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About this book

Over the course of the twentieth century, the rapid transformation of Italy from an impoverished, predominantly agricultural nation to one of the strongest economies in the world forged a fascinating and contradictory society where gender relations were a particular mix of modernity and tradition.

In this accessible and innovative study, Perry Willson provides a nuanced and insightful analysis of the impact of social, political, economic and cultural developments on Italian women's lives. She also explores how women were affected by, and how they themselves helped shape, key historical events such as the rise of Fascism, the two world wars, the 'economic miracle' of the post-war years and the cultural and political upheavals of the 1970s.

Women in Twentieth Century Italy is the first book-length overview of Italian women's experience during this period of intense and dramatic change. Drawing on the latest historiography in the field and written in a lively and engaging manner, it is essential reading for anyone with an interest in Italy's recent past.

Table of Contents

Introduction

Abstract
The lives of Italian women were transformed over the course of the twentieth century. Gender disparities in both the public and private spheres diminished, family size grew smaller and female education improved dramatically. Feminist movements of various kinds were active, women voted for the first time and there were important legislative reforms. Women’s dreams and aspirations were increasingly fuelled by the printed word and the spread of radio, film and television. Modes of dress and housework were transformed. All such trends, of course, were similarly evident in other European countries in this period but, in Italy, the pattern, timing and speed of gender change were also marked by aspects that were peculiarly Italian. Here, economic growth came later than in northern Europe and, when it did, its dramatic pace produced, in many ways, a society that was a particular mix of modernity and tradition. Moreover, this period of Italian history included two decades of Fascist rule that marked the nation deeply, creating a legacy that was hard to cast aside. The influence of the Catholic Church was matched in few other European countries. Another trend specific to Italy (albeit shared with other southern European nations) is the fact that, despite plummeting birth rates and the introduction of divorce, the institutions of both marriage and the family continued to be cornerstones of society right up to the very end of the century.
Perry Willson

1. Italian Women at the Dawn of the Twentieth Century

Abstract
In his 1902 survey of the growing numbers of women graduates in Italy, Vittorio Ravà described them as, ‘a strong and numerous phalanx … that is advancing and preparing to fight economic and social battles’.1 Ravà was far from the only observer at the time to sense change in the air for Italian women. At the dawn of the twentieth century, education for girls was increasing and a few women were making their mark in the public sphere in professions like teaching, writing and medicine. Middle- and upper-class women were beginning to venture more beyond the home. A small, but determined and far from insignificant, feminist movement was campaigning for legal reform and attempting to challenge, or at least rethink, some of the prevailing ideas about the role of women in society.
Perry Willson

2. The ‘Tower of Babel’: First-Wave Feminism

Abstract
The first Sunday in December 1880 was, according to Annarita Buttafuoco, a particularly important date in Italian history. She argued that: ‘In a chronology that paid attention to gender as an integral part of national history, that date would be seen as one of the most significant for Italian women and men.’ 2 The Sunday in question saw the foundation, by veteran feminist Anna Maria Mozzoni and the German-born university assistant Paolina Schiff, of the Lega Promotrice degli Interessi Femminili (League for the Promotion of Women’s Interests), to campaign on issues like female suffrage, equal pay and paternity searches. Its Executive Committee included working-class women and even men and it was linked to the Unione delle Lavoranti (Female Workers’ Union), a league of petty-bourgeois and working-class women. The significance of the foundation of this small organisation lay in the fact that it began a process that was to last for thirty years: it marked the moment when Italian feminism became a political movement rather than just an idea.
Perry Willson

