PIC INTERREG IIIA Greece - Italy 2000-2006 Axis 3.2 Project Code I3201060.


Economic contexts

The project looked at the economic sectors in which women have played a key role: agriculture, particularly tobacco-growing, and manufacturing, especially textiles and shoe-making. The different historical development of the two sectors led to two different situations for women workers in the 19th and 20th centuries.


The female role that best characterised the history of agricultural production in the Salento peninsula in the 20th century was that of the “tabacchine”, the female tobacco workers. Between the two wars, a large female workforce was employed on the expanding private tobacco farms.

The tabacchine were involved in all stages of the process, from the harvest to the factory. The various phases required great care. After the harvest, the tobacco was hung on spikes: the leaves were all turned to face the same way (to facilitate yellowing and drying) and pushed one after the other onto a steel needle about 15 cm long. The resulting bunches of leaves – the so-called filze, each with about 200 leaves – were then placed on racks to await the subsequent phases, including, in chronological order, yellowing, for which the racks were kept in a dark place, and drying, for which the racks were brought into the light and left outside for about three weeks.

To avoid damage to the leaves, especially on days when the scirocco wind blew, the filze were taken off the racks and hung on festoons. Subsequently these “tobacco garlands” were taken down and the leaves were packed in boxes to be taken to the warehouses of the tobacco concession-holders or the Monopolio di Stato state-run cigarette company in late October and early November.

The life of the tabacchine and the female cigarette workers was extremely harsh, due to the inhuman working conditions, the low wages and the lack of continuous employment. Often they had to walk miles to reach the factory where, already tired, they worked eight or nine hours, unwittingly writing an important chapter in the history of the Salento.

Like all women in the South, the tabacchine were totally dependent on their husbands, both psychologically and economically. They suffered mistreatment even in the work place: insulted, derided, beaten and sometimes even raped, only to have to return to work the next day.

These difficult conditions led to protest movements, of which a key leader was Cristina Conchiglia. The was no struggle which did not see Conchiglia at its head, and she became the driving force of the movement of the tabacchine, a true legend among these women, whose eyes now began to open. Conchiglia was not only the leader of the group but also their ‘comrade’; a comrade in a political sense but also a confidante, someone the tabacchine could turn to for a friendly word.

She was joined by other women leaders of the protest, who contributed to the social mobilisation after the war and helped the tabacchine to become more aware of their status as women and citizens. These included Consiglia Settembrini, an important trade unionist, and Ada Chiri, provincial secretary of the tobacco workers’ union, a part of the broader organisation known as Federterra. The claims they advanced on behalf of their class led to both of them being incarcerated.

The tabacchine were urged to organise themselves to fight for their demands, setting up a network of groups within the same factory and between one factory and the others. The main demands were the eight-hour working day, increased salaries to match inflation, the abolition of deductions from their salaries, the recognition of the Labour Day holiday, and all the rights theoretically granted to women by law (for example medical care, insurance, invalidity benefit), on the same level as the women workers in the state-run factories. A number of demonstrations were organised between the 1920s and 1950s which unfortunately had little impact on conditions.

A nerve centre for the tobacco industry in the Salento was Tricase, the scene of a tragic revolt in May 1935, caused by an order to transfer production to the provincial capital. Known historically as ‘the Tricase revolt’, the workers’ protest was violently put down, with the death of five people including three tabacchine (Cosima Panico, Donata Scolozzi, Maria Assunta Nesca). This bloody episode brought about an immediate order to keep production in Tricase, guaranteeing work for those who lived in the area. In 1938 the factory was renamed Acait (Azienda Cooperativa Agricola Industriale del Capo di Leuca).

The period following the Second World War was characterised by the first genuine mass movement for social and economic renewal. The struggling peasants were accompanied by women: as farm labourers, homemakers, casual workers, wives, mothers, sisters and daughters, employed in tobacco fields across the province of Lecce. This movement was somewhat anomalous and in some ways was ahead of its time in that it was composed solely of women, female workers asserting their right to a better life.

In 1948, following the First National Congress of the tabacchine, a national contract was drawn up and important results were achieved: women’s salaries in private firms were brought into line with those of state employees, and improvements were made in social security and unemployment benefits.

Following the election of Ada Chiri to the national council of the Union of Women Tobacco Workers, in the early 1950s the tabacchine resumed their struggle for the renewal of the national contract on better terms. A rolling strike began, called on different days in different locations. A series of incidents led to numerous arrests, including Ada Chiri and Anna Rocci (provincial leaders of the Union of Women Tobacco Workers). In the end however, benefits were obtained concerning salaries, holiday pay, increased child benefit and the recognition of special holidays.

