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Italian American Women and Their Cultural Tradition

Every culture devises gender roles for its members and expects them to fulfill said roles because it should supposedly be good for society at large. Yet for most of human history, genders were far from being treated equally and held in similar regard – most societies one finds in human history would invariably be patriarchal. With this in mind, it should not come as a surprise that gender roles occupy a prominent place in female thought, and female writers and artists devote much of their effort to exploring them. In traditional Italian culture, a woman occupies a subordinate position and enjoys few if any rights given to a man while having a considerable number of responsibilities at the same time. Accordingly, Italian-American women, whether they are artists, poets, or writers, seek ways to reinterpret and redefine their role as females to assume greater independence. Even though the traditional Italian culture is very restrictive when it comes to women’s place in it, Italian American women find their ways to approach it on their terms or proudly oppose it.

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Before delving into the intricacies of how Italian American authors, artists, and poets approach their cultural heritage, it is necessary to briefly outline how this culture views its women in the first place. Daniella Gioseffi’s “Bicentennial Anti-Poem for the Italian-American Women” offers concise yet vivid coverage of the largely restrictive approach that traditional Italian American culture takes to female gender roles. The poem outlines how women are supposed to be home-keepers and child-bearers, but little more than that. Moreover, it notes that the husband’s bitter jealousy toward his wife. Even manifesting in the extremes, such as beating, is acceptable from this cultural standpoint. The poem shows in no uncertain terms that women are viewed as inferior to men, and having even a single son is perceived as better than five healthy daughters. This profound inequality transits into upbringing: while men are expected to get an education and achieve great things, women are not because their lot does not go beyond giving food and birth. To summarize, traditional Italian America culture provides few if any opportunities for a woman to do anything except for bearing children and doing chores.

One of the ways that Italian American women approach this conundrum is by thoroughly reflecting on which part of their historical heritage they will appropriate or leave behind. Helen Barolini’s “How I Learned to Speak Italian” offers an example of negotiating between family and individual life for a woman of Italian American ancestry. At the beginning of her essay, the author describes her elderly grandmother. While respected and deferred to as a matriarch, Barolini’s grandmother holds importance as part of the family rather than an individual, She lives with her eldest son’s family and does all the gardening and cooking – thus, she assumes the cultural assumption that woman’s importance lies in her contribution to family rather than her achievements. The author herself, on the other hand, concludes that knowing the Italian language and culture is crucial for her identity but does not necessarily assume the gender role assumptions this culture entails. While learning the language and traveling to Italy provides her with a refined sense of identity, she remains a distinct individual in her own right and not merely an element of a given family.

Another approach is openly denouncing the restrictive notions of one’s native culture and proudly adopting the negative labels it assigns to those who do so. Louise De Salvo’s “A Portrait of the Puttana as a Middle-Aged Woolf Scholar” exemplifies this approach as it relates to an Italian American woman in public and private spheres. In traditional Italian American culture, a woman entering a public space without a man accompanying her is nigh unthinkable: women are restricted to the private confines of their households. Those who go against this rule earn the derogatory label of puttanas, and De Salvo decodes to accept it as a badge of honor rather than a negative designation. She effectively claims that, if being an independent woman that dares to enter public spaces alone makes her a puttana, then she will be one but not succumb to the gendered notion of inequality. By reinterpreting the term as something to be proud of, De Salvo disarms prejudice that seeks to keep her away from public spaces and asserts her right to traverse them as an Italian American woman.

To summarize, Italian American women of art devise different ways of approaching the highly restrictive gender roles rooted in their parent culture. Some, such as Barolini, negotiate the elements of traditional culture they want to adopt ad the parts they wish to discard, asserting their importance as individuals rather than merely elements of a larger family. Others, such as De Salvo, turn the negative labels aimed at independent women that dare enter public spaces on their own to badges of honor and bear them proudly, thus disarming traditionalist criticisms.

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