Mafia Equality

When women become leaders of organized crime

The mafia boss went to jail and during that hiatus, his daughter, “RA,” ran the rigged slot machine business. RA was part way through law school when the life drew her in. Her father’s homegrown business was a small clan, just a few men that carried out extortion and violence. RA claimed that she was head of the “legal” end – the rigged slot machines.

Women rarely lead a whole clan, but RA believes that the times are changing. “Women will become emancipated like the men,” she said, “in the sense that they too will give orders, like in the world of work.”

When we think of equality, we tend to envision lawful activities like education, business, and politics. We think of women as entrepreneurs, CEOs, and presidents. But social scientists Felia Allum and Irene Marchi find that the treasured ideal of emancipation is cherished by some women in organized crime.

They ask: How do women become mafia clan leaders? And what does their leadership look like?

In New Napoli

RA was part of the Neapolitan Camorra, a large mafia organization in Italy. Men dominate the Camorra, but sometimes women become heads of a clan. In the Camorra, membership and promotion do not rely heavily on blood ties or formal rituals (think Tommy in Goodfellas). When the men leave unexpectedly, women – sisters or daughters, wives or mistresses – can quickly assume leadership.  

Women began heading clans in the 1990s exactly when Italy renewed their efforts to take down the mafia and the male leaders went into hiding or to jail. When women rose, the law pursued them, too: “In 1990, there was only one woman in Italy accused of ‘mafia association’,” the authors write, but five years later, the number was 89.

To glean the lived experience, Allum and Marchi built profiles of women Camorra clan leaders. It wasn’t easy. The mafia does not fill out questionnaires, but some might consent to an interview. From 2000 to 2014, the social scientists interviewed the women accused. They read newspaper articles and legal documents about them. They talked to police officers and prosecutors, journalists and former mafia members. 

Motherhood First

AC, at age 13, was the mistress of Francesco Bidognetti, the eventual head of a Camorra clan, and at age 17, AC gave birth to their first child. Bidognetti and AC were together for over 20 years. They had three kids. Eventually, his wife died.

The law arrested Bidognetti multiple times, but AC argues that he ran the clan from prison. “Well, he gives the orders. He does,” said AC. “You don’t think that because one goes to jail, he won’t give orders anymore?” AC insists that she never made decisions – that she only relayed the boss’ messages and distributed salary to the other clan members.

According to AC, Bidognetti saw AC as the mother of his children.

“I can tell you that my partner, from the moment he got [out of prison] to the time he was arrested, he has always kept me out of it. Always. Always,” she said. 

“He would always tell me: ‘I am the one who should go to jail. My kids should go to jail, if they have to go to jail, but not you, because you are the mother of my children. You only have to raise my kids. You shouldn’t know anything…’”

“I Knew Everything”

While AC proclaimed ignorance, a woman in a different part of town learned the ropes.

AM’s husband was a rising crime star in Ercolano of Naples.  He became boss and they had a daughter. Their clan’s boom time started in 2007. In 2010, the boss went to jail and gave orders from there. AM seized leadership.

“I knew everything,” AM said. “I put myself forward. He… made it clear to everyone that I was the only one he trusted. He did not ask me [to put myself forward].”

The judicial system says that AM was an active boss. They said she paid off lawyers and managed the drug piazza and extortion rackets. A mafioso-turned-informant said that she had people beaten up who didn’t show her respect.

Alas, for her, leadership was tenuous. When others learned that she became involved with another man, the clan physically threw her out of town.

Looking back on it all, AM waxed summarily on the progress of women: “What women want, they obtain,” she said.    

“Women are more intelligent and look at things in the long term.”

Leadership is Not Emancipation

Allum and Marchi make it clear that women mafia leaders are not emancipated. Emancipation is equality and freedom, and those are two things that women mafia leaders lack. Like the rest of society, mafia clans see women as mothers and lovers first. And when the women do take over, if the male boss is alive, he will give the orders. 

Mafia clans see women as an emergency resource for cash-strapped organizations in crisis mode – they are a placeholder for the men. Leadership is not emancipation and equality may be smoke on the horizon. In the meantime, women keep the clan alive, such as it is.

“If a husband gives the order to burn a car, I say to so and so to go and burn a car,” RA of the slot machines said.

“If the women hadn’t helped the clan, the car would not have been burnt.”



This was written by Joshua Dubrow based on the article by Felia Allum and Irene Marchi, “Analyzing the role of women in Italian mafias: the case of the Neapolitan Camorra,” published in Qualitative Sociology 41, no. 3 (2018): 361-380.

RA claimed that she was head of the “legal” end… p. 373

“Women will become emancipated …” p. 374

Different from other mafia organizations… p. 363

Sisters or daughters… p. 368  

“In 1990…” p. 362

The social scientists interviewed women… p. 365

AC, at age 13… p. 370. The authors do not make it clear whether AC ever married Bidognetti. Socially, the clan considered AC to be “the boss’ wife.”

“Well, he gives the orders…” p. 372

“I can tell you that my partner…” p. 371. After AC was arrested in 2007, she cooperated with the authorities.

“I knew everything…” pp. 374 – 375

“What women want…” p. 375.

“If a husband gives the order …” p. 374

Copyright Occam’s Press 2021: Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs CC BY-NC-ND

For more on this topic, read Barbie Latza Nadeau’s The Godmother: Murder, Vengeance, and the Bloody Struggle of Mafia Women






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