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Recent trends in Italian feminism, starting from the second-wave feminism of the late 1960’s, have given rise to many significant changes in Italy, with changing attitudes allowing the change of oppressive, outdated laws and the attitudes of the courts. The will look at the state of feminism before the second-wave movement was born and the context of the country into which it was born. I will explore how these changes came about, and give a brief introduction to some of the women who made it all possible, including Carla Lonzi, Luisa Muraro and Mariarosa Dalla Costa. I will also look into the different campaign focuses of various groups within the movement over the years, concluding with a brief evaluation of the state of Italian feminism today and what issues are yet to be resolved in Italy. 

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So when did feminism start in Italy? 

While feminism in Italy can be dated back to the country’s renaissance period in the late 13th century (https://books.google.je/books?id=8giPf4fOQ5oC&q=italian&redir_esc=y#v=snippet&q=italian&f=false), the fascist ideology under Benito Mussolini reversed much of the progress that was made by the previous movements, particularly during the 19th-century. This wave of feminism gained women more equal rights under the law, although it certainly did not end in complete equality under the law. Still, women were given rights to attended university, serve as witnesses to legal acts, to receive equal inheritance and to become the legal guardian of their children and their property if abandoned by their husbands. Anna Kuliscioff, a Russian immigrant who also became one of Italy’s first female doctors,  was an important figure in Italian feminism at the time. she never joined a female organisation, yet she was one of the strongest promoters of female rights. 

As Anna Kuliscioff explains in her speech titled “The Monopoly of Man” in 1890:
‘The always growing female desire to become economically independent is a
phenomenon typical of recent times; in fact, modern life pushes women to
work, either because of economic necessity – as it happens in the majority of
working classes and middle classes -, and for moral reasons in the small
minority of privileged classes. Even the dominant-class woman is no longer
satisfied with being a flower, an angel or the docile companion and slave of a
man; she wants to cooperate with him in the social work, and represent a
social value.’

The setback under Mussolini, however, was more of ideology rather than legal rights, with the church unifying with the government in teaching some of these ideologies. Some may argue that this can be equally as dangerous. For example, fascist ideology appointed procreation as a woman’s duty and idealised the rounded, maternal, submissive wife and mother. (https://samjcousins.wordpress.com/2013/01/04/the-position-of-women-in-fascist-society/) Mussolini wanted women to remain in the traditional role of mother and wife, central to the nuclear Italian family. 

‘Women are angels or demons,
born to take care of the household,
bear children, and to make cuckolds.’
Benito Mussolini

Despite this oppressive ideology, Mussolini was able to recruit a number of prominent feminists to his cause. These middle and upper-class women, who had far more exposure to fascism than working-class women, wanted to further their own kind of feminism. However they failed to challenge the idea of motherhood as a woman’s primary destiny. There was of course an antifascist movement, in which at least as many women as men were involved. Women’s support or resistance to fascism at the time was generally not related to fascism’s misogyny – women seem to have chosen to oppose or support based on other grounds. (https://books.google.je/books?id=aJvzjv12CkcC=PA82=PA82=feminism+nazi+italy=bl=bkD2Nl3WPs=YRob_przO5VbJpGMDD7WKirXvuo=en=X=0ahUKEwjSmO-9mbnYAhUsCMAKHZYpCF0Q6AEIbTAN#v=onepage=feminism%20nazi%20italy=false)

‘War is to man what maternity is to a woman. From a philosophical and doctrinal viewpoint, I do not believe in perpetual peace.’- Benito Mussolini

The view that maternity was the most important part of women and women’s roles was strongly reinforced by the teachings of the Catholic Church. In 1925, Mussolini set up the ONMI (National Organisation for Maternity and Infants), primarily for the prevention of birth control and abortions, and in 1926 the laws against abortion were strengthened. Mussolini aimed to increase birth rates in Italy so that there would be more men to join the army in the future: ‘The fate of nations is intimately bound up with their powers of reproduction. All nations and all empires first felt decadence gnawing at them when their birth rate fell off.’ – Benito Mussolini. Women were kept out of ‘white-collar jobs’  and the ideology looked down on women being employed at all, as it was seen to discourage women from their main role and mothers. However many lower-class women stayed employed due to financial necessity, as their husband’s wage was not enough to feed their family. Although the fascist movement did not devastate women’s rights as much as Mussolini would have hoped, it was certainly a step back.

