In anthropological and cultural studies, detailing the lives of women has often been passed over in favor of focusing on political ideologies and religion cultivated by male leadership. As it relates to the era of fascism in Italy, this phenomenon remains unchanged. Despite the intricacies of women’s lives drastically changing under Mussolini’s rule, much of the existing literature on the topic of fascism discusses subjects heavily involving men as soldiers in wartime and as victims of the nationalistic tendencies of the state, without delving into a comprehensive analysis on how these policy changes impact the roles that women occupy within society. To understand the depth of these changes and their subsequent influence on women, one must begin by contextualizing how the rights and responsibilities of women shifted before and during the era of Italian fascism.
Beginning with a brief discussion on the evolution of women’s rights in Italy, it becomes important to acknowledge the Pisanelli Code, which was the first civil code introduced by the newly-unified state in 1865. Similar to the Napoleonic Code which had exerted legislative power in the region prior to Risorgimento, the Pisanelli Code explicitly did not recognize women as Italian citizens and barred their abilities to vote and hold public office (Monti, 20). The fight for suffrage, at this point in Italian history, was centered on allowing educated men above the age of thirty to vote, once they had completed military service (Monti, 21). Before World War I had forced men to the frontlines, women were mostly confined to their households; it should be noted that women who faced particularly dire economic situations did join the workforce as maids, wet-nurses, farmers, or seamstresses to support their families (Monti, 22). However, the scope of World War I caused the Italian state to reckon with its historic exclusion of women in the workplace, with the minister of war calling upon women to come to the country’s aid by working in relief organizations and munitions industries; in the example of munitions industries, up to 70 percent of its total workforce comprised of women by 1917 (De Grand, 949). Thousands of women answered the call of the state, donning uniforms to display both their patriotism as well as their utility in providing much-needed services to the Italian economy and its various realms of production. The below image, taken from a book called Le Donne d’Italia Nelle Industrie di Guerra, translated in English as The Contribution of Women to the War Industry, depicts the female-dominated workforce in Piemont and estimates the total number of female factory workers in Italy to number 180,000 by the end of World War I. Both in Piemont and beyond, women intentionally wore uniforms to work daily in order to emphasize how the functioning of the state and the role of working women had become inextricable from one another (Belzer, 178). Fascism came into existence during an incredibly unique time of Italy’s feminist history; Italy had developed an economic and social dependence on its women, and women were newly able to engage with postwar civic activity due to the “desperation of the Great War” (Belzer, 178). It was this mutual shattering of tradition that forced fascists to acknowledge the changing role of women in society.
Despite the untraditional and impressive contributions made by women during wartime, Mussolini and his fellow party leadership sought to reinvent the meaning of womanhood, relying on both conventional and abnormal ideas to do so (Belzer, 178). For example, Mussolini simultaneously encouraged women to publicly participate in the creation of female youth groups while heavily asserting that the most divine responsibilities a woman held lay in her ability to birth healthy children and indoctrinate them in accordance to fascist ideals (Belzer, 179). In line with this belief, fascists falsely linked birth control to medical issues like uterine dysfunction and the production of unsightly facial hair for women (De Grand, 958). By 1927, the implementation of the Rocco Code altogether banned education on family planning or the publicization of contraceptive goods and methods (De Grand, 958). Given this obvious erasure of vital liberties for women, it becomes reasonable to question how thousands of women retained their support for fascism, as depicted in the video shown below. The answer, in part, has to do with how Mussolini immediately acknowledged the importance of women in Italian society once he had fully come into power. Though Mussolini was not an ardent supporter of feminism, he understood the importance of expanding suffrage to keep favor with women. In 1923, Mussolini strategically announced the party’s intention to allow women to vote in local elections while at the International Alliance for Women’s Suffrage meeting that was held in Rome (De Grand, 953). The feat of suffrage expansion was one that was never achieved by a more liberal government and aided in the palatability of fascism for some women of the era. Of course, the infrequent nods towards women’s civil liberties was not the sole motivator for many women to support fascism; fascism provided rigid yet encompassing roles for women to occupy in society that had not been previously laid out by more liberal counterparts (Belzer, 180). Women who previously were not publicly considered by the state now had a distinct mold to fit into. Mussolini modeled the ideal woman as the donna fascista, who carefully followed the guidelines of education and service provided to her by the fascist state (Belzer, 184). These unabashedly stifling obligations included the expectations for women to fulfill all those around her with goodness and happiness, serve the country through motherhood, be loyal and appreciative toward the Duce, “obey superiors” joyfully, be opponents of dishonesty, strengthen her body and spirit, flee from vanity, and lead a life that is harmonious with fascism (Malagreca, 75). Pictured below is a journal, aptly titled La Donna Fascista, or the fascist woman. From 1935 to 1943, this newspaper replaced the weekly publications on women’s social education and was overtaken by the women’s organizations of the National Fascist Party (Biblioteca Italiana Delle Donne). This newspaper offered various insights and pieces of advice regarding how to properly live as a fascist woman and even highlighted the important roles that women occupied in society as athletes.
