Academic Internship Program - Spring 2009
In the historical trajectory of women’s roles in society, there exists a supplemental impact of how women have dealt with a gendered, masculine structure of living. Specifically, the role of women in organized crime units, such as mafia or mob organizations, traditionally emphasizes the subservient role of women and their exclusion from a world of power, influence, and violence.
Customarily and stereotypically, women in the mafia, both daughters and wives, are seen as meek, invisible, and sheltered from the true workings of their male counterparts. Yet, many women with roots in these criminal organizations still manage to find some form of visibility and command. According to Teresa Principato in Women and the Mafia, after the history of “underestimation and dismissal, the importance of women’s roles in mafia-type organizations […] have been reconsidered beyond the stereotypes that have always hidden its significance” (Fiandaca 285).
Ultimately, the role of women in the mob can be filtered down to segments of reaction and interaction. Both daughters and wives of male mafia members are exposed, no matter how veiled, to the criminal affairs of their fathers or husbands, respectively. Most often, this veiled exposure creates an allure and fascination with mob life that perpetuates into the actions of women in the mafia.
For many of the daughters of mobsters, being a woman makes them ineligible to become a part of their fathers’ organizations. Ironically, several of these daughters also inherit the same disposition as their fathers, making them ideal candidates to work within the mafia, if not for their sex. Lana Zancocchio is one such example. Zancocchio was raised like a son under her father, and took after his abusive, ill-tempered character (Longrigg 3). Yet, by being unable to take an active role in his organization, Zancocchio reacted much like other mafia daughters, and she supplemented her inherited character traits and thirst for power by utilizing her father’s name and connections. Zancocchio, in reaction to her father’s upbringing, “was to become like him. She absorbed his lessons in intimidation and took on the world. She learned how to turn his abusive nature to her advantage, exploiting his reputation to get her own way, threatening to bring down her father’s wrath” (Longrigg 3). Everywhere she went, Zancocchio demanded, and received, the best attention by threatening to tell her father. From her childhood to her marriage and beyond, Zancocchio operated in this way to create a world around her in which people feared and respected her. She stayed closely knit to the mafia by carrying on practices of money laundering and racketeering, and by marrying a man within her father’s organization. Ultimately, had Zancocchio not been a woman, she would have gone into her father’s line of work. Instead, she utilized her nature and her connections to create her own sense of power intrinsically tied to the fascination and allure of the mafia world.
Like Lana Zancocchio, Victoria Gotti also took after her father’s character. Similar to Zancocchio, she was brought up around the mafia as a useless addition to the unit. Encouraged to keep a low profile, be a homemaker, and marry someone from their father’s organization, daughters like Zancocchio and Gotti instead utilized their famous last names to create a world of their own. Gotti, daughter of one the most famous mobsters, exploited the public’s fascination with the mafia. Claiming that being a Gotti was “like having the last name Kennedy,” Gotti published novels and wrote for a column in the New York Post, unheard of from any mafia family members at the time (Longrigg 46). Even under her father’s rigid upbringing and constant verbal abuse, Gotti always stuck by her name and defended her father with a dignified personification. Whether she acted out of fierce loyalty or for her own benefit, Gotti simultaneously exploited the “public’s sentimental attachment to her father’s memory, without allowing the dirty reality of the mob to spoil the picture” (63). Gotti never renounced her father, and instead painted her father as a traditional patriarch trying to strengthen his children’s characters. She used his history to strengthen and further a future beyond people’s expectations.
The wives of mafia men also must make an effort to create a position for themselves not only in their husband’s organization, but in their career as well. Mafia men are expected to control their wives, keep them out of harms way and exert their authority over them. Traditionally, women work through their husband by covering their tracks, hiding their assets, or handling police affairs (Longrigg 64). Brenda Colletti, for example, was drawn in by the allure of power, connection, and influence of the mafia. She longed to fit into the mafia world and strived to be an indispensable addition to the organization. She used her sex appeal to distract and poison their enemies, and covered for her husband and associate when mob affairs deepened (Longrigg 67). Taking a more active role than traditional mafia wives, Colletti was welcomed by the mafia men as an active participant in the organization. Through her demeanor and ambition, she managed to make a name for herself, and served as a premier example to the demure wives of other mafia men. Although her story ends in the collapse of money and power, her involvements eventually gave her the most exciting moments of her life, a thrilling opening into a world of adventure, connection, and respect.
Virginia Hill is another example of a woman’s potential within the mafia. Fascinated by dangerous men and always a mistress to them, Hill exploited the men she associated with for her own benefit. She discredited the wives of mafia men, and saw how they were often abused and mistreated. Ruthless and cunning, Hill managed to take on active roles within the mob through her “certain strength of character, charisma, potential for aggressivity, predisposition towards violence, and attitudes as a leader” (Fiandaca 3). Possessing these traits allowed Hill to not have to play the ordinary role of a mistress. Instead, she worked independently and earned her own income by being a courier and money launderer for the mob (Longrigg 109). Using her sex appeal to her advantage, she would go back to her previous lovers whenever she was in need of money or other services (111). She worked for different mob groups, and invested in herself rather than investing in one mafia organization. In so doing, she developed her own power and influence, and threatened to expose their illegal activities to get her way. Taking advantage of the underestimation of women, Hill took on traits that invariably succeed in the mob: sex appeal, tenacity, secrecy, and ambition.
Historically, women have been expected to fit into society by withdrawing from positions of power, danger, and influence. Ironically, however, many women tied to mafia organizations either inherit the necessary traits of a successful mob man, or are drawn to the lifestyle through their own ambitions and desires. Within the structure of expected subservience, women still manage to react and interact with their designated positions with relative ferocity and tenacity. Daughters of mobsters often take after their fathers, yet are forced to branch out through their own imagination and hard work. Similarly, the women, wives or mistresses, involved with mafia men all gain some exposure into the workings of the mafia. This exposure often breeds curiosity, and ultimately, the role of women in organized crime sorts itself into strength of character. While traditionally women are barred from getting involved, with the right character traits, women can challenge the male-dominant mafia structure by utilizing their own skills and ingenuity.
- Fiandaca, Giovanni, ed. Women and the Mafia. New York: Springer, 2007.
- Longrigg, Claire. No Questions Asked: The Secret Life of Women in the Mob. New York: Hyperion, 2004.