3. On the ‘Home Front’: World War One and its Aftermath, 1915–20

Abstract
Many historians have concluded that wars are limited in their ability to emancipate women. They may open up new roles but these are usually temporary. Wars may appear to subvert the gender order, but, with peace, it is restored, often with a vengeance. Periods of warfare often bring an exaltation of traditional gender roles with men portrayed as warriors and women as mothers, symbolic guardians of peace, normality and the home, which soldiers protect by their fighting and can return to when hostilities end. Indeed, the Higonnets have argued, invoking the image of the ‘double helix’ to explain the enduring constancy of gender differentiation in wartime, that, in both world wars, women only stepped temporarily into the ‘male sphere’. Meanwhile male activities were still construed as socially more important.1 This idea, which suggests no real change at all, is perhaps too rigid, although it does have resonances for the Italian experience. As for other countries, the issues are complex. In Italy, some, albeit fairly limited, change brought by World War One did outlive the ending of hostilities and there were opportunities for women to prove their worth in both paid employment and voluntary work. But lasting change was limited.
Perry Willson

4. ‘Exemplary Wives and Mothers’: Under Fascist Dictatorship

Abstract
In 1922, amidst tumultuous upheaval and near civil war in parts of the country, Benito Mussolini seized power. By 1925 Italy was in the iron grip of dictatorship. A considerable historiography now exists on the role and experience of Italian women in this period, much of it in English. Italian historians of women have been more reluctant to tackle this topic, seeing it as unpalatable compared with themes like the heroic deeds of women in the Resistance. Early writings (notably Piero Meldini’s pioneering work published in 19751) tended to portray women under Fascism as the hapless victims of an aggressive, violent and patriarchal regime. Other studies focused mainly on anti-fascist women or on evidence of female dissent, such as striking rice-weeders or textile workers.2 More recently, the work of Victoria De Grazia3 has convincingly demonstrated that this was a period of complex and contradictory changes for women and that, despite the regime’s patriarchal ideology, for some it was a time when new, more modern roles and opportunities emerged.
Perry Willson

5. Doing their Duty for Nation (or Church): Mass Mobilisation during the Fascist Ventennio

Abstract
The Fascist ventennio sounded the death knell for Italian feminism. Some women initially continued to belong to autonomous organisations but these gradually disappeared. Considerably greater numbers frequented Catholic groups and a few were active in clandestine anti-fascist groupings. By far the largest female organisations in this period, however, were Fascist. Fascism politically mobilised women and girls on an unprecedented scale, in vastly greater numbers than previous political parties had done. In November 1920, for example, the PSI had only a few thousand female members (about 2 per cent of their membership) and, by December 1921, only a few hundred (about 1 per cent of the membership) had joined the new Communist Party. About 15 per cent of the membership of trade unions (whether Catholic or socialist) was female by 1920. At most, tens of thousands belonged to feminist organisations. Such figures pale into insignificance when compared with the Fascist mobilisation.
Perry Willson

6. War Comes to Women, 1940–45

Abstract
The Second World War was a complex and difficult time for Italian women. During the five years that Italy was at war, Italians fought both for and against Nazi Germany and were invaded by both sides. Italians also fought each other. In the 1943–5 period, after the Allied armed forces had invaded from the south, the front line inched slowly up the length of the Italian peninsula.1 The northern half of the country suffered both Nazi repression and the lacerating effects of a bloody civil war. Thus, for women, the situation could not have been more different from the Great War since, in the latter part of this new war, the distinction between the home front and the battlefront became blurred. Although no reliable figures exist of war-related civilian deaths, it is certain that they were extremely high, possibly as high as deaths among the military. Many civilians were injured or died in air-raids. Others starved to death, perished from diseases related to malnutrition or were killed by the occupying forces.
Perry Willson

