March is Women in History Month and this is the final feature on influential Italian and Italian American women from centuries past, as well as from more recent times. We hope you enjoyed reading about these groundbreaking women who helped change society, both in Italy and in the United States; women who enriched the world through the arts, who left their mark in the sciences, politics and in business.
Amelita Galli-Curci (1882-1963) was one of the best known coloratura opera singers of the early 20th century with her gramophone records selling in large numbers. Born into an upper-middle-class family in Milan, she studied piano at the Milan Conservatory, winning a gold medal. She was inspired to sing by her grandmother and honed her technique by listening to other sopranos, reading singing-method books and practicing piano exercises with her voice instead of using a keyboard. Galli-Curci made her operatic debut in 1906 in Trani, Italy, as Gilda in Giuseppe Verdi’s “Rigoletto.” She quickly earned acclaim throughout Italy for the sweetness and agility of her voice, as well as her captivating musical interpretations. In 1908, she wed a nobleman, the Marchese Luigi Curci, attaching his surname to hers. They divorced in 1920 and the following year, she married Homer Samuels, her accompanist. She toured widely in Europe, Russia and in South America, singing two performances of “Lucia di Lammermoor” with Enrico Caruso in Buenos Aires. She arrived in the United States in 1916 as a virtual unknown. Her stay was intended to be brief, but the acclaim she received was such that she accepted an offer to sing with the Chicago Opera Company. She also signed a recording contract with the Victor Talking Machine Company. In 1921, she joined the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, remaining with the Met until her retirement nine years later. She died in 1963 at the age of 81. Galli-Curci’s voice can still be heard on CD re-issues of her 78-rpm recordings of songs, duets and arias.
Maria Nazarena Majone (1869-1939) was Mother General and co-foundress of the Figlie del Divino Zelo FDZ (Daughters of the Divine Zeal) or FDZ. She was born in Graniti, in the province of Messina, Sicily. She was the last of six children born to Marta Falcone and Bruno Majone. Her father worked as a forest ranger on the large feudal property of the Marchese of Schisò, while her mother tended to her home and raised her children according to strict moral and religious principles. Maria’s childhood was happy and serene. Tragedy struck her family when at eleven years old, her father died. Despite the hardships, Maria retained her cheerful personality and was always available to assist those who requested her help. At the age of twenty, she met two sisters who had come to Messina to assist the orphans of the city. She volunteered her services to the Blessed Annibale Maria di Francia, who operated a Christian mission. Maria pledged to give her life in service and in 1892 she took her vows under the name Sister Nazarena. For many years, Sister Nazarena’s dedication and sacrifices were immense, so much so that she was chosen to become the co-founder, along with Father Annibale, of the Confederation of the Daughters of Divine Zeal. Her strength and resolve would be greatly tested when, on December 28, 1908, Messina was hit by a devastating earthquake which killed over eighty thousand. Sister Nazarena became the FDZ’s first Mother Superior in Messina and went on to found the House of the FDZ in Taormina. She also served in the mission in Rome and then returned for a time to Messina. She died in Rome in 1939 at the age of 70. For her life of service and dedication to the needy, which she carried out with great humility and sweetness, the Vatican began the process of canonization in 1992. She was proclaimed Venerable (Blessed) by Pope John Paul II in October of 2003.
Mabel “Nell” Taliaferro (1887-1979) was an American stage and silent screen actress. She was known as the Sweetheart of American Movies during the early days of film. Taliaferro was descended on her father’s side from one of the early families who settled in Virginia in the 17th century, whose roots were in northern Italy. Born in New York City and raised in Richmond, Virginia, she started her acting career at the age of 12, landing small parts in local theater productions. In 1899, her family moved back to New York City. It was there that she met and married Frederic Thompson, the well-known theatrical producer who launched her career. After a tumultuous marriage, Mabel divorced Thompson and decided to focus on the cinema. In 1912, the Selig Studios cast her in the film version of “Cinderella” which co-starred her future husband, Thomas Carrigan. Her performance as Cinderella made her a household name. Starring in over twenty films, her final one was “My Love Came Back” in 1940. She also appeared on numerous television shows, continuing to perform well beyond her ‘official’ retirement.
Edith Taliaferro (1894-1958) was Mabel’s younger sister. She was a popular Broadway actress of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. A skilled and engaging comedian, she was active on the stage until 1935. She is best known for her 1913 performance in “Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm.” At the age of ten, she was earning $100 per week and was one of the highest paid actresses of that time. She was also the youngest Shakespearean actress on the stage portraying Puck in a production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” before an audience at Princeton University in 1904. Most of her later work was in film and on radio. Edith Taliaferro died after a long illness in Newtown, Connecticut in 1958 at the age of 63.
Geraldine Ferraro (1935 – 2011) was a member of the United States Congress and was the first woman to be a Vice Presidential candidate. Born in Newburgh, New York, Ferraro was the daughter of Italian immigrants and was raised by her mother after her father and two younger brothers died before she was ten years old. She earned a bachelor’s degree at age 20 and taught second grade in Astoria, Queens for several years. Unsatisfied, she decided to attend law school and earned a Juris Doctor degree with honors from Fordham University School of Law in 1960, going to classes at night while continuing to teach during the day. She was one of only two women in her graduating class of 179. Ferraro joined the Queens District Attorney’s Office in 1974 and in 1977 headed its newly formed Special Victims Bureau that dealt with sex crimes, child abuse and domestic violence. After being elected to Congress, she made it a priority to focus on legislation to bring equality for women in the areas of wages, pensions and retirement plans. She successfully achieved these reforms as part of the Women’s Economic Act. Ferraro, who was elected to Congress in 1978, served the borough’s 9th Congressional District until 1984. In 1980, she co-founded the National Organization of Italian American Women, which sought to support the educational and professional goals of its members and put forward positive role models in order to fight ethnic stereotyping and was still a distinguished member of its board at the time of her death. The biggest moment in her career came in 1984, when former Vice President and presidential candidate Walter Mondale selected Ferraro to be his running mate in that year’s election. Ferraro became the first woman and the only Italian American to be a major party national nominee. Under the Clinton administration, she served as a United States Ambassador to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights from 1993 until 1996. In 1994, Ferraro was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame and was a fellow at the Harvard Institute of Politics. She passed away on March 26, 2011 due to complications from myeloma.
