Deriving Strength from Annoyance: A Conversation with NOIAW's Founder and Chairwoman
The National Organization of Italian American Women (NOIAW) will celebrate its gala luncheon on Sunday afternoon. In anticipation of the event, which will honor Rachael Ray, and feature guests Nancy Pelosi, Geraldine Ferraro and Joy Behar, we asked NOIAW’s Founder and Chairwoman, Aileen Riotto Sirey—for those who are unfamiliar—what her organization is all about. Riotto Sirey is a trained psychotherapist who became involved with NOIAW through her studies on shared ethnic identity.
What kind of outreach does NOIAW have for young Italian Americans?
We’re finding that young people aren’t connected to the ethnic issue until later on. At this stage they’re struggling to find their identity in other areas, like sexual identity. Most of the women who come to us are in their thirties, because that’s when they begin to explore that side of
themselves and ask themselves questions about ethnicity. Most of our board is made up of women in their thirties.
So people come to NOIAW in search of their roots?
They come for ethnic identification. We have to understand our past in order to build a future.
What do you think about the bipolar stereotype that exists in Italian American culture, where the male is a macho figure and the woman a submissive one?
Those of us of Italian background know that’s not the case. It’s purely a stereotype. I grew up with a very strong maternal figure, a mother who called the shots and scolded my father. I wasn’t treated any differently from my brothers and I think that in my background, the women were powerful.
Do you think there’s a lack of organizations like yours that serve the Italian American community?
There aren’t that many organizations with a focus. You know, there are the ones that get together and eat and celebrate holidays. We have a more serious mission. We don’t do any anti-defamation work—that’s something we specifically wanted to avoid—and instead emphasize putting out the best role models. We honor these women with special programs. We also have a mentorship system that links up successful professionals with young people who are entering the working world. We’ve always found that Italian Americans have money, that they’re financially prosperous, but that younger generations may lack guidance, especially if their parents aren’t college-educated.
Aside from the mentorship program, how else does NOIAW interact with young people?
I had an idea that came to me in the middle of the night. I was thinking about the image that Europe has of the U.S., post-9/11 and the war in Iraq, and I thought, why don’t we bring Italian kids over here to show them what American life is like? So we had 18 or so young Italians come here and live with Italian American families and they had a great time, did a lot of fun things around the city. We’re trying to do the same thing with Italian American kids and have them stay with families in Rome. Unfortunately we’re encountering some bureaucratic difficulties and as it stands, we’ve set them up in a hotel and they’ll stay with families on the weekends.
What’s the feeling of connectivity between the women here like?
My friend said it’s like coming in on the second act of a play and everyone knowing what the first act was like. There are a lot of common experiences and similarities.
What are those similarities?
Family dynamics for sure. When Italians left their country years ago and then had to assimilate, they held on to certain things to anchor them, and they passed those on to their children and grandchildren.
Do you feel there’s a reluctance to identify as Italian American?
It’s funny. Tomorrow we have a singer coming in, Michael Amante, who’s going to perform a song for Rachael Ray’s mother. And the moment we announced that I got all these angry emails saying he’s not a real Italian, that he’s masquerading and that he’s really Polish! But I thought, I don’t care—after all he wants to be identified as Italian American. So in the past maybe there was a reluctance, but not now. We’ve had great role models, and I think that in some small measure we’ve contributed to that.
What do you think about a woman possibly becoming president?
Nothing would excite me more. Of course, our organization isn’t political and we’re not behind any specific candidate, but I’m a supporter of Hillary’s.
Do you have any experience with Italian politics?
Actually, in Italy politics got in the way of things. We tried to hook up with some women’s groups there but they’re all political, in line with a particular party. We would meet with one group and then another one from some other political affiliation would get offended. We try to avoid any political affiliations.
Do you bring attention to the immigrant story?
We absolutely do. We’ve brought attention to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, where most of the women who died were Italian or Jewish immigrants. I feel close to that story because my grandmother was a seamstress. She stayed very Italian her whole life. She basically transplanted her village and its culture from back in Italy to Brooklyn. She barely spoke English, and that was actually pretty tough for my mother growing up. My mother told me she remembers crying when her mother would send her to the drugstore to get something, but couldn’t tell her the word for it in English. She would have to show up there not knowing how to explain what it was she had to buy. When I asked my mother why she named me Aileen, she said it was because it was an English name.
Your organization has a funny acronym. I’m sure you know that in Italian “noia” means boredom, or an annoyance.
Yes, I know! And I view it as a positive thing. I see us as a necessary annoyance to men in the Italian American community, especially their male-centered organizations. I boycotted the Italian American Museum’s gala last year because they had a whole list of speakers, and not one woman. I was upset, and I called them up and told them I will find you a woman to speak. I thought it was unacceptable.
There are lots of Italian American organizations where the women just fetch the coffee and the men run the show. I’m glad that we’re a contrast to that. Those organizations also tend to focus their efforts on protesting the Sopranos, a show which, personally, I love. I think people’s fascination with that show wasn’t about crime, but about the Italian American family. It could be natural that men are more sensitive to that issue because for the most part, they’re also the ones that fall victim to prejudice.
And what are your thoughts on being Founder and Chairwoman of an organization like NOIAW?
I was the Vice President, and Vice Chair, of NIAF (National Italian American Foundation) for 12 years. But never the President, never got that cigar. That should tell you something. I love being the President here; the only unfortunate thing is that it’s twice as hard for us to raise money. All the big bucks always come from the men.