the self-identity of first generation Italian women immigrants in Toronto. I will present data from interviews with immigrant families, which are archived in the "Lives and Legacies" database. I am interested in identifying patterns in the way women present themselves as individuals, as women, as family members, as Italians, as immigrants, as workers, and in other ways. My research question is the following: how do first generation Italian women immigrants define their identities in their accounts of their lives, and in statements of their values? My question is important so we can broaden our understanding of older Italian women beyond popular stereotypes. When we listen to Italian women speaking in their own words, and take into account the context of their lives, we can have a fuller understanding of who they are.

My research is based on qualitative analysis of interviews with seven first-generation Italian immigrant women and one French-Canadian woman who married a first-generation Italian immigrant in northern Quebec. The respondents ranged in age from 88 to 54 years. All of them had married and now had adult children, and in some cases, grandchildren. Three were widows. In another three cases, the women's husbands participated in the interview. The oldest member of the study came to Canada in 1928, whereas all the others immigrated between 1950 and 1965. All of the respondents settled in Toronto for their adult lives.

Reviewing the literature, it is striking that some studies of Italian ethnic identity do not consider Italian women in their own right. This may be because the largest body of literature is concerned to explain how immigrant culture is changing, and what factors will lead to its perpetuation or diminution in future generations. Therefore, there has been less written about identity formation specifically among Italian immigrant women or men. An exception is a survey study of male Italian immigrants in Calgary (Aliaga 1994). However, even in this study of men, the gender dimension is ignored as conclusions are assumed to pertain to all Italians. In this paper I argue that gender identity is a facet of ethnic identity that must be distinguished in order to understand the preservation and transformation of Italian culture in Canada.

Most of the literature reviewed sees family as central to Italian immigrant identity, and my findings agree. For example, Eyles and Perri's (1993) life history study of three generations of the Ninni family found that the family was a close-knit group. Rituals such as Sunday dinner sustained the close family bonds. Also family members supported one another through difficult circumstances such as bankruptcy and financial problems. They also celebrated fortunate life events together. These authors argue that into the third generation, "in many ways, 'family' has replaced ethnicity as the central focus of Ninni life" (p. 117).

Eyles and Perri's conclusion opposes "family" and "ethnicity" as though they are separate identities, when, in fact, ethnic identity is multi-dimensional. The identity of "Italian family" may give meaning to social identities of "family" and "Italian," as well as "immigrant." Eyles and Perri also did not compare the meanings of family and ethnicity for women and men. They present the case as though the Ninni family as a whole shares a social identity without examining the unique identities of women and men.

Cameron and Lalonde (1994) agree that self-identity is multi-dimensional and context specific. "We view ethnic identity as reflected in a constellation of social categorizations in which the self is located" (p. 515). Ethnic identification can be formed on two levels: on the interpersonal level in relation to family and friends, and on the level of the social, in relation to categories such as "Italian," "Italian-Canadian," "Catholic," and "immigrant." However, in their quantitative, comparative study of two generations of Italian immigrants, they did not isolate gender as an aspect of interpersonal or social identity. Nevertheless, their findings about social identity of first generation Italians are relevant to this analysis because 70% of their participants were female. They found that first generation Italians exhibit a strongly collective social identity. In other words, they see the self as sharing values with social groups such as the family, Italians, immigrants, friends, people of their age, religion and social class. They conclude that first generation Italian self-identity is collectivist.

Franc Sturino's (1980) study of Southern Italian immigrants in Toronto similarly placed an emphasis on family. He emphasized the cooperation and reciprocity between nuclear family, the family circle and kindred groups. The nuclear family can be seen as a cooperative economic unit with a marked division of roles. The father is the authority figure by virtue of being the family "provider" through his waged work or the family enterprise, as well as through home ownership. The mother has the role of caring for the provider and managing the household. "For the immigrant wife, her primary sphere of influence remained her home and children" (p. 92). Sturino argues that women's waged work did not threaten their husband's status for three reasons: first, it was often "home work" that could be integrated with domestic responsibilities; second, it was low-wage work and did not compete with his role as breadwinner; and third, "women's wage was often seen as an extension of her role as the family's shopper" (p. 92).

