FROM Spring 2009 Italian Americana, cultural and historical journal.

Old World Daughter, New World Mother is a provocative meditation on feminism: a symphony of intellectual, historical, economic, political, social, emotional, and personal aspects playing their part in a final creation that holds together not only the story of Maria Laurino, but also other ambitious second generation immigrant women–perhaps Italian Americans in particular, but certainly not limited to that ethnic group.

Laurino, author of the best selling book, Were You Always an Italian, grew up in a traditional household that honored women who cared for their families, who sacrificed individual dreams for the well-being of the group. Her father, breaking the mold so many ethnic fathers broke in the 70s, encouraged his daughter to establish an independent life and a career. So off she went.

At Georgetown University, Laurino ‘assumed the identity of a girl reporter,’ found a championing mentor–Jeane Kirkpatrick, ardent anticommunist and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, nonetheless–and began looking for answers to what became, for her, a lifelong question: female autonomy. Is it possible? Can autonomy create parity in a society built on competition and profit?  Do women really want autonomy?

At this point in the book, Laurino pulls out her powerful writing skills and begins, like the master she is, to twirl, cut, expose, and cite literature as well as scientific reports that lead along the path to answering her question. At the same time, readers ascend the steps of her impressive journalistic career.

As she moves from the mice-infested, exciting and sexually polarized Village Voice office to New York City Mayor David Dinkin’s money-laden digs, we hear from Chaucer’s Wife of Bath, Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami, phallocentric challenged French feminists, and young NYU students who can’t define feminism.  We learn about philosopher Eva Feder Kittay’s concept that ‘everyone is some mother’s child,’ statistics from Australia’s daycare system,  a summary of British psychoanalyst’s John Bowlbey’s attachment theory,  and the author’s own Uncle Patsy who says ‘ev-ah-ree-tings-ah-boolsheet.’

Motherhood culminates the discussion of autonomy and equality. “The most enduring and difficult conflict for all women who want to combine motherhood with personal ambition has less to do with defined maternal roles than the absolute dependency of an infant,” she writes.

To foster true feminist equality and autonomy, Laurino urges a defined chlid-caring partnership between parents, as well as for government to spend more on child care than on prisons, and that women’s autonomy concerns gain top billing in political discussions.

As a mother, she can’t help wondering if her fingers were stained by the grapes in her Old World? Genetic and ancestral patterns ‘hover about us throughout or lives.’  Can family life possibly be a ‘joy-filled reality of attachment and dependency’ and not a purposeful oppression of individual freedom?

The book surprised me.  The cover and title promised a story about mothers and daughters, different, for sure, than what was delivered.  As much as mothers and daughters, Laurino’s meditation honed in on daughters and ‘feminist’ fathers, sisters and successful brothers, the political dynamics of female and male co-workers, and the responsibility of wives and husbands.

Either way, as we read Laurino’s book we ponder: who are we, where did we come from, where are we going?  Like many Italian Americans of her generation, Laurino has done well in the New World; her heart, however, hovers in a More-Perfect World and her mind reaches out for the irretrievable Old World; the Old World of our common childhood, of our ancestors, of memory, of our sometimes ethnic self-consciousness, of our dependency on each other.