After the fall of Benito Mussolini’s government in 1943, the subsequent occupation of Italy by Nazi Germany commenced. An important figure in feminism at this time was Ada Gobetti. Though not a feminist activist, Gobetti and her comrades more or less invented La Resistenza, the Italian resistance to the Nazis. Ada’s husband, Piero Gobetti, was an anti-fascist activist. After he was beaten by a fascist gang he died of bronchitis in 1926, and Ada vowed to continue his work. (https://www.spectator.co.uk/2014/11/partisan-diary-by-ada-gobetti-review/) Ada ran safe-houses and oversaw women who helped publish and distribute the anti-fascist newspaper ‘La Riscossa’. At that time, anyone caught writing, printing or distributing La Riscossa Italiana could have been beaten, arrested or even killed. Because women didn’t have the right to vote or participate in government activities they were less likely to be suspects and watched by the Nazis. ‘One of the most important things to Ada was solidarity, and she thought education was the way to create that,’ said Angela Arceri, an Ada Gobetti scholar who works at Centre for the Study of Piero Gobetti. ‘She did that through her publications…I see Ada as one of Italy’s first feminists’ (http://www.bbc.com/travel/story/20170913-how-italian-women-used-words-to-fight-the-nazis) In 1945 Ada co-founded the Women’s International Democratic Federation.

So when did second-wave feminism rise in Italy and where from?

This important phase for Italian women rose in the late 1960’s, from the ashes of a period of many riots and protests in the country. In a country where socialism had focused mainly on class issues rather than gender issues, and fascism had brought even more misogyny, it would come as no surprise that these women would take their chance to finally have their oppression recognised in amongst the rioting workers and students. So what caused the widespread protests and discontentment? Italy’s economic state. Despite the growth of the country’s economy during the mid 1960’s, the country entered into a recession which would cause a social rebellion of both workers and students out of which would rise Italy’s second wave feminist movement. (http://www.bc.edu/bc_org/avp/cas/soc/SocialMoments/brooks1.htm). Inflation and energy prices were high, and for the Italian working class this extreme pressure came to its climax during the mass strikes of 1968-1970. (http://libcom.org/history/1962-1973-worker-student-struggles-italy). In the “Hot Autumn” (or in Italian, ‘autunno caldo’) of 1969 more than 5.5 million male and female workers participated in over 440 hours of strikes, most occurring in Northern Italy, and demanded better pay and working conditions. However the criticism was not only of workers’ rights, but also of the political culture as a whole.(https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/421954.pdf). 

It was a time of much distrust of the government, leading to a lot of violence and political turmoil. The years from the late 1960s until the early 1980s were known as The Years of Lead (in Italian: Anni di piombo), referring to the number of bullets fired amongst much violence against the state. Both far left-wing and right-wing groups committed many acts of terrorism in the form of assassinations, street warfare and even bombings. The workers’ protests were often led by leftist or Marxist activists and often became violent. Speaking of a particular left-wing paramilitary group known as the ‘Red Brigades’, Gianfranco Pasquino, Professor of political sciences, says: ‘They are probably trying to play on the dissatisfaction within some sectors of the north, where citizens are against Europe’ (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/3372239.stm)

Among those protesting were students, revolting against fee increases and plans to restrict entry to university education. Since compulsory secondary education was introduced in 1962, many more students decided to continue their education up to university level. The student population increased by over 180,000 between 1960 and 1968, and the already strained university system was not prepared for the huge influx of new students.. Many students were left to teach themselves and by the 1968 drop-out rates reached over 50%. The majority of those dropping out were students from working class families who were having to work multiple jobs to pay for the fees. Universities in Milan, Turin and Trento were occupied by students. (http://libcom.org/history/1962-1973-worker-student-struggles-italy) Within this atmosphere of dissatisfaction, women could attempt to redefine politics further and turn this movement into something of their own.

Although women were involved in the strikes and protests of the Hot Autumn, all the leadership and organisation roles were taken by men. The women’s contributions were ignored my the male organisers. Even within the movement aiming to challenge society, the traditional gender roles were still upheld. (https://ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/bitstream/handle/10871/18029/BasilioE.pdf?sequence=3=y) Women’s expectations became polarised between emancipation and family-centred feminine models. (https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/421954.pdf) This caused some women to branch off from the protests and begin their own revolution, one that they could control themselves and for once not be told what to do by men. There were political parties beginning to form the New Left, such as the PDUP (Party of the Unified Proletariat for Communism) and the PR (Radical Party), and women were not only taking part in the formation of these parties but were also addressing women-specific issues in the parties’ policies.) On March 8, 1969, women organised the first annual ‘international woman’s day’, where they focussed on women’s liberation.  Women carried banners which said ‘non c’e rivoluzione senza liberazione della donna. Non c’e liberazione della donna senza rivoluzione” or “there is no revolution without liberation of women, and no liberation of women without revolution’ (http://www.bc.edu/bc_org/avp/cas/soc/SocialMoments/brooks1.htm

Carla Lonzi, an Italian art critic, became a very important figure for feminism at this time. She began to view the art world as a part of the system of oppression in which women were unequal to men, and abandoned her art career to take part in feminist activism. (http://artsandhumanities.ucsd.edu/_files/va-zapperi.pdf ) In 1970 she cofounded Rivolta Femminile (“Women’s Revolt”) alongside Carla Accardi, and Elvira Banotti. Rivolta Femminile was a feminist collective in Rome and Milan which published a manifesto which featured this quote:

‘Will women always be divided one from another? Will they never form a single body?’ – Olympe De Gouges, 1791

The manifesto focused on women coming together to assume their own roles in society, and rejected the idea that feminist women should try to become equal to men. 

