The Italian Mafia
The Mafia is a network of organized-crime groups that originated in Sicily. Originally, a ‘mafioso,’ a member of the mafia, referred to someone who was suspicious of central authority. In Sicily, the roots of the mafia are in family clans that worked together to carry out justice and use violence and extortion against landowners. In Sicily, the mafia is called La Cosa Nostra, in Napels the Camorra, in Calabria the ‘Ndrangheta, and in Puglia the Sacra Corona Unita. In the late 19th century, the mafia continued to gain power and become more politically involved. They operated under a code of silence, ‘the omertà.’ Under Mussolini’s regime from the 1920’s until the 1940’s, the mafia was seen as a threat to fascism and had to cease most of their activities. After World War 2, the mafia began to regain their power by participating in reconstruction now that the Fascist regime was over. In more modern history, the mafia is involved in drug trafficking.
Throughout history, women had many different roles in the mafia. It is a predominantly patriarchal culture, with men holding positions of power within the organization. Women were still a vital resource, even if they were not the face of the mafia historically. In more modern times, their roles have shifted. As society as a whole has been more accepting of women in leadership roles and as many of the mafia men in power have been imprisoned, women have a more active role.
In any research regarding mafia activities, it is inherently difficult due to the secretive and criminal nature of the organizations. For women it is even more complex, as they did not take a more outward role until more recent history. Due to the patriarchal structure of the mafia and southern Italian culture as a whole, the involvement of women was typically downplayed. Also, women played a more social role, less outrightly involved in criminal activities until modern history, making their role easier to overlook. It is also worth noting women had a more prevalent role in the Camorra compared to La Cosa Nostra and ‘Ndrangheta, which have been slower to evolve.
Historical role of women
Operating under a strict, hierarchical, family structure, the mafia was historically dominated by men. Just because women could not hold positions of power does not mean they were not integral to the function of the mafia. For one, women served as the primary symbol of family. They were mothers, able to enforce mafia values in their children and other relatives within the organization. Instilling values of the mafia helps to form future leaders in the criminal organization and preserve the social order. Women helped to uphold the omterà, the code of secrecy. Less threatening due to the role in the mafia, women were likely to have access to information, making their discretion vital. As family was what the mafia was based on, women’s role in the family should not be understated. Also, religious functions of the mafia were also traditionally ascribed to women.
Assunta “Pupetta” Maresca, nickname meaning Little Doll, was married to mafioso Pasquale Simonetti. He was commissioned to be killed by rival Antonio Esposito. After the police told her they would not going to take any action against her husband’s murderer as it was a family matter, she took the matter into her own hands. She killed Antonio in broad daylight when she was 18 years old and six months pregnant. She went on to become a leader in the mafia known as Lady Camorra. She was convicted for her crimes and died in her home in December of 2021.
Modern role of women
While women are not inherently less likely to commit crime, the predominant view in society that if they did it was a one-off incident. The belief was that women could not take responsibility for their actions. They were less likely to be accused of crime and socially regarded as criminals. The first woman was not arrested for criminal association until 1989, and 89 were indicted in 1995. Not until 1999 could a woman even face a charge of mafia crimes. Up until this time, if women involved in the mafia were even sent to trial at all, they were typically acquitted. This allowed them greater flexibility to get away with most criminal activity up until the 1990s. Since then, more women began to be accused of mafia association and prosecuted for drug trafficking crimes. This started a shift from the idea that there were no women in the mafia to their roles being recognized by society and the justice system.
One likely factor in this shift is as the men in power are murdered or sent to prison, someone needs to take their place. The wives of mafia leaders had insight to the inner workings of the mafia and had more access to the men in prison. Coupled with changing roles in society, women were able to take on more active leadership roles to fill the vacuum of power. This is seen in the Camorra, as many women such as Pupetta Maresca, Teresa De Luca Bossa, and Maria Licciardi, took over as their husbands were imprisoned or killed. Further adding in their capacity to serve as mafia bosses, women accounted for only 2.5% of arrests involving mafia activity, but controlled a third of their financial resources.
While even recently, a woman’s ability to be a boss was mainly due to the lack of men to do the job, they were able to find their own niche. The criminal activities of the mafia developed over time, giving women the chance to participate in more active roles. They were less focused on violence, political issues, land management, and drugs and more on financial crime. Women began to take on larger roles in extortion and loan sharking. Working in accounting, extortion, and money laundering offered women more power within their organizations.
Maria Licciardi, nicknamed “the Little One,” was a member of the Camorra who rose to power once her husband was killed and brothers were imprisoned. She took revenge by having her 13 year old son kill her husband’s murderer. Allegedly, she took over the business of the mafia that dealt with smuggling, drug trafficking, extortion, and prostitution. She is also thought to have ordered other killings to maintain order between rival mafia groups. She made it onto the list of Italy’s 30 most-wanted criminals, and was arrested in 2001 and again in 2021.
The role of women in the Italian mafia has evolved over time. Initially, women served as a private support system, promoting family values and mafia culture, and protecting the code of silence. They began to get more involved in criminal activity, but were slow to be acknowledged by the Italian judicial system. As male mafia leaders were imprisoned or killed and the mafia’s criminal activities focused on more financial matters, this opened a door for women to actively participate. Women began to take on leadership roles and attract the attention of anti-mafia efforts.
Allum, F., Marchi, I. (2018). Analyzing the Role of Women in Italian Mafias: the Case of the Neapolitan Camorra. Qual Sociol 41, 361–380. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11133-018-9389-8
Bordero, Lorenzo. (2019). The Rise and Fall of Mafia Women. OCCRP (Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project). https://www.occrp.org/en/blog/9642-the-rise-and-fall-of-mafia-women
Di Maria, F., & Lo Verso, G. (2007). Women and the Mafia: [female roles in organized crime structures]. New York: Springer.
History.com Editors. (2009, October 29). Origins of the Mafia. History.com. https://www.history.com/topics/crime/origins-of-the-mafia#section_1
Longrigg, C. (2021, December 31). ‘She understood her power’: The death of mafia boss pupetta maresca. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/dec/31/she-understood-her-power-the-death-of-mafia-boss-pupetta-maresca
Nadeau, B. L. (2022). The godmother: Murder, vengeance, and the bloody struggle of Mafia women. Penguin Books.