ITALIC WOMEN WHO DESERVE MORE PRAISE

Three Italian-American women politicians — Geraldine Ferraro, Ella Grasso and Nancy Pelosi — have not gotten anywhere near the acclaim they deserve. Not from the general public, not from fellow Italian Americans.

Italian-American politicians, like politicians of all ethnicities, have overwhelmingly been male, so naturally they have gotten most of the attention. But Ferraro, Grasso and Pelosi have gone places where no male Italian American has gone.

Let us count the ways.

Geraldine Ferraro was the first Italian American to be the nominee of a major party for Vice President (as Walter Mondale’s running mate in 1984). She got a lot of attention for being the first woman in this position, but not for being the first Italian American. In that race she got scant support from the Italian-American community, something that surprised and gravely disappointed her, and today she is hardly mentioned at all. So far — nearly four decades after her run — she is still the only Italian American of either gender to be the Vice Presidential nominee of a major party.

In 1974 Ella Grasso was the first — and so far only — Italian American elected governor of Connecticut, the state with the second highest percentage of Italian Americans in its population (18.6 percent; surpassed only by Rhode Island with 19 percent). That she did so was hardly mentioned — then or since. What was noted was that she was the first woman to be elected governor of any state in her own right (that is, not being the spouse or widow of a former governor). Of course, that is a significant achievement. But if she also had been the first Asian American, African American, gay American, Jewish American, Muslim American, etc., it would have gotten at least as much notice as her “glass ceiling” breakthrough.

And OK, Ferraro and Grasso are figures from the past, albeit the recent past. Nancy Pelosi is now.

Pelosi should be the most celebrated Italian American, male or female, on the political scene. After all, as the current Speaker of the House of Representatives, she is second in line to become President — right after the Vice President. And this is not her first time in this position. She also was the Speaker from 2007 to 2011. Yet if you read Fra Noi, The Italian American Tribune, Primo, Italian Americana, or any other Italian-American publication (oh how The Italic Way is missed), you’ll see almost no mention of Pelosi. And the mainstream press is oblivious to her being an Italian American.

No male Italian-American has come as close as Pelosi to the pinnacle of American politics, the Presidency. Mario Cuomo could have. In polls he was a front-runner for the Democratic nomination for President in 1988 and again in 1992, but he declined to run both times. Al Smith, who ran for President on the Democratic ticket in 1928, was one-fourth Italian, but he always identified more with his majority Irish heritage. John Adams, our second President was 1/64th Italian according to some sources. But that is too little, and too far back, to really matter. Pelosi’s heritage, on the other hand, is 100 percent Italian. So were Ferraro’s and Grasso’s.

My point is not to fault Italian-American men in politics. I want to see more Italian Americans of both genders in politics. But let’s give credit where credit is due and celebrate the achievements of Italian American women with a little more gusto. Regularly extending kudos to Ferraro, Grasso and Pelosi would be a great way to start. — BOB MASULLO

GERALDINE FERRARO

Birth name: Geraldine Anne Ferraro

Date of birth: Aug. 26, 1935

Place of birth: Newburgh, NY

Date of death: March 26, 2011 (age 75)

Place of death: Boston

Italian roots: Daughter of Antonetta (Courrieri) Ferraro, a second-generation Italian American, and Dominick Ferraro, an Italian immigrant from Marcianise (near Naples), Italy. She was married to Italian American John Zaccaro from 1960 until her death (51 years).

Claim to fame: She was the first woman and the first Italian American to run for vice president on a major (Democratic) party ticket (in 1984, as Walter Mondale’s running mate).

ELLA GRASSO

Birth name: Ella Rosa Giovianna Oliva Tambussi

Date of birth: May 10, 1919

Date of death: Feb. 5, 1981 (age 61)

Place of death: Hartford, CT

Italian roots: Daughter of Italian immigrants Giacomo and Maria (Oliva) Tambussi; learned to speak fluent Italian from her parents

Claim to fame: Was the first woman elected governor of any state without being the wife or widow of a past governor; was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1984; the National Women’s Hall of Fame inducted her in 1993; was a member of the inaugural class inducted into the Connecticut Women’s Hall of Fame in 1994.

