If I may invoke the gentlemanly title of Tony Bennett’s 1995 tribute CD: “Here’s to the ladies”–specifically, American women in politics, who are poised to have yet another of their gender nominated as a potential vice president very soon. Democratic candidate, and former vice president himself, Joe Biden has publicly committed to selecting a female running mate – almost 100 years, literally, after women earned the right to vote (August 18th, 1920).
As the old sexist cigarette TV ad used to say, “You’ve come a long way, baby!”
Also, this is not mere tokenism: many names under consideration have experience either as mayors, governors, or in Congress. Even more: Biden may well pick a woman of color, either Asian (Senator Tammy Duckworth of Illinois), Hispanic (Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham of New Mexico), or African American (Congresswomen Val Demings of Florida or Karen Bass of California, Senator Kamala Harris of California, former Georgia Speaker of the House Stacey Abrams, or Susan Rice, former President Obama’s National Security Advisor).
African American Congresswoman Shirley Chisolm, who ran her own historical, independent campaign for president in 1972, is surely looking down and smiling.
Whomever is chosen, Americans of Italian heritage will feel proud. That pride is two-pronged: a recognition that our nation has made such progress, and also that Italian American women have played a large, unsung historical role in breaking such national political barriers.
In 1974, Ella Grasso of Connecticut became the first American woman elected governor in her own right. In 1984, Congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro of New York was chosen by former VP Walter Mondale to be his vice president. And in 2006, Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi of California was chosen by her colleagues to be the first female Speaker of the House, a role in which she continues to serve – and which makes her third-in-line to the presidency
The success of Italian American women in politics shouldn’t be considered so remarkable. A quick look at history shows why.
In classical Rome, women were far more liberated than the women of other classical cultures; they could own land, write their own wills, and appear in court. Many formed advisory committees which could present their causes to the Senate. The wives of emperors or even Senators could exert both public and private influence. And the average Roman citizen treated female Roman deities with the same reverence afforded the male ones.
During the Renaissance (or, Rinascimento, to use the proper Italian term), the list of what Italian women achieved could fill an entire book. They ranged from scholars (Eleanora Cornaro was the first woman in the world – repeat: the world – to earn a university degree), artists (Sofonisba Anguissola), scientists (Laura Bassi), and mathematicians (Maria Agnesi, the “Agnesi curve” is named after her). In terms of the monarchy, Catherine di Medici became the Queen of France, and brought her Italian chefs with her. (French cooking? Hah!). Isabella D’Este, the Marchioness of Mantua, juggled children, art, politics, and wars.
And Italy itself has not one but two patron saints: Saint Francis of Assisi (male) and St. Catherine of Siena (female). Talk about a balanced ticket!
Modern Italian women made their mark as well, in a wide variety of fields: education (Maria Montessori); humanism (Ginetta Sagan, founder of Amnesty International); aviation (Rosina Ferrario); science (Rita Levi-Montalcini); journalism (Oriana Fallaci); and law (Carla Del Ponte). And someone like movie star Sofia Loren seems to possess the characteristics of all three historical eras: Roman regality (though she’s a proud daughter of Naples), Renaissance beauty, and modern, liberated woman – a triple threat.
Whomever Joe Biden selects as his female VP, she will make her own mark in history. But, to quote the old saying, you have to know the past in order to move forward into the future. Ella Grasso, Geraldine Ferraro, and Nancy Pelosi blazed a trail that all future public servants, both male and female, can easily follow. –BDC