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.
In Brazil, in the fazendas, which mainly produced coffee, women kept their traditional role as “employed” wives, mothers and workers. Owners tended to import entire large families, employed en bloc in the fields through the traditional mediation of the breadwinner.
Women also emigrated on their own to become wetnurses and domestic maids. Wetnursing was typical of Tuscany, Latium, Piedmont, Veneto and Friuli, regions which experienced seasonal male emigration. Many of these wetnurses moved away, just as the male labour force had done before them.
In rural Italian society, many women had breastmilk to sell as their only ‘source of wealth’. Some breastfed the children of local rich people and aristocrats, some did the same for orphans in charity institutions, while others went abroad with prospects of good pay.
Generally, a wetnurse earned much more than a worker and enjoyed many benefits: a rich and even pretentiously elegant wardrobe; a lot of household linen and personal underwear; ornaments, called “wetnurse jewels”, which included necklaces, brooches and earrings, often in red coral; and, finally, the knowledge that they would not starve, and could live in beautiful and comfortable houses, welcomed and respected by the host family. The price to pay for all this was the need to entrust their own children to “mercenary hands”, though this was not always in practice as bad as it sounded and often meant having children looked after by female relatives.