NANCY PELOSI

Birth name: Nancy Patricia D’Alesandro

Date of birth: March 26, 1940 (age 79 in 2019)

Place of birth: Baltimore, MD

Date of death: (still alive)

Place of death: (still alive)

Italian roots: Daughter of Thomas D’Alessandro  (born in Baltimore; his parents immigrated from Montenerodomo, Abruzzo) and Annunciata “Nancy” Lombardi D’Alesandro, who was born in Campobasso, Molise. (Thomas D’Alessandro was a congressman and mayor of Baltimore.)

Claim to fame: First woman and first Italian American to become Speaker of the House of Representatives, which made her second in the Presidential line of succession, after the Vice President. Responsible for the passage of the Affordable Care Act and many other major pieces of legislation.

5 thoughts on “ITALIC WOMEN WHO DESERVE MORE PRAISE”

  1. Bob, I may be wrong about Rayburn being the 1st I-A Speaker. Below is another Taliaferro who predated him as Speaker of the House. Taliaferro is not a nickname. It was, and is, a family name that has a very proud history among southerners. Unless these guys were adopted or chose the name out of the blue, they had a link (even distant) to the Italic people.

    Robert Mercer Taliaferro Hunter (April 21, 1809 – July 18, 1887) was a Virginia lawyer, politician and plantation owner. He was a U.S. Representative (1837–1843, 1845–1847), Speaker of the House (1839–1841), and U.S. Senator (1847–1861).

  2. Nancy Pelosi may have been the first female Speaker of the House but she was not the first Italian American in the post. That honor would go to Sam Taliaferro Rayburn who was Speaker three time between 1940 and 1961.

    1. To quote the Tony Bennett album: “Let’s hear it for the ladies!” And I would also add people like Emma Bambace (first female VP of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union, and a civil right advocate) and Eleanor Cutri Smeal, an early leader in the NOW movement (National Organization for Women).

      Strictly on a historical level—let’s put politics aside for a moment–what these women have done is amazing. They are a far cry from the bimbo stereotypes beloved by Americans.

      They are role models to us all, regardless of gender or ethnicity.

    2. I don’t know where John Mancini got the idea that Sam Rayburn was even a tiny bit Italian but according to the website “Ethnicity of Celebs” ( https://ethnicelebs.com/sam-rayburn ) his Italianness was zero. From the website:

      Birth Name: Samuel Taliaferro Rayburn
      Date of Birth: January 6, 1882
      Place of Birth: Kingston, Tennessee, U.S.
      Date of Death: November 16, 1961
      Place of Death: Bonham, Texas, U.S.
      Ethnicity: English, German, Scots-Irish/Northern Irish/Irish

      1. The Taliaferros (which means “ironcutter” in Italian) are one of the early families who settled in Virginia in the 17th century. They had migrated from London, where an ancestor had served as a musician in the court of Queen Elizabeth I. The surname in that line is believed to trace back to Bartholomew Taliaferro, a native of Venice who settled in London and was made a denizen in 1562. The origins of the Taliaferro name were of interest to George Wythe, a Virginia colonial lawyer and classical scholar, who had married a Taliaferro. Wythe urged his former student and friend Thomas Jefferson to investigate the name when Jefferson traveled to Italy. Jefferson later reported to Wythe that he had found two families of the name in Tuscany, and that the family was of Italian origin. (From Wikipedia)

        Sam Rayburn may not have been aware of his Italian ancestor or, as in the case of Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, simply did not wish to acknowledge he had an ancestor named Caboto (the explorer). However, Taliaferro is clearly not a uniquely British name.

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