The Importance Of Frank Sinatra’s Bad Ass, Feminist, Abortion-Providing Mother

One hundred years ago tomorrow, Frank Sinatra was born in an upstairs tenement in Hoboken, New Jersey. It was not an easy birth by any means — the 13.5 ounce baby had to be removed via forceps, which resulted in a scar on his face that remained there for the rest of his life. This weekend, you’ll be hearing a lot about Sinatra, but I figured this might also be a good time to write about the amazingly bad ass woman who gave birth to him.

I broke down in tears earlier this year when I first found out about Dolly Sinatra. It sounds a little dramatic, sure, but it happened — and I am not a big crier at all. I read about her in a book called Living The Revolution: Italian Women’s Resistance and Radicalism in New York, 1880-1945 by Jennifer Guglielmo, which is probably my favorite thing that I have read this year.

Dolly Sinatra’s primary trade was as a midwife. And, as a midwife, she was known not just for delivering babies, but for providing safe abortions for Catholic Italian women across Hoboken, earning her the nickname “Hatpin Dolly.” This was at a time, mind you, when abortion was illegal–Dolly put herself at incredible risk in order to help these women.

Not only that, but in 1919, she chained herself to City Hall in support of women’s suffrage. In the 1920s, she became the Democratic leader of Hoboken’s third ward, using her ability to speak both Italian and English to advocate for the rights of new immigrants. She was reportedly very powerful in this position, and essentially ran half of Hudson County due to her ability to deliver votes.

She also ran a damn saloon during Prohibition, which is pretty freaking awesome as well.

Sinatra said of his mother:

“My mother is what you would call a progressive. She decided she didn’t want to be just a housekeeper and studied nursing and is now a graduate nurse. She was always interested in conditions outside her own home. My father, too, but he was the more silent type.”

“My mother influenced me a great deal. She was a self taught woman, very bright, had good common sense and was a hard worker … My earliest memories of my father, Marty, are in the kitchen. He did much of the cooking, as Dolly, my mother was a powerful force and dedicated worker in the political arena. She was out there fighting for women’s rights before women even knew they should have them.”

And influence him she did. Although Sinatra would lean Republican in his later years, early on, he was an unexpected champion of racial equality. He refused to play segregated venues, and thus, along with Sammy Davis, Jr., played a big part in the desegregation of Nevada hotels and casinos. He reportedly had quite a temper in regards to prejudice, and according to Orson Welles, he once slugged a saloon owner for refusing to serve a black musician.

It’s hard to explain why I was so excited over Dolly Sinatra, and why finding out about her being a bad ass feminist meant so much to me.

Pretty much all of my politics and feminism comes from my mother — the Irish side — and I grew up feeling deeply embarrassed by, and resentful of, the patriarchal nature of Italian culture. Hell, I was angry at it. It wasn’t a thing I wanted anything to do with. To this day I get furious when some guy asks me if I’m going to cook for him. I was resolute that I would never have some cafone bellowing “Where’s the olive oil?” at me, when he knew damn well where the olive oil was, but just didn’t feel like getting up.

When you read about the women’s suffrage movement, it’s easy to assume that Italian-American women were not participating in that at all. At least I always did. When you read about the Italian anarchists and Italians in the labor movement in the United States, it’s largely focused on men — like Carlo Tresca and Sacco and Vanzetti — you don’t hear a lot about people like anarcho-feminist Maria Roda or union organizer Angela Bambace. Sure, there are a hell of a lot more of us now — Jessica Valenti, LaChrista Greco, Elena Ferrante, hell, even Camille Paglia, I guess. But there is something different about knowing that Italian women weren’t just totally absent from the women’s movement until 30 years ago or so.

It maybe sounds ridiculous, but feeling as though the women of my “culture” weren’t fighting against injustice–instead favoring the stereotype of making macaroni, popping out babies and being super Catholic–was something I felt kind of ashamed of. To be able to look at someone like Dolly Sinatra and go “Oh! Hey! There were bad ass Italian feminists after all!” has been a really big deal for me.

So, Happy Birthday, Frank. But more importantly, thank you Dolly.