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What are the strengths of this early draft as it now stands? What are the weaknesses? Comment on how the draft could be improved.

Strengths of the Draft

The early draft includes most of the elements that should be present in the final paper:

Weaknesses of the Draft

Few researchers can present their findings well in the first, or even the second, draft. This early draft can be improved substantially through attention to the following weaknesses:

Final Version of Research Paper

Selfless Selfhood:
Familialist Identities of Italian Women Immigrants

"Italian men are tough. The women are more passive, so that we can keep peace in the home" (Italian 9). Rosa, a 59 year Italian immigrant to Toronto her husband and herself in terms of the stereotypical opposition between tough Italian men and passive, home-centred women. She tells of how reluctant she was to immigrate to Canada, for example. She had not wanted to leave her mother but did so, in the end, only because her husband "told me we must." In no part of her story, however, does Rosa lament her position as a wife. On the contrary, she exhibits pride in her marriage to a "good man," pride in what she and her husband accomplished together, and even pride in her own passivity. She tells a younger female Italian interviewer: "Well, you know how husbands are... We put up with a lot (as women). The youth (young women) would not put up with that today. They get divorces." This paper explores how Rosa, and first-generation Italian women like her, achieve a positive self-identity as women, even while they espouse beliefs in women's passivity and subordination to husbands—values that are stereotypically associated with having a poor self-image.

Through qualitative analysis of interviews with Italian immigrant families, I will explore the apparent contradiction that Rosa's story presents: older Italian describe themselves as continuously subordinating their own wishes to those of their husbands and children, yet they appear to derive a positive sense of self by doing so. To understand how Italian women achieve this sense of pride and fulfilment, I will explore facets of their identity as women, as family members, as Italians, as immigrants and as workers, in the context of their relationships and life circumstances.

The interview data are from the "Lives and Legacies" database. The interviews include 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, at the time of the interview, 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.

The research literature on the Italian immigrant family in Canada, and the primary data from interviews with women, bring new complexity to the simple stereotype of "passive," compliant Italian women. Listening to Italian women give accounts of their lives and statements of their values, the key aspects of identity that emerge from the interviews include familial identities of wife and mother, and the identities associated with being Italian, being immigrants and being workers. These themes also run through the literature on Italian-Canadian immigrants, but many studies privilege analysis of ethnicity over gender and other social identities. A large body of literature is primarily concerned to explain how immigrant culture is changing, and what factors will lead to its perpetuation or diminution in future generations. Not all such studies of ethnic identity, however, examine the distinct processes of identity formation for Italian immigrant women and men. For example, in a survey of male Italian immigrants in Calgary the gender dimension is mostly ignored, as conclusions are stated as though they pertain to all Italians (Aliaga 1994). I would argue that in order to interpret changes in Italian culture in Canada (for example, as Rosa noted, the higher divorce rate in the second generation), gender identity must be considered in conjunction with other dimensions of self-identity.

In addition to ethnicity, some studies explore the family as central to Italian immigrant identity. 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" rather than maintaining that social identities are multi-dimensional and interacting. Belonging to an Italian family gives meaning to particular familial identities (mother, father, daughter, son, grand-daughter, grand-son), as well as to being Italian, being an immigrant or descendent of immigrants. More seriously, Eyles and Perri do not compare the meanings of family and ethnicity for women and men. They present the case as though successive generations of the Ninni family share fairly unified social identities without examining how gender differences complicate intergenerational differences.

In contrast to these, a quantitative study in social psychology by Cameron and Lalonde (1994) makes the argument that self-identity is multi-dimensional and context specific. The authors "view ethnic identity as reflected in a constellation of social categorizations in which the self is located" (p. 515). Ethnic identification can emerge 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." Not even this comparative study of two generations of Italian immigrants, however, isolates gender as an aspect of interpersonal or social identity. The findings about social identity of first generation Italians are, nevertheless, relevant to my analysis because 70% of their participants happened to be female. The study found that first generation Italians exhibit a strongly collective social identity. In other words, members of the first generation see themselves as closely sharing values with members of the family, other Italians, immigrants, friends, people of their age, religion and social class. The study concludes that first generation Italian self-identity is collectivist. Given that the majority of the sample is women, this finding supports observations from the interview data about Italian women.

