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‘Empty Cradles’ and the Quiet Revolution: Demographic Discourse and Cultural Struggles of Gender, Race, and Class in Italy



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"Empty Cradles" and the Quiet
Revolution: Demographic Discourse
and Cultural Struggles of Gender,
Race, and Class in Italy
Elizabeth L. Krause
University of Massachusetts, Amherst
The current record-low birthrate of Italian women has generated lively debate
about the future of the nation. In Italy, the average number of children per
woman has arrived at around 1.2, a level "likely the lowest ever documented in
the history of humanity for a large-scale population," according to one Italian
demographer (Golini et al.
Instituto Nazionale di Statistics [IS TAT)
1996b). A paradox has arisen in the midst of Italians practicing what demogra-
phers claim is the lowest-ever national fertility level: as the rest of the world
worries about overpopulation, Italy and many other European countries sound
alarms about below-replacement fertility levels (Anagnost 1995; Bongaarts
Sen 1997).' This article examines the social context related to the current
demographic situation in Italy and has three objectives: (1) to expose the strate-
gies demographers use to frame the birthrate in Italy as a "problem" and to ar-
gue that this exercise of scientific authority has powerful and hegemonic con-
sequences in terms of producing demographic knowledge that extends beyond
the field of demography; (2) to suggest that this knowledge is integral to a poli-
tics of cultural struggle that portrays men and, in particular, women as irra-
tional family-makers; and (3) to argue that this instance of demographic science
contributes to an alarmism that enables an "elite" sort of racism toward immi-
grant others.
I argue that Italian women's record-low fertility is not merely fact but fod-
der for a politics of cultural struggle related to the so-called quiet revolution.
This terminology begs clarification. First, I use the term cultural struggle be-
cause I wish to draw attention to a politics situated in quotidian social life in
which rules of "normalization" are defined and codified through discourse and
practice. Indeed, cultural struggle is another way of talking about hegemony;2
it is another way of talking about the way in which certain ideas and actions
come to be considered normal and others as abnormal and even threatening to
the reproduction of the social order. To this end, I aim to unveil how a society's
Cultural Ar,ihinp,'l.<K\ 16(4) 576-611. Copyright © 200t. American Anthropotogicat A^
on a
particular practice links
gender, class,
Specific reproductive practices have resulted
in a
downward shift
in ag-
gregate births.
this reproductive pattern
discursive site,
for the
authoritative knowledge
birthrate "knowable"
further commentary
by the
and non-
experts experiencing
lives. Therefore,
how using fertility decline
as a
discursive site yields insight into
of power
term quiet revolution
and comprehensive fertility decline that began
19th-century Europe.
to the
more recent fertility declines
of the
as a re-
of the
contestation underlying those declines.
first came
in a
volume edited
historians GiHis, Tilly,
it to
"great social changes" directly related
to the
which whole populations were producing children (1992:xii,
1). I ex-
their work
revolutionary dimension
of the
What qualifies something
as a
as a
revolution? Eric Wolfs perhaps by-now forgotten insight from Peasant Wars
peasant rebellions
"parochial reactions
social dislocations" (1969:265).
A key
of a
for Wolf,
the way in
the market
men up by
their roots,
and shaken them loose from
social relationships into which they were
born" (1969:295).
Such major changes
the organization
economy resulted
imbalances that required people
living. These
justments were
merely functional
involved culturally informed nego-
tiations within fields
northwestern Tuscany, where
months conducting ethnographic
archival research,
fertility decline dates back
to the
of the
20th century,
and in
nu pro-
ject sought
peasant workers there experienced fertility decline/
Piedmont, Liguria,
Tuscany were
Italy "showing
and most rapid decline." writes demographer Massimo Livi-Bacci (1977:OX).
Overall fertility
15 to 20
and by
marital fertility
these regions (Livi-Bacci 1977:68).
The large patriarchal sharecropping family that once dominated
rural Tuscany
final chapter
couples began
fewer children than their parents
had. and as
those children increas-
ingly sought ways
living that distanced them from
and its
suggest, after
that they
their descendants were responding
"overwhelming societaj change" that involved
wholesale transforma-
tion from
economy centered around peasant sharecropping, artisan stone
masonry, straw-hat weaving,
state-subsidi/ed wet-nursing
to one
woolens connected
to the
eventual postwar boom
and the
nearby industrial district
I wish to show that although the quiet revolution began in a much earlier
era and context of adjustment, its repercussions continue well into the present.
