The Softer Side of Resistance
Early Twentieth Century Italy, like the early Twentieth Century in the United States, was a time of promise for women’s progress. The issues forming the women’s rights platform seem basic and, especially because of our current placement in history, not too radical: the right to divorce, educational and employment rights, and perhaps most extreme, voting rights. In the early years of the Twentieth Century (although processes there were different from our concepts of democratic voting), some of these issues had even been brought to the ballot (Pickering-Iazza, Mothers, p.38). And contrary to popular perception, during the early years of Mussolini’s rule (which lasted from 1922-1943), public support for women’s issues was alive and well, and even receiving some measure of toleration from the Fascist government.
The story of women’s liberation in Italy right before and during Fascism is certainly not as simple as just looking at a time line. A chronology of important dates and legislation would not suffice in understanding the movement. It seems that a tug-of-war was going on, but because it involves more than just two players, the viewer of the struggle also becomes more involved. Economic crises, traditional religious beliefs, and widespread discontent with the outcome of WWI played as much of a role in defining (limiting?) the progress of women’s liberation as did Mussolini’s chauvinism.
Despite these obvious roadblocks, somehow the early Twentieth Century presented the timing and opportunity for women to pursue equal rights in a liberation movement that did gain momentum. Perhaps industrialization, and the rise of discontent in workers led women to the realization that they were being mistreated, not only as workers, but also as women. The direct exposure of women to this discontent was possible since women actually were a part of the work force outside of the home. Not only in the traditionally female dominated occupations (teaching), women proved adept at filling a variety of jobs that men had left to go to war (1915-1918). The need for women to work outside of the home was more apparent and real than gender discrimination. So even though the women’s liberation movement may have been fed by historical situations that were not intentionally or ideologically progressive for women’s causes, these events served to inspire women to pursue gender equality.
But just as the women’s movement was gaining momentum, Fascism came along.
There is a fairly widespread consensus among scholars of Italian Fascism: it was an overtly and intrinsically anti-feminist government. An examination of the regime’s actual and specific policies leads me to agree.
As briefly mentioned earlier, during the First World War, Italy’s women left the home to occupy industrial jobs, and others that had been typically filled by men. For the most part, these women were capable and able to adapt. So for a few short years, women...