With the mobilisations of 1944, 1949 and 1952-’53, for the first time the Mezzogiorno showed its ability to fight independently for workers’ rights in the agricultural sector. In 1948, the National Union of Women Tobacco Workers (subsequently the National Union of Tabacchine) was founded in Lecce. In 1954 there was a new strike, or rather a full-scale national mobilisation. From private employers, the tabacchine obtained recognition of the extra work they did in their factories and an increase in wages. The struggle continued on-and-off until the 1960s. A significant episode was the strike by women workers in the factory in Tiggiano. The town was paralysed for 28 days by a general strike in January-February 1961, the local population mobilising in defence of the roughly 250 women workers of the factory. These workers had seen their rights and thus their livelihoods gradually eroded. Their right to work was abolished, and only 15 tabacchine were called to work, only 4 of whom were actually from Tiggiano, the others being brought in from other towns. On hearing of the use of scab labour brought in from outside, the tabacchine launched their protest, calling a general strike in the town. For similar reasons, and in a climate of complete solidarity, another protest began in Lucugnano. On the 24th February 1961, an agreement was reached which established the single shift system, long demanded by the community.

Despite the hard life of the tabacchine, in the context of women’s work at that time, these “tobacco heroines” were considered a ‘privileged’ social class because they brought home an extra wage for their families.

Textiles, clothing and shoemaking

In the textile and clothing sector, the historic memory of the traditions and creativity of the Salento is borne by women. Weaving in the Salento has ancient origins, which are hard to date in precise terms, and it has been a highly widespread activity for much of the area’s history. All households had a loom: fabrics were produced in the home to meet the needs of the family and to provide a trousseau for new families as they formed. And not only this; historic and literary sources attest that women, who dominated the sector completely, played an important role in the economy of the province of Terra d’Otranto from the 18th to the early 20th centuries, establishing the so-called “household textile industry” or “domestic manufacturing”. Work at the loom, preceded by a long and complex process of preparing the cotton, is a rhythmic pattern of back-and-forth movements that the women weavers of the Salento have been performing since ancient times, like a dance, a sort of ancestral ritual that each time reaffirms their connection with the territory and their specific female identity.

Closely linked to weaving is the art of embroidery, which serves to increase the value of garments and to give them a certain sophistication. Elements within the Catholic Church generated a demand for lace, used to beautify tunics, vestments, and tablecloths for the altar, but lace was also produced for domestic use, for tablecloths, bedspreads and towels. Among the peasantry, embroidery was a luxury ornament that was produced at home for use in the home, meeting a domestic need and becoming an indispensable element in family rituals. Embroidery on the wedding trousseau conferred dignity and consideration on the wife-to-be, for whom it was obviously a source of pride. If a bride had embroidered her own trousseau, she was likely to be especially appreciated, not only by her husband and mother-in-law, but also by relatives and neighbours.

Just a few generations ago, knowing how to use a needle was universal among the women of this area; excluded from a school education, which was considered of no use to them, women worked in convents looking after small children or working as a mescia, a teacher of practical skills, who taught the rudiments of sewing and embroidery.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the first textiles workshops, for tailoring, embroidery and lace-making, were set up by poorhouses, charities and religious institutions. Others were set up by enterprising upper-class women, who had learned from their mothers the ancient techniques of fabric making and processing. Others still were set up by dynamic women who, after having studied in the metropolis, moved to the Salento to use their knowledge of current fashions to make products for a refined clientele who wished to keep up with the times. Lecce and the surrounding area became highly dynamic from the point of view of tailoring, fashion, and schools for seamstresses.

The First World War obliged women to return to work inside the home, to put aside the frivolous considerations of fashion and the trade in fabrics, embroidery and hats, in order to meet the needs of the soldiers at the front. The industry of the women textile workers of the Salento was directed towards socially useful goals: they made knapsacks, uniforms, socks and whatever else could be of use to the soldiers. In the convents and religious institutes, weaving and embroidery became a form of work training, helping to provide a livelihood for less fortunate women, such as those whose husbands and fathers had been killed in the war and who were now encouraged to take up this occupation with help from local noblewomen.

A significant example of female entrepreneurship at the beginning of the 20th century is provided by the cultivated and refined women of the Starace family, members of the nobility of Maglie. They established an entrepreneurial system which carried on and promoted the original weaving and embroidery techniques of the Salento, now oriented to international markets, to which the Starace women turned both for the supply of raw materials and for sales. They founded a school of embroidery in Maglie and the number of pupils grew, thanks to strong demand for the product from America and Russia. Many industrial firms were created to serve this system, providing the female workers with the linen thread and subsequently collecting the finished product. Hundreds of girls aged 15 to 20 worked at home. By 1907 the school was firmly established with 500 pupils and it remained active until about 1920 when, due to the introduction of tobacco cultivation, many women abandoned embroidery in the hope of achieving better earnings. In the period following the First World War, the Starace women launched a new initiative in Casamassella, this time in weaving, which was soon helping the women of the town to better themselves economically.

