Italians were the largest group of immigrants to the United States at the turn of the twentieth century, and hundreds of thousands led and participated in some of the period’s most volatile labor strikes. Yet until now, Italian women’s political activism and cultures of resistance have been largely invisible. In Living the Revolution: Italian Women’s Resistance and Radicalism in New York City, 1880-1945, Jennifer Guglielmo brings to life the Italian working-class women who participated in these labor actions and helped to shape the vibrant radical culture that expanded into the emerging industrial union movement. Living the Revolution is now available in a new paperback edition. In the following excerpt from the book, we meet one of the remarkable women that helped shape the dynamic, active culture among Italian immigrant women in early-twentieth-century New York.
From Living the Revolution: Italian Women’s Resistance and radicalism in New York City, 1880-1945 (pp. 110-111, 112-113):
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In no way did Natalia Garavente fit the image of the poor working girl. She was instead “not a lady to be trifled with.” She went by Dolly in the solidly blue collar waterfront town of Hoboken, New Jersey, where she grew up, just across the Hudson River from Lower Manhattan. She immigrated as a child in 1897, with her family of educated and skilled lithographers from a northern Italian village near Genoa. At the time, Hoboken was home mostly to unskilled laborers from southern Italy, with sizable Irish and German immigrant communities, and smaller numbers of other working-class groups. Against her parents’ wishes, Dolly fell in love with a young Sicilian immigrant from the neighborhood, a prizefighter with tattooed arms named Anthony who boxed under the name Marty O’Brien. To attend his matches, she went in drag, with her brothers, wearing their clothes, her hair stuffed under a cap, and a cigar dangling from the corner of her mouth.
Soon after they met, Dolly and Marty eloped and moved into a tenement in Hoboken’s poorest section. The birth of their first child a year later in 1915 almost killed both mother and son. Dolly was small, weighing only ninety-two pounds at the time, while the baby was over thirteen pounds. Dolly’s mother Rosa was the midwife but called in a doctor for help when the birth became life threatening. He “tugged away with forceps, ripping the baby’s ear, cheek and neck.” But it was even worse: “The newborn did not breathe. Thinking him dead, the doctor turned instead to treat the mother.” Rosa turned to the baby. Scooping him up, she held him under cold running water to get his blood moving. To everyone’s amazement he began to cry.
Like most working-class families, Dolly and Marty held several jobs to get by. Marty was a shy, quiet man who worked at different times as a shoemaker, a boilermaker in the shipyards, a part-time bootlegger, and a firefighter. Dolly was a chocolate dipper in a local candy factory and studied midwifery on the side. She would follow in her mother’s footsteps to become one of the neighborhood’s most trusted midwives. Hundreds of babies came into the world through her hands, and she was well known for her ability to perform safe abortions. At the height of Prohibition, she and Marty also opened a saloon together in Hoboken, on the corner of Fourth Street and Jefferson, calling it Marty O’Brien’s.
In many ways, Dolly was Marty’s opposite: outgoing, social, and ambitious. Between the saloon and her work as a midwife, Dolly came to know most everyone in Hoboken. Perhaps most revealing of her popularity is that she was named godmother to eighty-seven children, many of whom she delivered herself. She parlayed her social networks into local political power by the 1920s, when she reputedly ran half of Hudson County as the leader of the Democratic Party for Hoboken’s Third Ward. As ward boss she was respected for her no-nonsense manner and ability to help Hoboken’s Italians in their dealings with the city’s largely Irish public officials. In exchange for political favors, she was rumored to deliver six hundred votes at election time to the city’s Democratic Party. Dolly also threw her energies behind her son, who had his own dreams of escaping the poverty of Hoboken to become a successful artist. Her son was Frank Sinatra. [ . . . ]
While few Italian immigrant women would become ward bosses or raise legendary performers, the material realities they encountered through their own migration led many to connect with the life of their communities. In doing so, many defied popularized notions of the cloistered, downtrodden, all-nurturing mamma. Dolly’s story is one of many that take us into the complex humanity of Italian immigrant women. She was anything but a victim. Throughout her life she embodied a full range of possibility. While her actions were at times controversial, she was decisive, savvy, and acted on her own behalf and in service of those in her community. It seems she learned this from her own mother Rosa, whose combined wisdom and ability to act was what saved her grandson’s life.
Dolly and Rosa’s stories reveal how Italian immigrant women confronted the challenges and traumas of modern urban industrial life by literally taking matters into their own hands. They also point to three common methods that women employed to survive the shock of arrival: building and sustaining everyday networks of reciprocity and mutual aid; engaging in patterns of subterfuge, waged in the most intimate relationships; and pursuing spiritual work, including healing practices, religious devotion, and the transmission of sacred knowledge to the next generation. These strategies were each firmly rooted in female traditions of resistance in Italy, crafted and recrafted again during the violence of state formation, severe economic hardship, and mass emigration at the turn of the century. As women migrated, they carried these practices across the globe, adapting them to new contexts and challenges. Networks of support and mutuality came to include new neighbors and co-workers, as well as formerly distant kin and friends, all of whom helped women to find jobs, housing, childcare, friendship, and romance, as well as spiritual, emotional, and intellectual sustenance. Daily life remained firmly rooted in relationships with paesani, family, and friends from the village or region of origin. But women’s lives unfolded in urban, multiethnic, working class communities and through a variety of relationships that increasingly transcended the boundaries of region, language, religion, race, and nation.
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From Living the Revolution: Italian Women’s Resistance and Radicalism in New York City, 1880-1945, by Jennifer Guglielmo. Copyright © 2010 by Jennifer Guglielmo.
Jennifer Guglielmo is associate professor of history at Smith College. She is author of Living the Revolution: Italian Women’s Resistance and Radicalism in New York City, 1880-1945 and coeditor of Are Italians White?: How Race Is Made in America.
- Sinatra, Nancy. Frank Sinatra, My Father. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1985. 40.↩
- This composite of Dolly Sinatra (1896-1977) comes from the following sources: Sinatra, Frank Sinatra; Gennari, “Mammissimo”; Meyer, “Frank Sinatra”; Pignone, The Sinatra Treasures; Lahr, Sinatra, Fagiani, “The Italian Identity of Frank Sinatra”; Petkov and Mustazza, The Frank Sinatra Reader; Hamill, Why Sinatra Matters; Pugliese, Frank Sinatra; Rolling Stone, 25 June 1998, 57; Lowenfels, “Frankie’s Fight”; and the U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of Census, Fifteenth Census of the United States: 1930, Hoboken, Hudson, New Jersey, roll 1349, 9B, 290, image 819.0; Social Security Death Index 151-32-9978 (1958-59).↩
- Sinatra, Frank Sinatra, 36; Pignone, The Sinatra Treasures, 14. Frank Sinatra was born on 12 December 1915.↩
- Lowenfels, “Frankie’s Fight,” 3.↩
- Phrasing inspired in part from Meena Alexander, The Shock of the Arrival↩