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Articles by: Aileen Riotto sirey

  • NOIAW Board, 2009 Standing left to right: Betty Santangelo, Aileen R. Sirey, Diana Femia, Tiffany Berns, Vivian Cardia, Cristina Matera MD., Judge Angela Mazzarelli, Donna DeMatteo. Seated: Hon. Geraldine Ferraro, Matilda Cuomo.

    From Ellis Island... “You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby!”

    Over 17 million Americans of Italian ancestry live in the United States, the 6th largest ancestry group. I am one of them, but I have a confession.  I was not always proud of my ethnic identity. While I flourished in the warmth, support and love of my strong, large family and basked in the sunshine of being the oldest child of my parents, each of whom was the oldest of 8 children, when I was away from home I felt the negativity toward the Italian part of my identity. Each of us has had our own journey of awareness about our ethnic heritage; what follows is part of mine.
    The negative effects of stereotypes
    The negative effects that come with stereotyping became evident to me in my high school and college years.  There were very few students of Italian background in Lincoln High and Brooklyn College. Most Italian American parents chose to send their ‘bright’ students to parochial high school and college.  When I was given the option for parochial school by my parents I chose to continue in a public school with my friends. My Italian teacher was the Dean of Girls and I often wondered whether that was because she was better able to deal with the Italian kids who were the majority of the disciplinary problems at Lincoln.   At times I got the clear message that people thought I was ‘different’ from the other Italian American kids because I was a good student, an academic student while most were commercial students and I was considered leader. I was often chosen as a token to participate in things I wasn’t even interested in.  One example was being asked to be one of four directors of Senior Class Night. I had no interest in drama, I couldn’t read music, but I was asked to direct “Schmoo Boat”, a take-off of the musical “Show Boat”. (Fortunately for me, a freshman named Neal Sedaka provided piano accompaniment and musical guidance.) 
    In college, when I married my Irish American husband, I was pleased to change my surname to his so that my professors and my fellow students would come to know me and like me or not for who I was rather than judge me by my ethnicity. I hid my Italian background until I felt safe.
    Geraldine Ferraro and NOIAW
    Returning to graduate school, years later when I was a parent of a teenager, I began to think seriously about understanding and reconnecting with my background.  But I had no Italian American friends at that time. I had the opportunity to chat with Geraldine Ferraro, a newly elected member of Congress. She responded to my question about finding an Italian American women’s group.   “No, there are only groups with men and women” she said, “where the men make the speeches and the women make the coffee. Why don’t you start one?”   
    With Gerry’s persuasive powers and support I started the National Organization of Italian American Women in 1980 and began to unite my Italian ancestry with the pride it deserved. 
    At that time I was also seeing psychotherapy patients and wondering how their ethnic backgrounds and cultures affected their value systems and personality. There was little in the literature about Italians as the focus was largely on minorities.  Shortly thereafter I completed a study with four 10 week ethno-therapy groups where participants were tested before and after the group experience.  The experience showed that there was a significant increase in self-esteem.
    Our contribution: a few names
    Italian American women have contributed to American society and excelled in every walk of life. Here are a few examples of the barriers broken for all women in the US:
    - Mother Frances Cabrini, became the first Italian American saint in 1949. She founded 14 American colleges, 98 schools, 28 orphanages, eight hospitals and three training schools.  She died in 1917 and was canonized in 1949.
    - Angela Bambace, an 18-year-old Italian American woman worked in a shirtwaist factory in New York and helped to organize the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) in New York and Maryland. She was elected Vice President of the ILGWU in 1956, becoming the first woman to penetrate the all-male leadership of the ILGWU.
    - Giuliana Cavaglieri was born in 1921 in Venice and came to the United States in 1939.  She developed flame-resistant fibers, designed ways to prevent static accumulation in synthetic fibers, and created improved ‘permanent press’ properties for textile;
    - In 1975 an Italian American woman became the first elected woman Governor of a State in the US.  It was Ella Grasso of Connecticut.
    - An Italian American woman was the first woman to run for a national office at the highest level —Geraldine Ferraro who ran for Vice President in 1984.
    - The first woman ever to become editor of  The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) in its 116-year history was Catherine De Angelis, M.D. in 2000. Vice- ean at Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, she put herself through college and medical school. 
    - Actress Ida Lupino was one of the first women to be elected to the prestigious Hollywood Director’s Guild. She has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
    - In 1973 American Airlines was the first major airline to hire a female pilot.  That pilot was an Italian American Woman, Bonnie Tiburzi.