Haddad and Lam (1994) further examine the effects on the family of wives sharing breadwinning with husbands. They confirmed the finding of a strong sexual division of labour whereby, "women, even those few who were engaged in paid work, were 'housewives' and responsible for the household and children while men were the 'workers'" (p. 173). They documented how the home was a place of rest for men and a place of around the clock labour for women. The effect of women's work outside the home was to place on them a double burden of domestic and paid work. It also resulted in domestic chores being done in more isolation. However, in about half the cases, women gained more decision-making power vis-à-vis their husbands. Haddad and Lam's study had little subjective reporting of women's interpretations of their work and family arrangements, except to say that most women and men generally found their arrangements were "equal," "efficient" and "how things are supposed to be" (p. 174). They also note that women had little choice because of poor labour market opportunities.

Finally, Franca Iacovetta (1993) similarly shows that women's paid work is consistent with their collectivist, familial identities. Women's paid work is a family strategy for economic survival and success. She writes, "Certainly, much of the self-pride that Italian women expressed in relation to their labours was linked to their commitment to their family and to their ability to contribute to the well-being of their husbands and children" ( p. 95). However, she argues that women were changed by their workplace experiences over time because of the low wages, long hours and poor working conditions of the jobs available to them.

Motivated by a commitment to family, women linked their self-identification as women and mothers to the paid and unpaid labours they performed for the benefit of parents, husbands, and children. In the process they developed a sense of feminine pride… They saw themselves as indispensable to their families (p. 102).

The interview data I will now present confirms the findings of the literature that Italian women's self-identity is centred on their role in the family. It shows how, paradoxically, women create a self-identity by de-centring themselves. I will make this argument with three points: first, by showing that women have a collectivist attitude towards family; second, by pointing out how women's self-identity emerges in relation to domestic work; and third, by revealing women's independent influence on the family, in spite of their collectivist, familialist identity.

First, women see the family as a collective entity and often devote a tremendous amount of time, thought and energy to ensure its unity. The importance of family unity was strongly expressed by the women in interviews:

I: What are Italian's attitudes towards the family?

Laura: Family is the most important thing to Italians. To have a united family is the most beautiful thing you can find. (Ital 6)

I: In your opinion what is the most important thing to the Italian family?

Antonella: Unity. Having a united family is the most important thing…The unity of a family is a beautiful thing. (Ital 2)

I: What is the most important thing to the Italian family?

Vincenza: Unity. To be united. In our hearts we have to stay united. (Ital 8)

The following dialogue between the interviewer and both members of a couple, gives a glimpse of the different values the husband and wife place on family, which are reflective of their roles:

I: What do you feel is the most important thing to the Italian family?

Flora: (jumps in with a quick answer, no hesitation) To stay united.

Angelo: Yes, to stay united. To have a good family, with good health. If you have your health then you could go to work. For those who like to go to work. There are those who do not like to work.

Flora: You need "L'accordo." [Meaning: You need to get along well with one another.]

Angelo: Having a lot of money without having "l'accordo" means nothing. An old Italian man said, "You can buy everything but you can't buy good health." (Ital 7)

In this dialogue Flora quickly asserts the priority of family unity and harmony for her. Her husband, Angelo, agrees but emphasizes the values of having good health in order to work. He states that "l'accordo" is more important than money, but comes back to the primary importance of health. Next I will show how women's work is oriented to maintaining the health of the family breadwinner.

My second point is that Italian women work to achieve their ideal of family unity through domestic labour and service to their husband. In Laura's case, for example, her familial work includes a daily routine of cooking and coordination.

Laura: Everyday of my life, I woke up at six a.m. I went to church, then come home and wash and get the kids ready for school. My husband used to get up at 9 a.m. I would bring him coffee in bed, and then he would get up. I made my husband's lunch in the morning. He did not want me to make his lunch at night and leave it in the fridge. I made his lunch and his morning coffee. He would come downstairs, grabbed his "suitcase" and leave for work in his car (Italian 6).