7. Moving into Town: New Social and Economic Roles, 1945–67

Abstract
Peace, at last, returned in 1945, bringing with it a new democratic Republic. The early post-war years, however, saw yet more hardship and hunger. Homes and economic infrastructure needed to be rebuilt and many women had to come to terms with bereavement or deal with traumatised or injured family members. Many had to adjust to the return of men after a period in which they had become used to acting independently. Some lost wartime employment. Those who had been raped or who had resorted to prostitution during the war faced particularly difficult problems. Even after the initial reconstruction was complete, huge social and economic problems remained. As a parliamentary enquiry at the beginning of the 1950s showed, many Italians lived in great poverty: 11.7 per cent of families were housed in shacks, attics, cellars or even caves, and were too poor to afford sugar or meat; 11.6 per cent were in very overcrowded dwellings (with at least three persons per room) and ate very poorly; 65.7 per cent were less impoverished but had, on average, two persons per room and spent more than half their income on food.1 Only a minority of homes benefited from modern conveniences.
Perry Willson

8. Women’s Politics in the Shadow of the Cold War, 1945–67

Abstract
In the post-war years, during the height of the Cold War with its stark, polarised politics, Italian women failed to rebuild autonomous political organisations, instead operating politically mainly under party banners. Although one looked to the Vatican and the other to Moscow, there were many similarities in the approach of the two main parties, the Christian Democrat Party (DC) and the Communist Party (PCI), to the mobilisation of women and to ideas about gender. Both embraced female suffrage and created mass women’s organisations. Both emphasised women’s maternal role, had quite ‘traditional’ ideas about the private sphere and presented themselves as defenders of the family. They did, of course, differ on some questions but there was enough common ground for women from both parties to work together on legislative reform. The extent of their co-operation, however, was limited by the rapid collapse of Resistance cross-party unity.
Perry Willson

9. ‘Io Sono Mia’: Feminism in the ‘Great Cultural Revolution’, 1968–80

Abstract
The 1970s were a watershed period for ideas about gender roles. This decade of political and cultural upheaval saw, as well as a vibrant feminist1 movement, the rise of the student movement, extra-parliamentary politics, trade union militancy and terrorism of both Left and Right. It was a time of creativity, energy, political passion and utopian dreams but also (eventually) bloody violence and, for most of the movements, defeat. In these years, détente destabilised the Cold War stalemate where Communists and Christian Democrats had faced each other in antagonistic symbiosis. Many Western countries saw upheaval in this period but the phenomenon was particularly prolonged in Italy, lasting until the late 1970s. It was also particularly violent: only Germany saw comparable levels of terrorist activity. As elsewhere, it was primarily the young who were involved. Previously, although some Italian teenagers and young adults had been politically active, they had not done so specifically as young persons.
Perry Willson

10. The ‘Dual Presence’: More Work and Fewer Children in the Age of Materialism

Abstract
The last two decades of the twentieth century saw rapid social, economic, cultural and political change. Italy was now one of the world’s richest nations and young women of this period belonged to the first generation without personal experience of the great poverty it had so recently shaken off. Although, to a degree, Italy was becoming more like the rest of Europe, it followed the ‘Southern European model’ of social development with a very low birth rate, enduring strong family relationships and poor state welfare provisions. On the political front the partitocrazia (party-rule, as the Italian political system of this period has been dubbed) survived in the 1980s but, in the early 1990s, imploded in a maelstrom of corruption trials, finally bringing to an end half a century of DC rule. In these years, Italy became increasingly ethnically diverse with migrant workers, including many women, arriving from all over the world.
Perry Willson

Conclusion

Abstract
Many different female figures appear in the pages of this book, from toiling peasants and outworkers to the urban housewife astonished by her first indoor bathroom, from Catholic, Communist or Fascist organisers to feminists of many hues. There are women prepared to carry bombs to liberate their country, commit murder to save a daughter’s honour, risk their lives in backstreet abortion or even willing to die for Mussolini. There are women blazing the trail in employment, education or politics and many welfare activists, some doing ‘God’s work’ and others for whom welfare was imbued with deeply political, sometimes feminist or even national meanings. There are browbeaten daughters-in-law in sharecropping households, white widows, schoolgirls, migrant live-in carers, cabinet ministers and Fascist gymnasts.
Perry Willson
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