    - Actress Penny Marshall (Carole Penny Masciarelli) made the remarkable transition from actor to one of the few successful women directors in Hollywood. Her second film, “Big” in 1988 made her the first woman director in American history to direct a film that earned $100 million.
    - Mary Lou Retton was the first female gymnast from outside Eastern Europe to win the Olympic gold medal in the women’s individual all-around competition at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, C.A. She was elected to the National Italian American Sports Hall of Fame in 1992.
    - Patricia DeStacy Harrison became Co-Chair of the Republican Party, Under Secretary of State and later the first female CEO of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
    My own Italian American journey
    Our achievements in the US are perhaps the result of our common traits of strong family values, creativity, hard work and the ability to endure hardship, abilities which were well tested by the immigrant Italians in the United States.
    In the early 1900, the world witnessed the largest recorded exodus of a single ethnic group in history. It was estimated that by 1920 five (5) million illiterate souls left Italy with very little money, and a dream of a better life. My father was brought here from a sulfur mining town in Sicily at the age of six.  He and my four grandparents were part of that great exodus in the early 20th Century. 
    During that time the African American scholar, Booker T Washington (c.1856 – 1915), in his record, The Man Farthest Down,  said that “The Negro is not the man farthest down. The condition of the coloured farmer in the most backward parts of the Southern States of America, even where he has the least education and the least encouragement, is incomparably better than the condition and opportunities of the agricultural population in Sicily.” 
    However, this is not HIS story but HER story, the story we tend to overlook about the powerful women who came before us.
    My maternal grandmother was orphaned and raised by her sisters in a small hamlet in the hills of the Province of Enna.  She came to the United States with her older sister at the age of 15, married at 17 and gave birth to my mother shortly after. I spent many hours with Grandma and her women friends, all in black dresses and stockings with white hair. They gave me the first glimpses of the power of the women from the old world.  My Nonna could not read or write in Italian or English but that didn’t matter. She lived her life in Brooklyn as if in a village in Sicily. She was surrounded by her ‘paesani’ and rarely ventured out of the neighborhood.  Life in Brooklyn was much better than in Italy because my grandfather had a steady job as a street cleaner with the Department of Sanitation in NYC.
    My mother was born and raised on the lower East Side of Manhattan moving to Broolyn in her early teens. She experienced the difficulties that one generation must absorb in the struggle of living between two worlds. Born in 1905 and named Gaetana at birth, she was inexplicably called Josephine when she went to school. She had to integrate the Italian and American part of her identity as she spoke one language at home and another at school.  To her credit, she did complete High School. But her strongest drive was her determination to make her children Americans. She worked seasonally in a children’s coat factory as a “Finisher”.  Mom’s goal was to leave the ways of the old world behind. But aware or not, she taught me all of the ‘old world’ values.  But unlike some of her Italian American friends, she wanted me to do well in school. I recall her cousin saying, “Why are you letting your daughter go to college. My daughters are out making $75 a week.  Send her to work!” 
    Values are passed with ‘mother’s milk’
    We have done well. Statistics collected by Calandra institute of the 2012 US Census figures of Italian American women shows that indeed we are doing well, and there are some interesting differences with our non-Italian sisters. A higher number of Italian American women were married, a lower number were divorced, separated and widowed, but surprisingly, a higher percent were never married. We kept pace with the national averages in education with women of all backgrounds, but more recently, Italian American women have moved ahead of those national averages and attained higher levels of education than non-Italian women.  The statistics show higher percentages of Baccalaureate, Master, Profession Degrees and Doctoral degrees.  
    In the ‘70s there was an expression in vogue.  ‘We’ve Come a Long Way Baby’. And we have.
    Comparing my daughter’s life and mine with my mothers and grandmothers tells its own story. The goal of my parents was assimilation. We have assimilated into American society and made many contributions for our American sisters whom we have surpassed in some ways. 
    The goal of my grandmother was simply to survive, to preserve and feed her family. My mother’s goal was to make her family American while mine was to balance a career and provide a stable home and education for my daughter, Dr. JoAnne.  My daughter, whose two girls are attending prestigious colleges, is a full professor at an equally prestigious medical school.
    Through the centuries Italy’s greatest export has been human beings.  As ‘exports’ we have greatly benefited from the opportunities in this country. But while we have benefitted, we have also contributed a great deal to this nation by sharing those common traits I mentioned of strong family values, creativity, hard work and the ability to endure hardship. These values are passed with “mother’s milk” from one generation to the next.  They were the values that made Italy the cradle of Western Civilization and  have enabled each of us to succeed making valuable contributions to our beloved United States of America.
  • Op-Eds

