Aileen Riotto Sirey (Founder and Chair Emerita - NOIAW)

NOIAW: 35 anni in rappresentanza delle donne italoamericane

Nov 23, 2015 2886 ITA ENG

The 70's have been an important decade among the Italian Americans: a renewed sense of pride for their heritage grew through the community, and important organization were founded. One of these is NOIAW, the National Organization of Italian American Women.

Aileen Riotto Sirey, Ph.D., is one of the founders and Chair Emerita of this beloved institution, and she is also the recipient of numerous awards including the titles of Commendatore and Cavaliere - Order of the Merit of Republic of Italy and Ellis Island Medal of Honor.

Aileen, this year National Organization of Italian American Women is celebrating its 35th anniversary. What's the story of this important institution?

While working with patients as a psychotherapist in the 1970's, I became interested in the effects of culture on personality development. There were very few resources on this subject in the literature. At the same time, I became aware that, other than the members of my own family, I had no Italian friends: I felt alienated from my culture.

I asked the newly elected Congresswoman, Geraldine Ferraro, for leads to Italian American women's organizations. She answered, "In the organizations I know, the women make the coffee and the men make the speeches. Why don't you start one?" And with her help, I did. We invited some women Gerry suggested to my home on July 14, 1980: Matilda Cuomo, Donna DeMatteo, Bonnie Mandina, Roseanne Colletti and a few others. The group agreed to start an organization. I was appointed President and we got rolling as a non-profit entity...the only national membership organization for Italian American women.

What are the main NOIAW activities today?

Our main goal is to preserve our Italian history, culture and language. Our second goal is to build a national and international network to support the educational, professional, social and political aspirations of our members. We do this today with our many program events, conferences and travel.

Through our scholarship program we are proud to have given away thousand of dollars to Italian American college women with outstanding academic records who need financial support. We administer an Exchange Program, co-sponsor the Italian Foreign Ministry (MAE) for Italian students to travel to the US and for US students to travel to Italy. We also have a Mentor Program designed to enable college students to work with already successful NOIAW members in fields the students wish to enter.

We feel that in the history of the integration of the Italian American Community into the American society, the role of the Italian American women has been at the same time absolutely essential and yet very little known and celebrated, or at least far from how they would deserve. Are we wrong?

Assimilation was the foremost goal of the immigrant generation and of the first generation born here. But our goals are probably a bit different now. While we are pretty well integrated in American society today, I believe that it is essential to have pride in our heritage and fully understand how our common history and value system effects who we are as individuals.

But I think that now we know too little or too often forget the struggles of those immigrant women. Most of them were illiterate, as were both my grandmothers. Their husbands worked long hours and these woman were responsible for raising and shaping the personalities and values of many children in their large families ... and they did it on a daily basis, with little money, while dealing with a new language and all the other difficulties that came with negotiating this new world.

You have had an impressive career, you've been awarded many times, you're a perfect representation of the success that several Italian American women have achieved during the years. Please help our readers remembering who have been, in your opinion, some of the most important and successful Italian American women so far ...

It would be fool hearty for me to try to begin to name them all. Italian American women have achieved at every level of American society and have become leaders in politics, business and the all professions. Our National Board and the Distinguished Board of NOIAW are made up of so many achieving women. Through our 35 years, we have honored hundreds of these outstanding women at our Annual Luncheon/Dinner and Epiphany events in each region of the US.

And what if we ask you about one Italian American woman who is not that famous, but still in your opinion would deserve more visibility and fame?

I can think of two women –my grandmother and my mother. They represent the immigrants and first generation in our history.

MY GRANDMOTHER: I spent many hours with my Grandmother and her women friends -women with white hair pulled back, in black dresses and stockings. They gave me the first glimpses of the power of the women from the old world. My Nonna could not read or write in Italian or English but that didn't matter. She was the powerhouse-the center of the family and in full control of her 8 children, 24 granchildren and half the neighborhood.

MY MOTHER: It was my mother who experienced the difficulties that one generation must absorb in the struggle of living between two worlds. Born in 1905 had to integrate the Italian and American part of her identity. She learned one language at home and another at school, but to her credit, she did complete High School. She struggled with two very different sets of values. As a result, she was determined to make her children Americans. My mother's goal was to leave the ways of the old world behind. However, her actions taught me all of the old world values: most important, being respectful and hard work. These were the cornerstones of the Italian ethic in America. Fortunately, unlike some of her Italian Americans friends she also pushed us to do well in school.

How do you see the future of the Italian American women

Italian American Women have broken many barriers for women in the United States. It was an Italian American woman who became the first woman Governor in the US - Ella Grasso; the first woman to run for national office was Gerry Ferraro; the First woman airline pilot - Bonnie Tiberzi; the first woman Speaker of the House of Representatives - Nancy Pelosi; the first US Saint - Mother Cabrini. Janet Napolitano was first woman in Homeland security, the first national president of the powerful women's organization NOW – Ellie Cutri Smeal. Italian American women have surely been trailblazers in our country.

It's difficult to predict the future because we are intermarrying at great rate. I know we have and will hold on to our delicious Italian Cuisine. The National Organization of Italian American Woman will work to see that future generations will not forget our history, our culture, our values and our language.

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