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In the mid-1990s, police enacted a crackdown in gritty, working-class Naples among the loosely-connected clans that make up the Camorra mafia. With many of the men-folk in prison or underground, women started to step into the power void to take charge. By Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore.
Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather ends with a firmly closed door.
The door is not closed on crime or death or violence. It is closed on the new Italian-American mafia king Michael Corleone’s wife.
While Al Pacino’s broodingly dark Michael is anointed Don with a courtly kiss of the hand, his wife, the fey, blonde outsider Kay (Diane Keaton) simultaneously has the door shut on her by the consigliere.
The message is clear: As a woman she is not to be involved in the wheeling and dealing of the family; her role is one of drab loyalty. She is to remain invisible, obedient and devout to her kin.
In 1972, when The Godfather was released and women in the West were making headway at work and in the home, stereotypes about mafia wives remained rampant. Women stayed at home making the pasta, tight-lipped and faithful to the end, while their men folk did the dirty or, depending on how you looked at it, glamorous work.
The image of dutiful, patient womenfolk waiting for their warring men to return home is as old as the Greek myths. Yet, in mobster land, it isn’t entirely based on fiction. In a 2009 interview with the UK’s The Independent newspaper, one Naples prosecutor described a family dinner at the table of the influential Di Lauro clan.
It was 1981. While the men took an enemy into their family basement – where they bloodily tortured, murdered, and cut him into little pieces – the matriarch prepared the meal upstairs. When the boys came up for dinner, according to prosecutor Stefania Castaldi, “all the while, as they recounted the deed, the signore cooked up some spaghetti and served it at the table”.
“Traditionally, women were kept silent,” states Antonio Nicaso, author of Made Men: Mafia Culture and The Power of Symbols, Rituals, and Myth. Women brought up the children, ran the household, cooked the food, and cut the drugs. Arranged marriages combined clans together with women used as fodder to create alliances. As Nicaso observes: “The mafia is a patriarchal and sexist organisation. Women belong to the organisation. They are owned by the organisation.”
But, in recent decades, the role of women has shifted. In the mid-1990s, police enacted a crackdown in gritty, working-class Naples among the loosely-connected clans that make up the Camorra mafia. Around the same time inter-gang murders were rife. With many of the men in prison or buried underground, women started to step into the power void to take charge.
They included Maria Licciardi, once on Italy’s ‘30 most wanted’ list and nicknamed ‘la piccoletta’ (the little one) for her petite frame; Giuseppina ‘Giusy’ Vitale, who ordered a string of murders before turning in her own family to the authorities when in prison; Erminia Giuliano, dubbed ‘Celeste’ for her heavenly appearance; and the most famous of all, Rosetta Cutolo, known as ‘Ice Eyes’.
“The role of women is changing and they are becoming more and more important,” insists Nicaso. “Before, they were respected because they were the mother, daughter, or wife of mobsters – now they are earning more respect for their rule within a criminal organisation.”
This has been played out in the law courts. In 1990 only one woman was indicted for Mafia association – a number that soared to 89 just five years later. The trend, however, is less a reflection of a feminist revolution within the mafia than necessary measures taken to step in when brothers, husbands, or fathers are no longer able. Pushing aside male counterparts is something a woman would never presume – or dare – to do. But in a world structured around and reliant on unbreakable blood ties, where crime is a way of life, women are often entrusted with the keys over and above men who aren’t family.
And so, herald in the rise of the ‘godmother’, the ‘bosses in skirts and high heels’. In the last two decades, women have shown that they too are capable of coordinating a drug racket, administrating and mobilising members of the clan, and, when needed, wielding the knife and gun.
This was made clear in 2002 when a murder needed avenging. Women from two warring clans poured into different cars, speeding around the town of Lauro, near Naples, exchanging machine gun fire. By the end of the day two grandmothers and a teenage girl were dead.
In the mafia, “blood calls for blood,” says Nicaso.