Much of this discussion on women and fascism has thus far analyzed the ways that women grew to be supportive of Mussolini and his policies and the few gains women enjoyed as a result. However, the experiences of women during the era of fascism are incomplete without further studying their resistance to such ideologies. By 1943, Italian men and women alike had grown tired of the war and become increasingly resistant to both fascism and Nazism (D’Amelio, 127). Major cities like Sicily and Florence were controlled by Allied powers and offered avenues for organized rebel forces to combat the remnants of the Axis powers (D’Amelio, 127). Partisan fighters even included women who bore arms and directly participated in the killing of Nazi forces (D’Amelio, 128). In addition to partisan formations in the countryside, there were also smaller assault and sabotage units that operated in urban areas, called Gruppi di Azione Patriottica, or Groups of Patriotic Resistance, they were usually organized and led by communists. Squads of men and women were particularly active in Rome, Turin, Florence, Bologna and Milan (D’Amelio, 128). Women were also crucial in the distribution of anti-fascist literature as well as explosive ammunitions (D’Amelio, 130). These women were also often tasked with being spies, an extremely dangerous profession that would subject any convicted individual to the same wartime punishments that opposing soldiers would face (D’Amelio, 131). Despite this, women bravely volunteered as soldiers and were instrumental in the development of democracy across Italy.
Overall, the experience of fascism for Italian women was a deeply complex and nuanced phenomenon. While fascism surprisingly offered avenues of public visibility and political participation for previously under-recognized women, many also turned to paths of rebellion to combat ideology they believed was contrary to their morals. The era of fascism for Italian women both expanded liberties of suffrage and also diminished access to vital medications like contraceptives. Without the active occupational roles that women had taken during World War I, their continued participation as both supporters and opponents of fascism would likely have not been possible.
Belzer, A. S. (2010). Italian Fascism and the Donna Fascista. Women and the Great War,
D’Amelio, Dan A. “Italian Women in the Resistance, World War II.” Italian Americana, vol. 19,
no. 2, 2001, pp. 127–41. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/29776690. Accessed 13 Dec. 2022.
De Grand, Alexander. “Women under Italian Fascism.” The Historical Journal, vol. 19, no. 4,
1976, pp. 947–68. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/2638244. Accessed 13 Dec. 2022.
“La Donna Fascista.” Biblioteca Delle Donne, https://bibliotecadelledonne.women.it/rivista/la-donna-fascista/. Accessed 13 Dec. 2022
Le Donne d’Italia Nelle Industrie di Guerra, 1915.
Malagreca, Miguel (May 2006). “Lottiamo Ancora 1: Reviewing One Hundred and Fifty Years
of Italian Feminism” (PDF). Journal of International Women’s Studies. 7 (4). Archived
from the original (PDF) on 25 December 2012. Accessed 13 Dec. 2022
Monti, Jennifer Linda, “The Contrasting Image of Italian Women Under Fascism in the 1930’s” (2011). Syracuse University Honors Program Capstone Projects. 714. Accessed 13 Dec. 2022 “The Contrasting Image of Italian Women Under Fascism in the 1930’s” by Jennifer Linda Monti