Within literature that includes a gender analysis, a special emphasis is on the gender division of labour within the family. Franc Sturino's (1980) study of Southern Italian immigrants in Toronto, for example, describes the Italian nuclear family 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 does not disrupt their homemaker/caregiver status for three reasons: first, it is often "home work" that can be integrated with domestic responsibilities; second, it is low-wage work and does not compete with the husband's role as breadwinner; and third, "women's wage is 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 confirm the finding of a strong gender 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 in the priority they gave to paid work because their labour market opportunities were severely limited.

Finally, Franca Iacovetta (1993) similarly shows that women's paid work is consistent with 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). She argues, however, that women were changed by their workplace experiences over time and began to express discontent towards employers for the low wages, long hours and poor working conditions of the jobs available to them. Iacovetta, therefore, does not portray Italian women as downtrodden. On the contrary, their hardship translated into feelings of pride:

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 confirm findings, such as Iacovetta's, that familial roles are central to Italian women's self-identity. I will show how, paradoxically, women create a self-identity by de-centring themselves—that is, by giving more prominence to husbands and children in their own life stories. The women interviewed in this study place the highest value on their work to achieve family unity rather than any personal accomplishments that reflect on them as individuals. Accordingly, they tend to express their sense of self most readily in relation to domestic work. Nevertheless, their stories show that through their familialist identities they exert an influence on the family, in which they take personal satisfaction.

As noted, women see the family as a collective entity and often devote a tremendous amount of time, thought and energy to ensure its unity. In the interviews, women emphatically expressed the importance of family unity:

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. (Italian 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. (Italian 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. (Italian 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 as homemaker/care giver and bread winner:

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." (Italian 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 then reasserts the primary importance of health. The dialogue reveals the couple's view of themselves as a cooperative unit with a division of responsibilities: "L'accordo," sustained by the wife, contributes to the husband's health, which enables him to go to work and fulfil his role as the family breadwinner. Unity and "l'accordo" are not simply attractive ideals, therefore, but are cornerstones in the family's economic strategy of reliance on the male breadwinner.

For the wife, achieving and maintaining "l'accordo" also requires concrete, concerted, challenging work: domestic labour, childcare and service to the 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 their husbands' individual needs and preferences. Thus, for Laura, the work entails more than just making coffee and lunch for her husband. "L'accordo" requires her 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. The larger context of Rosa's comment, which I quoted at the beginning, that women "keep peace in the home" further reveals how women strive to achieve "l'accordo":

Rosa:$hellip;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 the 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 confrontation, and by purposely suppressing their own judgements whenever they deem the matter as non-serious.

Rosa's acute awareness of what it takes to "get through it" calls for a closer examination of women's self-understanding vis-à-vis their husbands, as well as their overall objectives as married woman. Laura's anecdote about buying cemetery plots illustrates my argument that women's "passivity" is an active accomplishment, and that women achieve a sense of self by working towards family unity:

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)

Laura's concern for family unity and her care for her husband's "body" extends, symbolically, beyond death through her "sneaky" act of foresight: buying the family's cemetery plots. She emphasizes that she "could not just buy one for [her]self," but her selflessness in this matter also reflects her power to have made provisions for the families unity even after her husband's death and her own.

In conclusion, Laura's story of buying eight cemetery plots for herself, her 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. Sometimes women's selflessness is taken to imply that they are merely servile and lacking in agency. Without denying that patriarchal family relations involve women's subordination to men, and all the suffering and loss of human potential this may entail, the interviews show that women's self-sacrificing behaviour for family is, nevertheless, for them a source of positive identity. Women's agency is masked behind their objective of creating a unified family, but to this end, they can exert influence and be active agents in their own identity formation and their family's future.


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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