The cultural politics of population are ongoing, and the knowledge demogra-
phers produce and, with the help of the media, circulate in society concretely
informs ideologies related to gender, class, and race/ethnicity. My case demon-
strates how demographic discourse depicts low fertility as "irrational" and
thereby erases the real-life modifications that women and their partners, recog-
nized or not, have made to altered material realities and shifting symbols re-
lated to class, gender, and even racial identities. Indeed, this genre of demo-
graphic knowledge production relies on a racial rationalization, which hides
behind so-called objective concerns about social adjustments to shifting popu-
lation structures. Current demographic science therefore breathes new life into
the quiet revolution as it shifts the grounds for contesting the meaning and fu-
ture of family making.
Broadening the Critical Focus
This article participates in a movement of scholars seeking to create a
critical field of population studies. Susan Greenhalgh's programmatic state-
ment about constructing such a field advocates that we bring gender into the
analysis, that we globalize our work by moving into national and transnational
spaces, and that we broaden the critical focus by including analyses of popula-
tion science itself (I995b:878). Demographic practices, like other habitual ex-
ercises of statecraft, have become so normalized as to be beyond the scope of
questioning.5 By unveiling key epistemologies of demographic practice, I put
into question population-science strategies. I am convinced that the project I
undertake here is a necessary one if
are to understand the dire consequences
of knowledge production that masquerades as neutral science and hence as
"truth." As Greenhalgh notes,
until we tackle the task of critically examining the discourses and practices of
hegemonic disciplines of population, anthropological knowledges about popula-
tion will remain subjugated ones in the national and transnational spaces where
power becomes policy and begins to spread. [Greenhalgh 1995b:878]
The potential transformations of demographic knowledge into policy are nu-
merous, ranging from pronatalist politics that narrowly define women by their
reproductive capabilities, such as the Italian fascist demographic campaign of
the 1920s and 1930s, to xenophobic anti-immigrant structures and sentiments,
now rampant in Europe.
Demographic science in Italy, whether concerning the movement of popu-
lations, births, or deaths, must be understood within the broader European Un-
ion (EU) socioeconomic and political context as it moves toward a unified
market, a process some critics have noted entails constructing a Fortress
Europe (Martiniello and Kazim 1991). Despite its "hot" and "superstar" econ-
omy, Italy has been stigmatized in terms of its political instability and corruption
as well as its lax immigration policies.6 An early 1990s report for the Commis-
sion of the European Communities identified Italy as the worst of the Southern
European countries, which were targeted as weak spots in the erection of "for-
tress Europe" because of their "virtually unrestricted and uncontrollable in-
crease of irregular migration" (Werth
23). More recently, Italy's in-
clusion in the Monetary Union of Europe was doubtful. In 1996, EU finance
ministers were skeptical of the Italian government's ability to lower its budget
deficit, and the implication was that Italy was scrambling to get its "financial
house in order" (New York Times 1996, quoted in Schneider 1998:7-8). The
political and economic requirements necessary for fitting into the European
Union, in more complex ways than I am able to delineate here, make demo-
graphic behaviors and policies not merely a national concern but a European
concern. On the alleged occasion of the birth of the six billionth human in Oc-
tober 1999,7 the authors of a national Italian research institute's study on its
citizens' attitudes toward global population noted:
Demographic events are no longer "private" phenomena; on the contrary, they in-
volve every inhabitant of the earth not only in terms of everyday life (marriages,
deaths, migrations, etc.) but in terms of the influence that everyone's be-
haviors has on global demographic dynamics and the future developments of our
planet. [Palomba et al.
my translation]
When did demographic events stop being "private"? The demographic
campaigns of various nations of the 20th century suggest that nation-states and
arts of statecraft have long ensured that life-cycle events were not private.