Ella Grasso (1919 – 1981) was an American politician who served as the Governor of Connecticut from 1975 to 1980. She was the first woman to be elected governor in the United States. Born Ella Tambussi in Windsor Locks, Connecticut, to Italian immigrant parents, she learned to speak fluent Italian from her parents. She earned her Bachelor and Master’s degrees at Mount Holyoke College. After graduation, she served as a researcher for the War Manpower Commission in Washington, D.C., rising to the position of assistant director of research before leaving the Commission in 1946. Mrs. Grasso’s entry into politics came in 1942, when she joined the League of Women Voters. In 1943, she became a speech writer for the Connecticut Democratic Party. In 1952, Mrs. Grasso was elected to the Connecticut House of Representatives and served until 1957. She became first woman to be elected Floor Leader of the House in 1955. In 1958 she was elected Secretary of the State of Connecticut and was re-elected in 1962 and 1966. Mrs. Grasso was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1970 and held the seat until 1974, when she decided to run for Governor of Connecticut, winning the election. In March 1980, Mrs. Grasso was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and resigned from the governorship on December 31. Less than six weeks later, she passed away and was laid in state at the Connecticut State Capitol.
Maria Montessori (1870 – 1952) was an Italian physician, educator and innovator, acclaimed for her educational method that builds on the way children naturally learn. She was born on August 31, 1870, in the town of Chiaravalle, in the Province of Ancona, Le Marche, Italy. Her father, Alessandro Montessori, was an official of the Ministry of Finance. Her mother, Renilde Stoppani, was well-educated for the time and was the great-niece of Italian geologist and paleontologist Antonio Stoppani. Maria was very close to her mother who readily encouraged her to pursue her education. Well-schooled and an avid reader, unusual for Italian women of that time, the thirst for knowledge took root in young Maria. She immersed herself in many fields of study before creating the educational method that bears her name.
Maria was a sterling student and her first intent was to become an engineer upon graduation, an unusual aspiration for a woman in her time and place. When she graduated in 1890 at the age of 20 (with a certificate in physics and mathematics), she had decided to study medicine instead, an even more unlikely pursuit for Italian women in the late 19th century. She applied to the University of Rome’s medical program, but was rejected. Maria took additional courses to better prepare her for entrance to the medical school and persevered. With great effort she gained admittance, opening the door a bit wider for future women in the field. When she graduated from medical school in 1896, she was among Italy’s first female physicians.
From 1896 to 1901, Montessori worked with and researched children who were experiencing some form of cognitive delay, illness or disability. She also began to travel, study, speak and publish nationally and internationally, coming to prominence as an advocate for women’s rights and education for mentally disabled children. She joined the board of the National League and was appointed as a lecturer in hygiene and anthropology at one of the two teacher-training colleges for women in Italy. In 1900, the National League opened the Scuola Magistrale Ortofrenica for training teachers in educating mentally disabled children. Montessori was appointed co-director. During her years at the school, Maria developed methods and materials which she would later adapt to use with mainstream children.
In 1907, Maria accepted a new challenge to open a childcare center in a poor inner-city district. This became the first Casa dei Bambini, a quality learning environment for young children. The youngsters were unruly at first, but soon showed great interest in working with puzzles, learning to prepare meals and manipulating materials that held lessons in math. She observed how they absorbed knowledge from their surroundings, essentially teaching themselves. Based on her observations, Montessori implemented a number of practices that became hallmarks of her educational philosophy and method. She replaced the heavy furniture with child-sized tables and chairs, light enough for the children to move and placed child-sized materials on low, accessible shelves.
Within two years, additional schools were opened and in 1909, Montessori held the first teacher training course in her new method. In the same year, she described her observations and methods in a book titled “Il Metodo della Pedagogia Scientifica Applicato All’Educazione Infantile Nelle Case Dei Bambini” (The Method of Scientific Pedagogy Applied to the Education of Children in the Children’s Houses). Montessori’s reputation and work began to spread internationally as well. She gave up her medical practice to devote more time to her educational work, developing her methods and training teachers. In 1919, she resigned from her position at the University of Rome, as her educational work was increasingly absorbing all her time and interest. In the years following and for the rest of her life, Maria dedicated herself to advancing her child-centered approach to education. She lectured widely, wrote articles and books and developed a program to prepare teachers in the Montessori Method. Through her efforts and the work of her followers, Montessori education was adopted worldwide.
As a public figure, Maria also campaigned vigorously on behalf of women’s rights. She wrote and spoke frequently on the need for greater opportunities for women and was recognized in Italy and beyond as a leading feminist voice. Maria spent her final years in Amsterdam. She died peacefully in a friend’s garden on May 6, 1952. There are now more than 22,000 Montessori schools in at least 110 countries worldwide.