[Victoria Scavo is a graduating senior at King’s College, where she worked with my friend and her fellow Guest Poster Robin Field. I’m really excited to share her voice and writing in this excellent Guest Post, and look forward to hearing a lot more from Victoria in the years to come!]
Are Women the Reason that Gender Roles Are Still Reinforced in our Young?
King’s College, Class of 2021
I am what my strict Italian family calls a “good girl.” As I am cooking and cleaning at warp speed they say, “They don’t make them like her anymore.” When my female cousins choose to sit around on the holidays rather than help the rest of the women in the kitchen, I cannot help but think something along the lines of: “Disappointments. Every last one of them. Who do they think they are while sitting around gabbing with the men in our family?” While I think these things, I also call myself a feminist. I believe in gender equality. The question remains: how do I call myself a fighter for equality while I simultaneously tear down women and perpetuate the unfair, gendered expectations on them?
The suffocating gender roles that have been afflicting women since time immemorial are well and alive in 2021—and it appears that women may be contributing to the problem. While we live in a society that is much more supportive of gender equality, the vicious cycle of gender roles that we are fighting to dismantle are somehow still ingrained in the ways we govern ourselves. A 2020 survey by Gallup confirmed that 58% of women feel obligated to do the laundry, 51% feel responsible to clean and cook, and 50% believe it their chore to raise the children. Interestingly, these “female” responsibilities are still encouraged in the Italian culture, whether Italian mothers realize it or not. Known for the iconic movie The Godfather, Mario Puzo is one of many writers to depict the Italian immigrant lifestyle through his work. Puzo does something quite unexpected with The Fortunate Pilgrim that he does not do with The Godfather: he focuses on the women’s stories. Beyond the lure and glamorized lifestyle of the mafia are the inner workings of Italian families primarily held together through the women that embody and encourage the gender roles we know today.
Despite The Fortunate Pilgrim being over 50 years old and set 100 years ago, the gender roles portrayed in the book are alive today. Puzo gives a detailed look at the degree which women run Italian households through the characters of Octavia Angeluzzi and Lucia Santa Angeluzzi-Corbo. While the men are expected to work and bring money home, the women do the cooking, cleaning, and child raising. Additionally, they also must be at their husbands’ beck and call, leaving little time for their own selfcare. One notable scene in the novel occurs when Frank Corbo finally comes home after being away for weeks. He left Lucia Santa to fend for herself and her six children without a second thought, which greatly pained Lucia Santa. Rather than addressing the unsaid feelings between them, Puzo narrates, “She rose and went to the door where he had left his suitcase, as if he might not stay, and put it in the farthest corner of the room. Then she made him a quick omelet to go with his coffee.” Lucia Santa’s friend, Zia Louche, sees Frank and immediately gets up and gets him a cup of coffee.2 This notion to serve and satisfy the men is ingrained in these women. They prioritize their duties over anything else in fear of disappointing men or causing gossip among the community paesanes, as Italians would say.
The concept of a “good Italian girl” is emphasized in The Fortunate Pilgrim when the old Italian women gossip about the younger girls in the neighborhood. For Lucia Santa, the ideal wife for one of her sons would perform her womanly duties without complaints. This good Italian girl should make life easy for him and know her place. Contrary to this image would be the shameful girl who is promiscuous and unruly; she is the one all the women criticize for not conforming to the high expectations. While Puzo’s book may be fictional, this mindset is quite real and has transferred through many generations of Italian women, continuing to oppress women with sexist, outdated ideals.
In today’s society, the belief that women can do and be anything is often encouraged and supported by most women and men. While it may not seem surprising to see men now assuming the roles that are often attributed to women, it is important to remember how long of a time it took for this to occur. According to Pew Research, stay-at-home fathers made up 17% of stay-at-home parents in 2016; indeed, this percentage has most likely increased since 2020. In Puzo’s book, Lucia Santa seems to want this type of progress for her daughter Octavia, which is why she allows the scandalous marriage to occur between her Catholic daughter and the Jewish fiancé. Lucia Santa feels a sense of pride and security knowing that her daughter would not be forced to live the life that she wants for her future daughters-in-law. Women knew how suffocating and toxic it was to push other women to conform to those sexist standards, but it was commonplace for them to resume those roles. These were not times where they had the platforms to fight for change and liberation—all of that came much later.
Lucia Santa’s hypocrisy when it comes to the expectations for her daughters-in-law versus her own daughter explains the continued problem of why gender roles still have such a hold on women. While Lucia Santa imposed the gender roles on her daughter and then wanted better for her when it came to marriage, she still transferred a certain mindset to her daughter of what a “good” woman is versus a “bad” one. This mindset is still being taught in Italian culture today, except it has concealed itself as a form of womanly independence. I can relate to this issue considering my own mother had me standing on a chair at five years old learning how to wash Tupperware properly. My conditioning only grew from there, and by thirteen I was cooking and cleaning alongside my mother and grandmother while my dad and brother watched. While my father does participate in the cooking and cleaning on special occasions, he views it not as something that should simply be done, but as a favor to my mother, as if he is helping her workload. Likewise, my brother is expected to help out around the house, but not to the extent that I am. When he chooses not to perform certain chores, it is excused because he is a boy. When I try to do the same thing, I am reprimanded and given extra duties to make up for my disobedience.
In my mother’s eyes, teaching me these basic life skills and responsibilities aids my independence. She never wanted me to be reliant on anyone, especially a man. Little did she know, I also unconsciously learned the expectations of what women “should” be doing. Reading Puzo’s book was an enjoyable experience for me because I could relate on a personal level to the Italian culture. Some might feel that the Italian culture is often stereotyped, but stereotype or not, I love it. It is real to me and reflects my own family. What I did not expect from Puzo’s novel was how my own life was illuminated in Octavia’s character. Her anger and frustration were something I could relate to, for I also was running my household from a young age. When discussing my feelings regarding my upbringing with my mother, she was surprised to see how in a way she did unconsciously teach and reinforce gender roles in our household. Interestingly, she said to me, “One day you’ll have a family of your own, and you’ll think you’re being progressive in how you’re raising them. You’ll be trying to do better than your parents did. Then one day, you’ll have a conversation with your children and realize you screwed them up too.” We laughed at her comment and realized how parenting styles are not perfect, but they can be worked on. When I think about how I will raise my children, I can say 100 things I would do differently in hopes that I will be more progressive and stop the toxic cycle of gendered expectations. It all comes down to this thought: until women stop holding each other to toxic standards, gender roles will continue to be reinforced in younger generations. We have to do better for the sake of the younger minds of the world.
Brenan, Megan. “Women Still Handle Main Household Tasks in U.S.” Gallup.com, Gallup, 14 Jan. 2021, news.gallup.com/poll/283979/women-handle-main-household-tasks.aspx.
Livingston, Gretchen, and Kim Parker. “8 Facts about American Dads.” Pew Research Center, Pew Research Center, 30 May 2020, www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/06/12/fathers-day-facts/.
Puzo, Mario. The Fortunate Pilgrim. Ballantine Books, 1964.
[Next series starts Monday,
PS. What do you think?]