They were, rather, "vital"—important business of the state. What has changed
is the context in which population discourse now is taking place. I wish in this
article to drive home the idea that what we believe to be individual reproduc-
tive choices are influenced in powerful ways by scientists who aggregate the
outcomes of our intimate behaviors. Palomba (1991) suggests that she and
other demographers are tuned into "global demographic dynamics," yet the
way in which demographers frame Italy's low fertility as a grave "problem"
suggests that demographers' thinking is still more deeply connected to national
agendas and policies than it is to global ones.
The "Problem" of Low Fertility and the
Paradox of "Rational" Reproduction
Demographic data, as social historian Silvana Patriarca notes, have long
occupied "a fundamental role in the symptomatology of the national 'body' "
(1998:79). In other words, the practice of generating statistics has provided a
diagnostic tool for monitoring the social and economic well-being of the na-
tional body politic. This diagnostic role continues in the current demographic
context. My analysis of authoritative and broadly cited texts written by well-
known Italian demographers (see Table 1) reveals a systematic and consistent
view of Italian women's fertility as a "problem."8
Demographers deploy a constellation of factors to create a view of low
fertility as a problem. I argue their language indexes a type of modernity whose
core logics have been turned upside down.9 These core logics are anchored in
an assumption of a certain type of procreation as "rational" behavior. As Jane
and Peter Schneider point out, "Europeans appear in a great deal of early and
classical population theory as paragons of rationality, their minds disciplining
their bodies on behalf of long-range goals" (1996:5). These long-range goals
were thought to be rational responses to Malthusian predictions about disas-
trous overpopulation and resource depletion. Demographer Ansley Coale used
the well-known phrase "calculous of conscious choice" to refer to how Europe-
ans had become "rational" in their intimate and private lives (Schneider and
Schneider 1996:5). The dualism of modernization theory as applied to repro-
ductive behavior historically connected the use of birth control "to a rational
turn of mind," so that "traditional values" were opposed to "modern values."
The traditional-modern dichotomy parallels that between "natural" and "con-
trolled" fertility (Schneider and Schneider 1996:5; see also Coale and Watkins
Greenhalgh 1996). Prolific reproducers were stigmatized as backwards,
and in demographic parlance pejoratively described as "laggards."
The "bassissima," or super-low, fertility of Italians and other Europeans
throws that old dichotomous irrational/backward versus rational/modern model
into crisis, particularly for those scientists who keep track of such trends. De-
mographers assume that modern European populations are rational. This as-
sumption draws on the laws of a linear, modernization model of social evolution.
When populations exhibit patterns that do not fall within certain expectations,
the scientists who track those patterns tend to interpret the irregularities as de-
riving from self-destructive behaviors that predictably will lead to population
decline and imbalance rather than lasting equilibrium.
Legend for Table 1
I identified ten key texts and then inventoried the authors' stances, evaluating them in
terms of the degree to which they view the fertility rate as a problem. The findings are
outlined in Table 1. The symbols used indicate the following:
neutral: the author's position is not obvious
V— subtly present: the low fertility is a problem, but scientific narrative
avoids language that frames it as such
V present: the low fertility is a problem, and scientific narrative clearly
frames it as such
V+ strongly present: the low fertility is a problem, scientific narrative
reveals that the problem is serious through use of metaphors or
indexical language
I did not use symbols for positions that framed the low fertility as not being a problem
or as being a positive trend: I had developed such symbols but having not found any
works that fell into this category, I eliminated them to avoid confusion. The first five ref-
erences listed below derive from books; the second five from reports.
Table 1. Degree to which specific demographic texts portray Italian fertility as a problem.
Author, date, titleTextual evidence
Golini (1991) Introduction to Palomba.
Crescita Zero (Zero Growth)a) "In developed countries the problem is to know if and how one can stop the long and
rapid decline of fertility" (Golini
b) In both cases of the European community and Italy, it is a "problem of knowledge for
understanding much better. . . the mechanisms that are at the base of procreative behaviors
that push demographic tendencies on absolutely heterodox trajectories, which have never
been documented in human history and which are very far from near zero population
growth that good sense suggests" (Golini 1991 :vii).
c) "To judge how low this figure of births is. it is enough to consider that, if it were to
remain constant for a long while, the Italian population would descend from 57.5 to 43-44
million (Golini 1991:viii).
d) In the center-north one finds a "level of denatality never touched by another consistent
population in the world" (Golini
e) "The median number of children per woman is between 0.9 and
in Emilia Romagna, in
Friuli Venezia Giulia. in Liguria. when 2.05 children per woman would be necessary to
insure a level of zero population growth. In other regions these indices are sensibly higher"
(Golini 1991:ix).
