“Fragile” Women

Though Italian emigration has been extensively studied since the late 19th century, the considerable research on the subject has mainly focused on male emigration. Study of female emigration has reflected the ideological parameters of the period in which scholars were writing.

Women who remained at home were the first to suffer the consequences of male emigration: they looked after their children and elderly relatives, working both as housewives and in the fields. They made textiles and were also in charge of family finances, replacing their absent men folk. In many villages the society thus became strongly feminized, as entire family groups of men emigrated, together or within the span of a few years.

The phenomenon of women increasingly taking over male roles at the end of the nineteenth century is clearly shown in notaries’ deeds, which often name women as contractors of all kinds of agreements, and particularly in purchase contracts.

Then, little by little, women won their place in the world of paid employment.

The first industrial sector in which female emigrants found a place was the textile industry, starting from French factories in the Lyon area. Another increasingly common activity for housewives, especially in North America, was to offer bordo (board), that is to say to take in fellow Italians as boarders. This was a typically female job, combined with various kinds of cottage industry, because it allowed women to remain the “angels of the house”, while earning some money and contributing to the improvement of the family ménage.

Picture of a wetnurse who migrated to France with the baby and his mother
Picture of a wetnurse who migrated to France with the baby and his mother
Austria, Holhsburg, about 1909. A group of miners with the women who cooked at their camp
Austria, Holhsburg, about 1909. A group of miners with the women who cooked at their camp
U.S.A., California, Truckee, early 20th century. Luisa and Leone Cristofani in front of their café
U.S.A., California, Truckee, early 20th century. Luisa and Leone Cristofani in front of their café
France, Lyon. The Falsone sisters, originally from Vigevano, who worked as washerwomen
France, Lyon. The Falsone sisters, originally from Vigevano, who worked as washerwomen