The traditional production of family trousseaus was combined with carpets, blankets and tapestries, made of fine wool using natural colours and exclusive designs, creating lines that were also appreciated internationally. The business continued until 1967, when the factory closed as a result of the crisis in the sector and the lack of new orders. However, the seeds that were planted by the women of the Starace family have borne fruit, even after many years: in 2002, the “Aracne” manual weaving workshop opened in Casamassella, hosted by “Le Costantine” a foundation set up by Donna Giulia Starace in 1982, just two years before her death.

The workshop is today one of the few places where weaving takes place on traditional wooden craft looms. The workshop’s emblem is a “bisaccia”, the traditional saddle-bags that the peasants once slung over their shoulders or the back of a mule to carry supplies and farming tools. Traditionally, it was the first item that women made to give to their betrothed husbands and in peasant culture it symbolised the division of roles between men and women.

The Starace women’s legacy continues to make itself felt in the region; for example in Surano the Solazzo sisters have set up a workshop and study centre, where traditional fabric making is accompanied by continuous and committed research into ancient and traditional textiles. The organisation of production uses traditional tools and 19th-century technical procedures as a guarantee of authenticity. This, together with the all-female labour force, is evidence of the close links to traditional social and economic values and the relationship that still exists today in these areas between small towns and the countryside. After all, the far-sighted attitude of these women weavers has enabled them to set up a craft activity in the region today. Also significant is the figure of Alida Castellan, who is not from the Salento but has made it her home, and has made the shift from the workshop to artistic education. A teacher of weaving at the Art school in Parabita, her small business in Collepasso combines tradition and modern design. The fabrics (rugs, tapestries, etc.) on display in her workshop, are the result of the fruitful relationship that Castellan has managed to build with some contemporary artists.

Traditional craft textiles were a point of reference in the 1960s for industrialisation, in which women took on the roles of factory worker and entrepreneur in the textile and shoe-making sectors. Industrial textiles are a recent phenomenon in the Salento, dating back to the 1960s and 70s, which saw the spontaneous birth of a new generation of entrepreneurs, who created a valid alternative to the modest industrial presence at that time linked to food-processing and cigarette-making. Its birth was due to various factors: firstly, the considerable availability of female workers who were being shed by the agricultural sector, and who were able to apply their skills to making clothes, the result of long experience in the craft tradition; the second factor is the process of relocation from North to South of certain production processes in certain clothing companies. The textile-clothing industry, characterised by a number of distinct production activities (for shirts, trousers, ties, socks, knitwear, corsetry, embroidery), is present throughout the Salento but is mostly concentrated in the southern part of the peninsula.

There are still tailoring workshops however with a strong craft element. An example is the one inherited by Karol Cordella, the daughter of the stylist Pino Cordella.
Linked to an ancient family tradition and today oriented towards high fashion, the business began in 1783 and has always been able to keep pace with the times, thanks to constant modernisation based on new fabrics and new trends.

In the shoe-making sector, the role of women is seen in the factory and in the home. The availability of female labour, the relative simplicity of the operations associated with sewing the uppers (entrusted to workers outside the factory), the suitability of the social fabric, as well as the complex system of financial subsidies for promoting industrialisation in the Italian Mezzogiorno, all enable companies to structure themselves around the twin advantages of competitiveness due to low costs, and flexibility deriving from the use of home-based workers.

The last few years have seen a greater propensity among the women of the Salento to start up their own businesses in craft, commerce, agriculture, industry and the professions. Other women perform managerial tasks for companies operating in various sectors, of which they sometimes become directors or chief executives. The increase in women-controlled firms in the Salento confirms that a new course is being taken. For women, a company is hardly ever just a job, but an emotional investment, a means of building their identity, and it is increasingly becoming indispensable. The desire for independence, to turn a passion into something concrete, to find an outlet for one’s creativity are part of what it means to be a woman, prepared to take difficult choices. The “female mode of production” is founded on a capacity for needs-oriented communication and on a range of “natural” abilities (adaptability, precision, reliability, sense of responsibility, practicality and organisational capacity). This “female mode of production” influences women in their choice of which field to operate in as a company; in most cases, this remains linked to those sectors which are traditionally associated with women.


Community Initiative INTERREG III 2000-2006


PIC INTERREG IIIA Greece - Italy 2000-2006 Axis 3.2 Project Code I3201060

Co-financed by the European Regional Development Fund