0 "In Italy few babies are born, so few in fact that only a few years ago an expert retained
that such a level of denatality was 'impossible' " (Golini 1991 xii).
g) "The new demographic behaviors in the nuptial and procreative field ... brings to mind
an Italian specificity demographically speaking not only for the negative records that we
mark in the field of denatality or of aging of the population, but also for our own capacity
to change without rupture, to adapt ourselves to the new conditions of social life without
creating fractures with our history and our convictions" (Golini 1991:13).
Table 1. Degree to which specific demographic texts portray Italian fertility as a problem.LA
Golini (1994)
Tenderize demografiche
politiche per
la popolazione
tendencies and policies for the population)
Livi-Bacci (1994) Introduction to Golini.
per la
V+ Volpi (1996)
(Children of Italy)
Palomba's language itself
neutral; however, Golini's introductory essay (see above)
frames low fertility as a serious and alarming problem and hence gives one the sense that
the analyses that follow are designed as "solutions." In this light. Chapter 6, entitled "Italians
and Demographic Policies," is a carefully constructed analysis of respondents' replies to
questions about their views of state interventions designed to increase fertility (Palomba
"The Italian demographic tendencies are provoking in the population—quickly, but silently
a true and real 'mutation,' that has in itself the potential to unhinge the whole social and
economic structure of the country" (Golini 1994:8).
"The topic of low fertility is perhaps the one that triggers the most emotional reactions.
Whoever works on this topic is located in the worrisome position of the doctor faced with
the case of an adolescent who refuses food. Are we dealing with a prolonged loss of
appetite destined to disappear naturally or are we facing a case of anorexia? Are we talking
about physiology or pathology?" (Livi-Bacci 1994:14).
"Introduction: Gian Burrasca and the problem of children" (Volpi 1996:5).
"But the contradiction between words and facts could also reveal, how shall we say it? the
guilty conscience (in the sense that the fewer children you have, the more you claim you
desire them; the more the fertility rate of women declines, the more it creates a desire tor
them to be mothers) of a people—in this case, the Italians—for whom birth rate has
undoubtedly sunk to the lowest level in the world" (Volpi 1996:31).
"A grand problem remains to be examined. . .. : that of the so-called age-stratified
structure of the population. Let's begin, to explain ourselves, with the trend of genuine
movement or of the difference between births and deaths" (Volpi 1996:83).
Table 1. Degree to which specific demographic texts portray Italian fertility as a problem.
6. V ISTAT (1996) Famiglia, abitazioni, senizi di
pubblica utilita (Family, housing, public
transportation and services)
V ISTAT (1995) Annuario statistico italiano
1994 (Annual Italian Statistics)
8. V Palomba. Menniti, Mussino, and Moors
(1987) Attitudes Towards Demographic
Trends and Population Policy
9. V Golini. De Simoni, and Citoni (1995)
Tre scenari per il possibile sviluppo clella
popolazione delle regioni italume al 2044
(Three scenarios for possible population
development in Italian regions in 2044)
V+ Lori, Golini. and Cantalini (1995) Atlanie
dell' inveccluumento della popolazione
(Atlantas of the aging of the population)
"The decline in fertility that has characterized the Nation in the last few years has led to, on
the one hand, a decrease of couples with children and an increase of those without
children, and on the other hand, a lessening of the number of couples with three or more
children and a contemporaneous increase in the weight of couples with an only child"
(ISTAT 1996:23).
"In 1993. for the first time in the demographic history of post-unification Italy, except
obviously for the war years of 1917 and 1918, the genuine balance (live births less deaths)
had a negative result of more than
units, due to arriving at a new historical low in
terms of births, equal to 538,000 (well 226,000 less than the preceding year) corresponding
to a natality quotient of 9.3 per thousand inhabitants" (1995:55, cited in Volpi 1996:30).