    The Day After

    Like many Americans, I am still stunned by the election results, primarily because of the vitriol expressed by the President Elect during his long and contentious campaign.  How could he attack or insult so many different groups and still remain the people’s choice?  It seemed like a betrayal of those cherished values that I learned in my elementary school years during World War II.  At that time we were engaged in the greatest struggle in our history while trying heroically to preserve the ‘land of freedom and opportunity’ where people of all races and religions were expected to try to live in peace and harmony.

    I heard no expressions of these values during the Trump campaign.

    Yet they were a key part of a belief system expressed by Presidents from Roosevelt to Obama during the years this ‘older American’ listened.  And while it was politics as usual during those years with the inevitable differences in foreign policy, over raising or lowering taxes, or dealing with the infrastructure etc., there was always an expressed respect for harmony in our diversity.

    Our President Elect has espoused or actually demonstrated disrespect for women, people of color, the disabled, immigrants, Muslims and many more.  Is this how we will flush away the American dream? Or can we believe that President Trump will be different from candidate Trump? I sure hope so!

    For me the most disturbing characteristic of this campaign was Trump’s attitude toward women. He seems to see them as objects, not as individuals in their own right...less intelligent, inferior creatures subject to the convenience and entertainment of men like him. He ran against one of the smartest most knowledgeable women in this country, a woman arguably better trained and prepared for the job than any man ever to place his hand on that iconic bible. It’s sad to see that sexism is still very much alive.   

    But Hillary was able to rise above the insults. She said we owed the president elect our open minds...and vowed to give him just that.  In her formal concession speech she also cautioned us not to abandon our ideals as she tried to bring all Americans together.  Hillary added a stirring and memorable message to women:

    To all the women, and especially the young women, who put their faith in this campaign and in me, I want you to know that nothing has made me prouder than to be your champion.

    I know that we still have not shattered that highest glass ceiling. But some day someone will -– hopefully sooner than we might think right now.

    And to all the little girls watching right now, never doubt that you are valuable and powerful and deserving of every chance and opportunity in the world.


    Thank you Hillary.


    Aileen Riotto Sirey is the founder and Chair Emerita, National Organization of Italian American Women

  • Hillary Clinton with Geraldine Ferraro, first woman on a White House ticket. Photo by Suzanne Plunkett

    Presidential Elections, The View from the Italian-American Community. Aileen R. Sirey on Hillary: “The Right Choice, For Women and for Us All”


    If the hand placed on that ceremonial bible on January 20, belongs to Hillary R. Clinton, a long and difficult journey will come to an end. It is a journey that began with Abigail Adam’s amazing letters to her husband John while he was attending the Continental Congress in 1776. Abigail lovingly requested that he not forget “the ladies.” She warned him, tongue in cheek, that “if particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.”


    Unfortunately, John did forget. So did many who followed him. But Abigail and her sisters did not. She probably intended a bloodless rebellion, but it was not without its heavy casualties…and almost all came from the ranks of the ladies. From the ratification of the US Constitution in 1776, it took 72 years for the first women’s rights convention to be held in Seneca Falls, N.Y.; it took 144 years for women to get the vote in the United States; it took 205 years before the first woman was nominated to national office and finally, it was 240 years later that a woman was nominated for President!