Revenge is sacrosanct. In the mid-1950s, former beauty queen Pupetta (Little Doll) was pregnant when her husband was murdered. Taking matters into her own hands, she tracked down his killer, and in the unforgiving glare of the sun she pulled a Smith & Wesson .38 from her handbag and shot him dead. At her trial she claimed passionately, to the cheers of the courtroom, “I would do it again!”
“Their relationship with bosses, as well as the capacity to use the violence, have legitimated their leadership,” says Anna Maria Zaccaria, a sociologist at Naples Federico II University. “In the last 20 years the female role became more evident. Especially in the Camorra, they often became central in criminal affairs, also in leadership positions.”
One such woman is Maria Licciardi, ‘the little one’. Licciardi came to power after her brothers were imprisoned and her husband and nephew were murdered. She quickly weaved together the different clans around Naples to create a vast and lucrative drugs and prostitution racket.
In 2000 Licciardi ordered a series of gruesome killings that belied her small size. That year she had a feud with the Lo Russo family who, against her orders, distributed drugs that were too pure and too strong to give to addicts. Licciardi wanted it off the streets; too many drug deaths would bring the unwanted attention of the anti-mafia authorities and media. When the Lo Russos ignored her – causing a spate of fatal accidental drug overdoses – she ordered that they be brought into line, leaving Naples littered with bodies.
Brutal, yes. But Licciardi was also seen by many as more effective than the male leaders she had replaced, running, in many accounts, the spider-web of clans like a successful multinational. When finally arrested in 2001, Judge Luigi Bobbio stated, betraying a note of admiration, “the moment a woman takes charge of the organisation, paradoxically, we witness a lowering of the emotional level and a better performance of the group’s activities”.
That may be. But Zaccaria is careful to point out that women can only rise to the top with the support of the men around them – wits, charm, and intelligence is not enough. “The ‘success’ of women in the mafia depends on, to a large extent, the male legitimation of their role. In reality, women can control only some criminal activities. The ‘big affairs’ are entirely controlled by male bosses,” she notes.
They are also subject “to arcane rules, rigorous rituals, and inseverable commitments,” writes Italian journalist Roberto Saviano. Women are “caught in a confusing place between modernity and tradition, they can give death orders but can’t take lovers or leave their men… Apart from a few rare exceptions, the mafiosa exists only in relation to her man.
“Without him, she’s like an inanimate being – only half a person. That’s why mob wives appear so unkempt and dishevelled when accompanying their men to court – it’s a cultivated look meant to underscore their fidelity.”
In 1993 Rita di Giovine scandalised Italy by revealing the inner workings of her ‘Ndrangheta Calabrian mafia family as a state witness. Di Giovine insisted that her mother Maria Serraino – known as Mamma eroina – was “the boss of the family. She was the one who gave the orders, even if my brother [Emilio] was the boss in name. She decided who was to do what.”
Maria Serraino was immensely powerful within her clan. But that did not stop her being abused by her husband. Serraino was repeatedly beaten; her daughter testified that her mother was hit by a broom, breaking two ribs, when nine months pregnant.
It is often women who reinforce the traditions that keep them down. When clan boss ‘Celeste’ Erminia Giuliano was discovered in a hidden room concealed behind the kitchen cupboard, she demanded a shower, a haircut, high-heels, and a fake leopard-skin coat before she would be handcuffed. She then told her daughters: “I’m counting on you now. I am relaxed. I have taught you all the true values in life.”
From Giuliano to Liccardo to di Giovine there is no blueprint of life in the mafia as a woman – from what they carve out themselves, to what remains dictated to them. What is certain is the door is no longer completely shut. Maybe it never was. When discussing the character Don Vito Corleone in his novel The Godfather, Mario Puzo admitted that he was based not on his father, but on his mother.
“Whenever the Godfather opened his mouth, in my own mind I heard the voice of my mother. I heard her wisdom, her ruthlessness, and her unconquerable love for her family and for life itself, qualities not valued in women at the time,” wrote Puzo. “The Don’s courage and loyalty came from her; his humanity came from her.”