"In the last 20 to 30 years the Italian socio-demographic situation has changed in many
respects. The fertility decline is undoubtedly one of the most important changes, with
respect to both its demographic-economic consequences such as an aging population and
the concomitant adjustments in the field of health care and social services, and to its
sociocultural effects, such as changing attitudes toward marriage and children" (Palomba et
"None of the Italian scholars that work on population would have thought to imagine some
thirty years ago that in the '90s the average number of children per woman in our Nation
would have arrived at the level oI around
lowest in the world and likely the lowest
ever documented in the history of humanity for a large-scale population (Golini et al. 1995:1).
"In the last decades all the attention and the effort of public opinion and political groups
have turned toward the substantial economic and social transformations of the Nation, to
the important political events—and to the fierce struggles that have accompanied them. We
have been dealing with rapid and profound transformations that have radically modified,
and in some cases unhinged, the entire structure of the whole society" (Lori et al. 1995:1).
The record-low fertility rates have resulted in a bit of
crisis for demogra-
phers over the meaning of rationality: The measuring stick that demographers
long used to mark "rational" reproductive behavior no longer has units that
work for them. In the old scenario, it was enough to divide reproductive behav-
ior into two halves: those who practiced "uncontrolled" or "natural" fertility
were labeled as "laggards" and viewed as backward and irrational; those who
practiced "controlled" fertility were "leaders" and viewed as modern and ra-
tional.10 So people who had small families (say, two or three children) were ra-
tional, and those who had large families (four, five, or more) were not there
yet. Contemporary Italians control their fertility, and hence would be rational
according to the old demographic transition theory rules.11 But with the new
zero population rules, their "bassissima," or super-low, fertility becomes a
sign once again of "irrationality." So in a sense there has emerged a quite nar-
row range of reproductive -behavior that is considered "rational" if the dis-
courses on the current fertility trends can stand as a guide.
Drawing on texts by well-known Italian demographers, I have identified
and named three strategies that demographers commonly use to portray the low
birthrate as so low as to be irrational. The most direct strategy, "Beyond Good
Sense," is characterized by demographers' use of language that makes the re-
productive practices underlying the trend appear irrational, self-destructive,
and even immoral. A second strategy, the "Dangerous Heterodoxy" tactic, oc-
curs when demographers use language that paints a picture of the trend as di-
verging from accepted doctrines or opinions. A third strategy, "Never-Before-
Documented," occurs when the birthrate is described as so low as to be beyond
imagination. The following examples draw from Table 1.
Beyond Good Sense. Note that Golini (Excerpt l.b) describes the current
rate of reproduction as contrary to "a level which good sense suggests." He
identifies Italian regions with very low birthrates and then describes as "sensibly
higher" other regions where birthrates are well above those (Golini 1991 :vii).
Dangerous Heterodoxy. The second strategy occurs where Golini de-
scribes demographic trends as being on "absolutely heterodox trajectories"
.b). The accepted and desirable trajectory, by contrast, is zero popu-
lation growth. Golini's description of Italian demographic tendencies as "pro-
voking in the population ... a true and real 'mutation' " (Excerpt 3) also re-
veals his view that the behavior is unorthodox. Furthermore, the metaphoric
power of the word mutation conjures up images of cancer and other illnesses
that threaten the well-being of an individual or a population. In another pas-
sage, Lori et al. (1995) describe the reproductive practices as having "radically
modified, and in some cases unhinged, the entire structure of the whole soci-
ety" (Excerpt 10). Again, the word choice of unhinged is anything but neutral;
rather, it suggests something dangerous, something on the verge of collapsing.
Never-Before Documented. The third tactic is the most subtle yet pervasive
strategy for depicting the low birthrate as a problem. We read of
"level of de-
natality never touched by another stable population" (Excerpt
.d), of
who "maintained that such a level of denatality was 'impossible'" (Excerpt
1.0. of "negative records*' (Excerpt l.g), of a birthrate that has "sunk to the
lowest level in the world" (Excerpt 6), of a "first time" phenomenon occurring
only in times of war (Excerpt 7), and of a phenomenon beyond prediction (Ex-
cerpt 9):
None of
Italian scholars that work on population would have thought to imag-
ine some thirty years ago that in the '90s the average number of children per
woman in our Nation would have arrived at the level of around
lowest in
the world and likely the lowest ever documented in the history of humanity for a
large-scale population. [Golini et al.