An essential part of women's familial work is to recognize and accommodate husbands' individual needs and preferences. Thus, for Laura, the work entails more than just making coffee and lunch for her husband. It is to "bring him coffee in bed" and make his lunch in the morning because "he didn't want me to make his lunch at night and leave it in the fridge."

Such deliberate care and effort goes a long way when it comes to mediating domestic tension and averting quarrels: achieving "l'accordo." Rosa's comment on how to "keep peace in the home" is revealing:

Rosa:…Everything we accomplished we did it together, like I'm sure happened with your parents, and basically all immigrants. Italian men are tough. The women are more passive, so that we can keep peace in the home. Even when something is wrong, you have to say yes. Italians are like that. A lot of times they share an opinion but other times one sees things one way and the other sees things differently. But they are not serious problems. Sometimes even if you are sure that they are wrong, they still insist that they are right. I just say, "okay, okay." What am I to do, start a war? As long as they are not serious things, we can get through it (she laughed) (Italian 9).

Although Rosa categorizes Italian men as "tough" and women as "more passive," because "even when something is wrong, you [women] have to say yes," we need to be cautious about taking such a stereotypical dichotomy at face value. To a large extent, the Italian women in Rosa's narratives are not passive. In fact, they are the figures who "keep peace in the home," by maintaining a sense of right and wrong, by assessing whether or not the issue at hand deserves a real fight, and by purposely suppressing their own judgements whenever they deem the matter as non-serious.

This brings me to my final argument. Rosa's acute awareness of what it takes to "get through it" calls for a closer examination of how women see themselves vis-à-vis their husbands as well as their overall objectives as married woman. Laura's story of buying cemetery plots is informative in this regard:

Interviewer: What are Italians' attitudes towards the family?

Laura: Family is the most important thing to Italians. To have a united family is the most beautiful thing you can find. &hellip

My grandfather interjects: Tell her about the cemetery plots. (She laughed, almost embarrassed, and then told the story.)

Laura: When my husband died, actually before he died...You see, sometimes the woman is sneakier than the man. She thinks ahead, while the man does not...My husband used to say, "I'm going to die and I don't know where you are going to throw my body." We went to an office at Mount Hope Cemetery. We bought plots for our kids and ourselves. There are eight places in the ground for us. I made up this thing, which was like a will. I told my kids, whoever wants to come, come. Once you're dead, you're dead. I bought for everyone. I thought to myself that if my children die with nothing (poor) they would have a nice place to rest. I could not just buy one for myself. (Italian 6)

In conclusion, Laura's story of buying eight cemetery plots for herself, husband and children, and Rosa's willingness to say, "okay, okay," suggest that, in the family context, married women engage in a paradoxical dance that requires them to be simultaneously self-possessed and selfless.


Aliaga, David E. (1994). "Italian immigrants in Calgary: dimensions of cultural identity." Canadian Ethnic Studies XXVI(2): 141-148.

Cameron, James E. and Richard N. Lalonde (1994). "Self, ethnicity, and social group memberships in two generations of Italian Canadians." Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 20(5): 514-520.

Eyles, John and Eugenio Perri (1993). "Life history as method: an Italian-Canadian family in an industrial city." The Canadian Geographer 37(2): 104-19.

Haddad, Tony and Lawrence Lam (1994). "The impact of migration on the sexual division of family work: a case study of Italian immigrant couples." Journal of Comparative Family Studies XXV(2): 167-182.

Iacovetta, Franca (1993). Such Hardworking People: Italian Immigrants in Postwar Toronto. Montreal; Kingston, McGill-Queen's University Press.

Sturino, Franc (1980). Family and kin cohesion among Southern Italian immigrants in Toronto. Canadian Families: Ethnic Variations. Edited by K. Ishwaran. Toronto, McGraw-Hill Ryerson Limited: 84-104.

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