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Reviewed by:
  • Merchants, Midwives, and Laboring Women: Italian Migrants in Urban America
  • Carol Lynn McKibben
Merchants, Midwives, and Laboring Women: Italian Migrants in Urban America. By Diane C. Vecchio (Champaign, University of Illinois Press, 2005) 152 pp. $35.00

In this book, Vecchio examines the multiple forms of wage labor for Italian women in comparative perspective, challenging the view that Italian immigrant women in early twentieth-century America engaged in work only as factory laborers and only in major urban centers. Vecchio analyzes Italian women's work experiences on both sides of the ocean—in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and Endicott, New York, and in the village of Santi Cosma e Damiano, Sicily, though she also compares variations of women's workforce participation by region in Italy.

Vecchio uses a variety of social-science data, business and employment records, census material, and public-health records, as well as oral-history interviews to make a compelling argument that Italian women, both in Italy and in the United States, had a long and varied history of labor-force [End Page 306] participation—from agricultural, domestic, and factory labor to small business enterprise, and professional occupations (notably midwifery, which required a high level of skill and education). Vecchio contends that Italian women immigrants came to the United States at the turn of the century fully prepared to participate in whatever economic opportunities were available to them in a variety of locales. The more common perception is that Italians migrated only to a few large cities as common laborers and that Italian women had no prior experience with work outside the home before immigration.

She grounds her work in the new feminist literature on Italian immigration history, anthropology, and sociology. It takes issue with push/pull migration theories that shortchange the complex processes of migration and reduce women to mere appendages in them. Instead, like Miriam Cohen, Workshop to Office (Ithaca, 1993); Kathie Friedman-Kasaba, Memories of Migration, (Albany, 1996); Donna Gabaccia and Franca Iacovetta, Women, Gender, and Transnational Lives (Toronto, 2002); and McKibben, Beyond Cannery Row: Sicilian Women, Immigration, and Community in Monterey, California, 1915–1999 (Champaign, 2006), Vecchio shows that women migrants, like their male counterparts, made rational choices about migration, as individuals and as members of families; they took full advantage of the economic opportunities available to them at destination sites.

She begins her analysis in Endicott, location of the Endicott Johnson Corporation. Endicott Johnson offered Italian women employment in the shoemaking industry, conforming to "Italian traditions of providing support to extended families" in a system of welfare capitalism and family-friendly corporate culture (44). The company offered medical benefits and housing as well as "welfare work" in the form of American cooking, sewing, and housekeeping classes (48–49). Child care was not available, but Endicott Johnson allowed working mothers to create flexible schedules to take time for family needs. Italian immigrant women responded to the welcoming policies of Endicott Johnson by embracing the company and resisting union activism.

By contrast, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, did not offer the type of light-industry factory labor available to Italian women immigrants in Endicott. Yet, Italian women continued their traditional contributions to family economies in Milwaukee by taking boarders and setting up such businesses as grocery stores, drugstores, and confectionery shops that catered to a thriving Italian ethnic enclave. Most important, Milwaukee's large community of Italian immigrants attracted a significant number of professional midwives who migrated on their own, were highly trained and well-educated, and often used their own names in their professional practices, whether or not they were married.

The focus on paid work is obvious in the title of the book, but the analysis might have emphasized that Italian women's work for wages was part of a much larger project that included the work of family, kinship, and community. This ambitious and valuable comparative analysis [End Page 307] could have included more about return migrations, the Italian communities in Endicott and Milwaukee, and their relations with other immigrant communities. Vecchio's work makes an important contribution to an interdisciplinary scholarship that utilizes gender analysis to provide a better understanding of the complexity of migration for ethnic groups, and to explain the variety...


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pp. 306-308
Launched on MUSE
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