meet mafia women
This book tells us that Italian women these days are so “empowered” that they have even reached “the upper echelons of crime” within the male Mafia world. Hence the title: The Godmother. The clear implication is that this is a good thing.
Indeed, Barbie Latza Nadeau’s subtitle, “the bloody struggle”, gives the impression that the women’s crusade to dominate Italian organized crime is as noble as the fight for equal rights and equal wages. Just because women are holier than men, doesn’t mean they will lessen the mafia’s ruthless violence. Far from there. This is because, in the author’s worldview, any female professional achievement, even in a world as disgusting as this, is a victory for feminism.
Nadeau is an American journalist, writing these days for The Daily Beast, who has lived in Italy for nearly 30 years. Her previous books include one about Amanda Knox, who was convicted, jailed and then acquitted of the 2007 murder of Meredith Kercher in Perugia, which has been adapted into a film. No doubt she has a similar goal here.
Her prose reveals that she is as awake as the most awake of all, and so she writes that, “with nauseating frequency”, women in Italy “are often not considered intelligent enough to be in charge”. Her Italian friends, she laments, “roll their eyes at the Me-too movement.”
Yet she praises the Neapolitan mafia, known as the Camorra, for being far wiser than the Sicilian Cosa Nostra, or the Calabrian ‘Ndrangheta. “There are even lesbian bosses,” she notes approvingly. The Camorra also had a trans boss, although when arrested in 2009 they were ridiculed – Nadeau complains – with “transphobic sarcastic headlines” that displayed an “ignorance about gender” that is “surprisingly common”.
She also seems enamored on a personal level with the mobster she meets during her research. This primarily means the godmother of the book’s title, Assunta Maresca, aka “Pupetta” (Baby Doll), one of the first female Mafia bosses, of whom she writes: “She was a cunning liar and a blood-thirsty killer- cold, but if you could look beyond that, she was truly lovely.
Maresca, who died at her home near Naples at the age of 86 on New Year’s Eve 2021, was the subject of several films and books because in 1955, when she was six months pregnant, she did international headlines when in broad daylight she was shot dead in a Naples street by a local Camorra capo (boss) who had ordered the murder of her husband, who was also a Camorrista. The dead man had even witnessed the couple at their wedding two months earlier.
He had 29 gunshot wounds, which means (if she had acted alone, which the police were sure she had not) Maresca had reloaded her gun five times. She was sentenced to 18 years in prison but was pardoned after 10 years. In the 1980s, she was tried and acquitted for two more murders, one of which left the victim decapitated, for which she was acquitted on appeal after serving four years in prison.
Access to Maresca was not a scoop, but it was a golden opportunity to talk about the Camorra and the role of women within the organization. It is still assumed that Maresca was – as she was dubbed – the “first female crime boss”, but relevant facts have always been very scarce.
Unfortunately, Nadeau’s frequent encounters with Lady Camorra, as she was known, reveal little. For example, she writes: “I asked Pupetta how she hoped to be remembered one day, to which she said, ‘Not for these outrageous crimes. Instead, she wanted to be remembered “as an honest woman and a loving mother and grandmother”.
It would also have been fascinating to ask Maresca about God and sin, and about Pope Francis’ view that a mobster cannot live a Christian life. But the closest thing to the author is to ask her if she goes to mass. “She signed herself but did not answer”.
Nadeau also interviews a British academic who specializes in organized crime, who tells him that she doubts Maresca held power after the early 1980s, and a female Sicilian anti-Mafia judge, who tells Nadeau that Maresca invented a much of the infamy surrounding his name. Which makes you wonder why the book focuses so much on her.
Undoubtedly, more and more women are taking on the role of mob boss but, as is well documented, it is much more out of necessity than thanks to the long march of feminism. Italy’s decision in the 1990s, after the murder of the two main anti-mafia judges in Sicily, to try to tackle the mafia properly, led to a huge increase in the number of mafiosos behind bars. In many cases, there was little alternative to women taking the reins.
Yet today, only 2.5% of mafiosi imprisoned today are women, as Nadeau concedes, and although a third of mafia assets are in the names of women, it is a common practice in Italy for any man who wants to protect his assets from a raptor. State.
Indeed, much of the book is not about the struggle of women to lead the Mafia, but about the struggle of women within the Mafia to keep it from killing them, their children and loved ones, in its fights for regular territory and its episodes of settling scores.
In the film Gomorrah, based on Roberto Saviano’s expose of the Camorra, there is only one female character who speaks more than one line in the entire film. As Saviano told Vice in 2015: “With rare exceptions, the Mafiosa exists only in relation to its man”.
The real power of mafia women is the power they have always wielded behind the throne. They are the ones, for example, who brainwash their children into believing the mafia’s twisted honor code. They are the ones who most often prevent their men from cooperating with the police, either out of fear of the shame and dishonor it will bring them both – or out of fear that even if the police give their man new identity, the mafia will kill her, her children and her family. (A supergrass lost 33 relatives.) And it’s the women who, when in mourning, wear red panties and corsets under their black garments, as confirmation that they will avenge the deaths of their fallen men.
Nadeau enthusiastically described Maresca as “a role model for hundreds of Mafia women who followed her”, but when she died Saviano wrote in the Corriere della Sera that his version of the Camorra was a fairy tale, born of “a cowardice” that tries to hide the bloody and cruel truth with “a non-existent postcard”.
Nicholas Farrell is the author of Mussolini: A New Life (Orion). The Godmother is published by Viking at £8.99. To order your copy, call 0844 871 1514 or visit Telegraph books