Rather than condemning Italian scholars for their inability to foresee the cur-
rent population trend, this statement suggests that the national trend is so dramatic
that it has taken even the most rational minds—those of scholars—by surprise.
Demographer's Etiology
Very Low Fertility
The most blatant instance of current demographic discourse serving as a
national sort of symptomatology—a reading of the signs of the national body'
general health—can be found in Livi-Bacci's introduction (1994) to the impor-
politiche per la popolazione (Demographic Ten-
dencies and Policies for the Population), the third report on the Italian demo-
graphic situation, funded by the national population research institute (IRP).
He describes demographers who work on the topic as being "in the worrisome
position of the doctor faced with the case of an adolescent who refuses food"
(Livi-Bacci 1994:14). This analogy epitomizes the "Beyond Good Sense"
strategy. It frames reproductive activities of Italians as far from rational, for
anorexia is considered neither reasonable nor sensible but rather a debilitating,
self-destructive disorder, not unlike hysteria and insanity. It is also very much
a gendered disorder.
In offering possible etiologies for this apparent deep-seated and
destructive societal malady, Livi-Bacci offers two possibilities: the first he
calls physiological (we might describe these factors as sociological), question-
ing whether the very low fertility is
the consequence of the tiresome adjustment to a revolution that has brought mil-
lions of women into the workforce, of economic difficulty for the nuclear family
faced with new and more demanding models of consumption, of education invest-
ments that are too long and expensive, of
complex lifestyle that weighs heavily
due to inefficient social organization. [Livi-Bacci 1994:14]
If the cause for the loss of appetite, or very low fertility, is rooted in these types
of factors, he argues, then "there is hope that social-political interventions can
favor a demographic re-equilibrium with an upsurge in fertility. The list of
possible interventions includes pronatalist measures" (Livi-Bacci 1994:14). In
the second case there is "no hope" to reverse these "negative" trends, since they
are the result of pathology: "It could also be that we are facing a hard 'refusal' of
procreation that is rooted in a level of value choices beyond the influence of
context and hence a true and real anorexia" (Livi-Bacci 1994:14, my transla-
This begs for pause. Who is engaging in a "hard refusal" to procreate if
not women?12 Without naming women, the language nevertheless most
strongly indexes and implicates women, who ultimately are the sex/gender
whose reproductive behaviors figure most centrally into demographers' calcu-
lations. (Men do not matter when it comes to calculations of fertility rates,
since the biological parameters of getting pregnant, of gestating. of child-bear-
ing, and of maternity are of such a different order of certainty than the biologi-
cal parameters of inseminating and of paternity.13) Furthermore, we can infer
the "hard refusers" are women since anorexia is a disorder typically associated
with women and with infertile women at that. The implication, then, is that
women, angst ridden and body obsessed, are rejecting the responsibility to re-
furbish the nation. At best, Italian women's family-making practices appear in
demographers' accounts as a social ill to be fixed; at worse their behaviors ap-
pear as an irrational, even amoral, pathology beyond cure.
The way in which demographers have scientifically defined the current
low birthrate as a problem serves as a moral guidepost for blaming women and
has doubtlessly influenced Italian as well as global media representations of
the trend. A New York Times article entitled "Population Implosion Worries a
Graying Europe" frames low fertility as an "epidemic," one whose etiology can
be located in women's "choosing work and education over having children"
(Specter 1998). The article describes birthrates in many countries as being "in
a rapid, sustained decline. Never before—except in times of plague, war and
deep economic depression—have birthrates fallen so low, for so long." This
popular press article participates in the "never-before documented" strategy
that I identified above as a tactic demographers use to make reproductive pat-
terns seem unthinkable, irrational, and dangerous. Plague, war. deep economic
depression; these three phenomena are clearly disasters, and we can deduce
that the article's central message is that, ultimately, women's "choice" to be
productive rather than primarily reproductive is equivalent to a disaster on the
order of plague, war. or deep economic depression. Hasily overlooked are the
important economic contributions that women have historically made to their
families and regional economies. To reduce fertility decline to an epidemic-
like scenario in which women are portrayed as the major carriers is to deny the
social and economic upheavals that dramatically transformed people's lives
and their locations within kin. tribute, and capitalist modes of production.14
Furthermore, this portrayal of the "population problem" as a disaster com-
plicates Palomba's suggestion that there is a global demographic dynamic at
work. If global overpopulation were really the only issue—the birth of that 6
billionth human—then low fertility rates like those of Italian women would be
cause for celebration. The demographers, however, are not celebrating. Nor are
the journalists who report on these trends. The global dynamics at play involve
issues of political economy, for example, issues that get at the heart of eco-
nomically wealthy and economically poor countries and those policymakers
who decide when and whether immigrant workers should legitimately move
between the cores and peripheries.
