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Angelina Napolitano and the History of Women

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On April 16, 1911, in Sault Ste Marie, Angelina Napolitano killed her husband, Pietro, with an axe.  In the article, “Murder, Womanly Virtue and Motherhood: The Case of Angelina Napolitano, 1911-1922,” historians Karen Dubinsky and Franca Iacovetta explore the causes behind the murder, the resulting trial, and its fallout.  In doing so, Dubinsky and Iacovetta argue that “the social meanings attached to the woman’s life, and especially her crime, were profoundly shaped by prevailing assumptions about gender, race, and class.”  Dubinsky and Iacovetta draw this conclusion by taking what could be categorized as a “gender history” approach to their subject.  But what is gender history and how does it differ from women’s history?

Gender History vs Women’s History

Gender history while looking to understand the experience of women does so by emphasizing the interconnectedness and complexity of multiple categories such as gender, class, and race/ethnicity.  This differs from women’s history where the focus has been on understanding the historical role and identity of women as women.  As such, gender history, while being relatively new, has undoubtedly changed the historiography in regards to studying women.  I believe that the main reason behind the historiographical shift is the methodology driving gender history.  A gender history approach reframes our understanding the role of gender in constructing race/ethnicity and class identities.  This reframing, in turn, allows historians to explore the gendered nature of society.  For example, Dubinsky and Iacovetta in their article, analyze the ethnic/racial and immigrant background of Angelina Napolitano in relation to her gender.  While Dubinsky and Iacovetta note that “Napolitano was an atypical victim of abuse,” they argue that the resulting trial and subsequent social fallout, “sheds light on situations that, to varying degrees, many more immigrant and non-immigrant women faced during the period.”   In fact, as Dubinsky and Iacovetta saliently observe, their method of historical analysis not only helps understand the experience of women, their analysis also “contributes to the literature on immigration and to studies of racial ethnic prejudice.”

Domestic Violence

In this post, I will explore Dubinsky and Iacovetta article, analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of gender history in studying the history of women.  Firstly, I would argue that by employing a gender history approach, Dubinsky and Iacovetta help reveal how gender-based ideologies are constructed.  They do so by considering the “theme of domestic violence.”  Through exploring this theme, Dubinsky and Iacovetta reveal “the varied meanings contemporaries attached to more general notions of marriage, womanhood, and motherhood, and to women who act as agents.”   However, in revealing how gender-based ideologies are constructed, Dubinsky and Iacovetta focus less on femininity and rather instead stress more the importance of males and masculinity in the lives of women such as Angelina Napolitano.  This, in turn, raises fundamental questions about the future direction of gender history and candidly asks how far away from the traditional emphasis of women’s history is too far.

Gendering class

Unquestionable, nevertheless is the significance of Dubinsky and Iacovetta’s article in broadening our understanding of the relationship between gender, class, and race/ethnicity.  The strength of the article stems from the way gender history offers multidimensional perspectives that ultimately produce new and fascinating directions for further study.  For example, Dubinsky and Iacovetta look to place the actions of Angelina Napolitano in a socio-economic context by analyzing class in relation to gender.  Firstly, they describe the deterioration of the Napolitano marriage “against a backdrop of acute financial insecurity and Pietro’s deepening sense of failure as the family’s chief breadwinner.”  By viewing this sense of failure, through a lens of what I would call “gendering class,” Dubinsky and Iacovetta are able to argue convincingly that, “[Pietro’s] crisis in masculinity appears to have been triggered by his inability to purchase a family home and manifested itself in bouts of drunkenness and increasingly cruel behavior towards his wife.”

Gender and race/ethnicity

Dubinsky and Iacovetta’s analysis of race/ethnicity and gender paints a similar picture, emphasizing the centrality of stereotypical male traits in understanding the social depiction of Italian immigrants.  Dubinsky and Iacovetta first note how Italians were “treated as a highly suspect group prone to drink, overly sexual, and highly excitable and temperamental.”  They then argue that these stereotypes when viewed through a gendered lens illustrate how contemporaries held “deep-seated concerns about the sexual threats that men, especially foreign men, posed to women.”  These connections between race/ethnicity and gender are telling, especially in the example of the Napolitano case where Dubinsky and Iavocetta note how “Pietro Napolitano provided a fitting villain: the ‘foreigner’ who preyed on women’s bodies.”


So what can we conclude from Dubinsky and Iacovetta’s article?  What are the strengths and what are the weaknesses of gender history when studying the history of women?  Firstly, we need to understand the methodology involved in writing gender history.  The emphasis on the interconnectedness of categories such as class and race/ethnicity arguably pushes the role of males and masculinity onto centre stage.  Is this a weakness when studying the history of women.  Perhaps, as seemingly this marginalizes the role of women in historical analysis.  However, I would suggest that by emphasizing the role of males and masculinity, we can begin to understand the power dynamics that women such as Angelina Napolitano faced.  The actions of Angelina Napolitano, although murderous, suggest an attempt confront the unequal gendered world she lived in.  As such, I would argue that future historians of gender should seek a balance between the working of masculinity as well as femininity.


Karen Dubinsky and Franca Iacovetta, “Murder, Womanly Virtue, and Motherhood: The Case of Angelina Napolitano, 1911-1922,” Canadian Historical Review, LXXII:4 (1991), 506, 507, 508, 509, 518, 522, 523.

Written by mannis2

September 3rd, 2011 at 12:04 pm

Angelina Napolitano

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An immigrant to Canada who murdered her abusive husband in 1911, igniting a public debate about domestic violence and the death penalty.

Connect the life of Angelina Napolitano with immigration at the turn of the century, as well as the rights of women, and the theory of separate spheres.

Written by mannis2

August 5th, 2011 at 7:46 pm

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