- Widows in White: Migration and the Transformation of Rural Italian Women, Sicily, 1880–1920, and: White on Arrival: Italians, Race, Color, and Power in Chicago, 1890–1945
When we think about the dominating migration streams of the so-called "third wave" of immigration to the United States between 1880 and 1924 those of the Jews and Italians come to mind. Both migration streams have been well-documented in numerous historical monographs and comparative studies such that one might wonder what new contributions could possibly be made. The two books under review here both address Italian immigration and ably demonstrate that there are still original questions to ask, unmined archival materials to explore, and thus new dimensions to add to our understanding of the third wave of immigration. Reeder's book, Widows in White, takes up the relationship between gender and migration while Guglielmo's book, White on Arrival, focuses on the role of race and color in the immigrant experience.
Although E.G. Ravenstein's observed more than a century ago that women dominated short-distance population movements, women were not a focus of migration scholarship. However, since the 1980s, a number of books and articles by historians, sociologists, and anthropologists have drawn attention to women migrants.1 What is less well researched is the impact of extensive male emigration on the lives of women left behind. Until Reeder's important and most welcome new book Widows in White, my own study Men Who Migrate, Women Who Wait was one of the few to consider women positioned at the other end of the migration continuum.2 Indeed there are affinities in the way these women were labeled, "widows in white" in the Italian case, "widows of the living" in the Portuguese case.
Reeder grounds her analysis in the small central-western Sicilian town of Sutera, a point of origin, it seems, for many Italian men who went to the mines of Birmingham, Alabama and some other destinations in the United States in the latter 19th and early 20th centuries. Using a broad range of sources, including passport registers, passenger logs from steamships, official correspondence from the mayor's office, vital registers and land records, newspapers, novels, travelers accounts and other sources, she reconstructs the histories of more than 1,500 Suteran families who were involved in migration. Her central argument is that [End Page 808] this mass male migration had a significant impact on the lives of Sicilian rural women, changing their ideas about motherhood, work and national belonging.
Reeder opens her book with a description of daily life in the agrotowns of nineteenth-century rural Sicily where many families were left out of landownership even after the collapse of feudalism. Honor, family and religion were the foundations of community, and women in particular were situated at the center of kinship networks through which information and labor were exchanged. Both push and pull factors stimulated the emigration of men, half of whom were married when they departed and approaching age thirty. Most were agricultural workers or artisans who left with the goal of earning enough money to improve their life at home. Reeder musters rich and convincing material to underscore the active role that women had in the decisions that sent their husbands and sons abroad. Their written permission was often evident on passport applications and in some cases women approached the local courts or police departments to register protests of their husband's decisions to emigrate (p. 88). Reeder's research lends further evidence to the argument that migration was a family rather than an individual strategy. Despite the absence of women in public spaces and the cultural images of male dominance and female deference, Reeder argues that women had considerable power in the domestic sphere and that this power was applied to...