A Jarring Misfit
Demographers and the media portray the low birthrate as a problem, but
what does looking at the lived experiences of familv-making reveal about the
quiet revolution? In what unexpected ways does family-nuking create prob-
lems for those who live it? To speak of fertility decline primarily as a problem
veils other struggles that have been playing out as demographic transitions
have occurred. My ethnographic research in two textile and agricultural pro-
duction communes in the Province of Prato during the latter 1990s leads me to
conclude that there is a jarring misfit between the stories demographers are
telling and the lives Italians have lived and are living.
In particular, struggles related to gendered aspects of identits have materi-
alized as the patriarchal family hierarchy has toppled; struggles concerning
class-based aspects of identity have emerged as new processes of class forma-
tion have taken hold; and struggles related to racial processes have come into a
new light as migration patterns and policies have shifted. All of these struggles
articulate in the context of global dynamics. They also recall the specter of his-
tory. For example, that many central Italians come from humble peasant or
working-class backgrounds is particularly meaningful given that the economy
of Prato has presented numerous people with the possibility of literally going
from rags to riches. After all. the thriving industrial district of Prato built on
the city's 20th-century distinction as Italy's center of rag commerce: Old
clothes and fabrics from all over the world were and still are regenerated into
raw textile materials there. As the postwar economy boomed, many people had
the chance to make money and, with it, acquire a new-moneyed identity. New
strategies of family-making were a crucial aspect of this new consumer type of
The remainder of this article draws on ethnographic fieldwork to examine
how the current demographic situation plays out in terms of ideologies of gen-
der, class, and ethnicity/race. It also considers how the prolific demographic
concern about the low birthrate has shaped and continues to shape individual
subjectivities and practices in powerful yet unexpected
The Three Pigs: A Local Theory
There are many "reasons" circulating in Italian society about why the
birthrate is so low. One of my favorite local explanations comes from Carolina
Morelli, a mother of three in her mid-fifties who was influential in local as well
as regional politics. She and her husband managed the familv sweater-finish-
ing firm where I worked for about six months in 1996. One day while I was at
her house, operating a machine to sew buttons on sweaters in the room desig-
nated for sweater work, she offered me her theory of why women used to have
lots of babies and why they no longer do. Women, she said, were in the middle
of three maiali (pigs): the priest, the padrone (landlord), and the husband. The
priest wanted couples to have sex only for reproduction, to increase bodies tor
his parish and souls for heaven; the padrone wanted lots of children because
more arms meant a bigger harvest and a bigger share for him and his estate: and
the husband wanted more people to order around. Now, nobody listens to the
priest, the padrone no longer has peasants or title, and the husband views chil-
dren as drains on his time and pocketbook.