    Why did it take so long? What primitive fears do men have about women and power that makes them dig in so hard? Is it the awesome power to bring life into the world that so frightens men into needing to control everything else? Whatever it is, it’s time to get over it!


    As for me, when Hillary broke that ultimate glass ceiling, I had a very personal moment. Tears welled in my eyes when she said, “I accept your nomination for President of the United States”, because in those seconds I was also remembering the voice of my dear friend. “My name is Geraldine Ferraro and I accept your nomination as Vice President….” It saddened me to think Gerry was not here to witness this important event in our history…. a moment we often spoke about.


    The night that Gerry was nominated in July 1984, a handful of members of the National Organization of Italian American Women sat in my Riverside Drive apartment watching the event on television. CNN cameras were also in my apartment as they covered the convention and switched back and forth between my apartment and Gerry’s mother’s apartment. A big part of the story was that the first woman nominee for national office on a major party ticket happened to be the daughter of an Italian immigrant!


    Italian American women have often been in the thick of the battle for women’s rights. While Hillary doesn’t claim Italian heritage, there were a surprising number of Italian American women who cut through the ‘underbrush’ ahead of her. The first woman elected Governor in U.S. (1975) was Ella Grasso, the first woman Vice Presidential candidate (1984) Geraldine A Ferraro, (both of whom served in Congress) and the first Woman Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi. Serving in congress now we have: Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR), Diana DeGetter (D-OR) Suzan DelBene (D-WA) Virginia Foxx (R-NC) Elise Stefanik (R-NY—also the youngest woman ever elected to Congress). Past members of Congress include: Susan Molinari, Marge Roukema, Connie Morella and Melissa Hart. We point with special pride to Congresswomen Rosa DeLauro, who is still serving after 25 years, and Nancy Pelosi, who have been in Congress 29 years.


    Just last month our organization celebrated the appointment of Janet Difiore the Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals and of the State of New York, and Maria Vullo Superintendent of Insurance and Finance. We also can’t forget that the first Saint in the US Mother Cabrini (1945) was Italian American as was the first woman pilot for a major U.S. airline (AA) was Bonnie Tiberzi (1973). Italian American Women have made many contributions in the struggle for parity with their brothers.


    The battle for women’s rights was and continues to be very difficult. Women, on average, earn less than men in virtually every single occupation for which there is sufficient earnings data. In 2015, female full-time workers made only 79 cents for every dollar earned by men, a gender wage gap of 21 percent. (1) We need more provisions for child care, and women’s health care to enable women to compete in the workplace.


    At the highest levels of government we see the same inequality. Today women comprise 19.3% of the House of Representatives and 20% of the Senate while in the Scandinavian countries women claim 40% of the legislative bodies. We can’t begin to mention the number women leaders of other countries, which number in the 80’s.


    Many years after her nomination Gerry and I were having a casual lunch when our conversation meandered to a discussion of politics. I asked her, “Do you think we will see a woman nominated for President in our lifetime”?

    To my surprise Gerry responded, “We will have a Black president before a woman.”

    “Oh no, I don’t agree,” I said giving her my reasons. But Gerry was correct! I sorely regret that she is not here to see the election season of her friend Hillary. She would have enjoyed it.


    Personally, putting gender issues aside for a moment, the Hillary I know is head and shoulders smarter, more experienced and better prepared to lead this country than the narcissistic, reality TV star with poor impulse control. I’d trust her any day!


    We can take joy that a woman has attained the nomination to the highest office in the land...and we will certainly take greater joy if she is elected. There is no denying that we have made progress since Abigail made her polite request. But we have much more work ahead of us. Congress needs more women. Businesses need more female executives. And Hillary needs to be elected!


    1. Institute for Women’s Policy Research, 1200 18th Street NW Washington DC


    * Aileen Riotto Sirey is the founder and Chair Emerita, National Organization of Italian American Women