Carolina's theory speaks to a perceived erosion of patriarchy. She views
the trend toward small families as a positive one. The new generation so many
Italians lament as egotistical for Carolina means independent-minded citizens
who will not be so likely to fall for political movements like fascism. And her
daughter will be able to work as an engineer. "Figli programmati sono figli
fortunatT [Planned children are lucky children], she likes to say.16
Carolina's parable suggests that demographers' stories deny an important
aspect of the quiet revolution: that it is a revolution, though often silently so,
against patriarchy and the patriarchal structures of power that hierarchical^
ordered social relations for centuries. The shift in reproductive practices was in
part rooted in a festering peasant protest among women and junior males
against "the rigidity of the pecking-order in the family" (Becattini 1998:83). as
well as powers of decision making and the availability of income "inconsistent
with the distribution of workload, capacity, and responsibility" (Becattini
my translation). In the area of central Italy where I worked, for ex-
ample, women straw weavers comprised the leading force behind an industrial-
izing countryside since they offered a cheap source of labor: the most exten-
sive central Italian labor strikes of the 19th century involved these nonurban
weavers working out of homes in the towns and hamlets lining the banks of the
Arno River.17 Nearly every household in a 1901 census contained at least one
woman whose professional occupation was noted as
(straw weaver)."1
The One-Child Story of a Straw Weaver
Emilia, a straw weaver born in 1920 who worked from the time she was
five years old, offered memories that revealed her connections to a global
economy: she spoke of childhood speed-weaving games that tempted the win-
ner with postcards sent from overseas emigrant relatives; she recalled for me
the dramatic tale of a communist uncle who escaped Mussolini's regime by
stowing away among straw-hat cargo destined for South America, where he
became an importer of hats, many of which Emilia and her fellow women
townsfolk produced. Deeply embedded in these memories were her postwar
explanations about how she came to marry "late," at age 30 (in 1950), and how
she came to have only one child. Her story offers insight into understanding a
generation of women whose profound changes led them to put their own wel-
fare before that of the patriarchal family. Emilia's strategy not to continue the
peasant tradition of large families but to stop with her daughter was supported
by her husband, who soon left the land for the factory. This shift in family
making represents a cultural adjustment to tremendous social and economic
changes, ones involving modernity and new definitions of and possibilities tor
womanhood. These themes can be found in the following excerpt from a discus-
sion I had with Emilia. In transcribing and analyzing this talk, I have drawn on
linguistic anthropological methods (see, in particular, Ochs et al. 1996). I have
retained the words in their original form because speakers of Italian will be able
to hear the rural Tuscan dialect, one marked by cadences associated
ith a less-
educated generation. I include my own talk in the transcription even though in
the following passage it does not contribute to the content per se; however, the
back-channel cues do reveal the research process in the final product.19
A key element of Emilia's narrative is the doctor's misdiagnosis of ab-
dominal pain she was suffering as a young woman. At the time of the telling, her
only child, Patricia, was three years old. Her discussion of the misdiag-
nosis—the doctor's mistaking the pain caused by a specific cyst for pain caused
by general stress—offers insight into the cultural transformations in postwar
central Italy. It reveals how hegemonic processes play out in the context of in-
terpersonal relations between a rural peasant woman and an urban physician. In
this case, the leading view of the urban, educated elite—embodied in the role of
the doctor—was one that normalized the nuclear family as well as associated
morality and health with this type of family making. By contrast, the hegemonic
view pathologized the extended patriarchal family. The moment of pathos be-
comes apparent in the narrative when Emilia recalls the doctor's etiology of her
illness. He suggested that her moving from a nuclear household to an extended
family was the cause of her anxiety and cramps. He was thereby suggesting a
psychological cause to her physical pain. Etiology here becomes ideology; the
doctor, through his misrecognition of the cause of Emilia's pain, was expressing
a leading idea related to family making. In particular, the story reveals how doc-
tor-patient interactions can be opportunities for doctors to express hegemonic
views of normal behavior, and, in turn, for patients to react to those view s.
It is worth clarifying that Emilia's statement that the operation did not do
her harm (Line 5) is a reference to a fear, at the time, that the intervention had
left her infertile. In the hospital, she apparently had some rather catty room-
mates who insisted she had had a hysterectomy. Even though this was far from
the truth, at the time she reassured herself that if the doctor had taken out
everything it did not matter since she already had one child. She actually says
"another child" (Line 5) but this is not a reference to a second child. It may be a
colloquialism or an instance in which she imagines those never realized babies
in the light of the doctor's gregarious comment (not reproduced here) that she
"could have ten more children." a metaphorical way of saying her reproductive
health was sound. Her story follows:
Emilia: La Patrizja l'aveva due Patricia, she was a little over two
anni c qualcosina. \cars old.
2 Sicche ebbi questa And then
had this operation.
.V Betsy: Ahh Ohh
Emilia: Perd non mi da\a noi(a) But it didn't really bother me
such a living arrangement is viewed here as a threat to one's sanity, to one's
ability to exercise sound reason. In essence, the patriarchal extended family be-
comes the antithesis to modernity because being modern means being in con-