‘Liberation for woman does not mean accepting the life man leads, because it is unliveable; on the contrary, it means expressing her own sense of existence.’ (http://www.columbia.edu/itc/architecture/ockman/pdfs/feminism/manifesto.pdf) 

It denounced marriage as an oppressive institution which forces women to give up their names and their identities, and it favoured freedom of abortion in order to uphold women’s autonomy. The Rivolta Femminile also focused on ‘autocoscienza’ theory and practices. This means ‘self-awareness’, and the belief that women can better understand themselves by taking time to contemplate themselves and their place in the world, but also by opening a dialogue with other women and having authentic, trusting relationships. In the manifesto, it states: ‘We communicate only with other women.’ They deemed this self-awareness as the foundation of women’s struggle and liberty, and as a way to define themselves without it being in relation to men. The Rivolta Femminile developed its own publishing house, the Scritti di Rivolta Femminile, which allowed the group to distribute its own work and circulate their ideas.

A few months later Carla Lonzi published ‘Let’s spit on Hegel’, in which she criticises the concept of ‘equality’ between male and female and explains why it is not something that women should be striving for.  ‘The oppression of women will not be overcome by annihilating man. Nor will equality cancel it; oppression will continue with equality. …. The equally available today is not philosophical but political. But do we, after thousands of years, really wish for inclusion, on these terms, in a world planned by others? Would we indeed be gratified by participating in the great defeat of man?’ She claims that the best way for women to gain autonomy is not to strive to be a part of the oppressive power that men hold, but to celebrate women’s differences with men and to attack the very concept of power. ‘The difference between woman and man is the basic difference of humankind.’ (http://www.columbia.edu/itc/architecture/ockman/pdfs/feminism/manifesto.pdf) Lonzi also deconstructs the patriarchal nature of Hegel’s theories concerning women and the sexual differences between man and woman. 

‘…the difference in the physical characteristics of the two sexes has a
rational basis and consequently acquires an intellectual and ethical
significance … man has his actual and substantive life in the state, in
learning and so forth, as well as in labour and struggle with the external
world …Woman, on the other hand, has her substantive destiny in the
family and to be imbued with family piety is her ethical frame of mind.’
– Hegel writes in his book ‘Philosophy of Right’ 

More of Lonzi’s most notable work include ‘The Clitoral and the Vaginal Woman’ and ‘Diary of a Feminist’. ‘The Clitoral Woman and the Vaginal Woman’, an article published in 1971, focuses on female sexuality and the myth of the vaginal orgasm. Lonzi analysed the works of Freud, Reich, Desmond Morris, the Karma Sutra and others and claimed that the idea of the vaginal orgasm serves patriarchy by upholding the idea of the complementarity of women to men. Complementarianism is the view that men and women must have different but complementary roles and responsibilities in marriage, family life, religious leadership, and elsewhere. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Complementarianism) It states that men should be dominant and women should be submissive and that men should provide leadership and women should follow. This is reflected in the views of the vaginal orgasm as women’s only form of sexual pleasure; the penis is seen as the only way to experience pleasure for both partners.

Freud viewed clitoral pleasure in women as an immature pleasure, and that enjoying vaginal pleasure was a mark of becoming a mature woman and was needed in a heterosexual relationship. Freud also saw it as a sign of the woman becoming submissive to the man, which he deemed necessary. Lonzi rejected this idea and invented a figure known as ‘the clitoral woman’, a woman who is able to serve her own sexual pleasure through her clitoris rather than vaginal pleasure, which could only take place with a man present. The figure strongly opposed heteronormativity. This came at a time when female sexuality was in the forefront of feminist ideas and Lonzi’s writing had great impact. (http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1350506813503143)

‘Diary of a Feminist’ is a collection of Lonzi’s diary entries written between 1972 and 1977. This was one of the ways in which Lonzi practised ‘autocoscienza’. The entries cover topics from the collective of women, female sexuality, relationships and in particular her relationship with Pietro Consagra in later entries. It was originally published in sections between the years of 1970 and 1972 and then published as an assimilated whole in 1974.

Luisa Muraro was another important figure in Italian second-wave feminism, and she was largely inspired by the writing and activism of Carla Lonzi. Luisa Muraro, born in 1940, was an Italian philosopher and writer. In Milan, 1970, Muraro joined the DEMAU (Demistification patriarchal authoritarianism) and met Lia Cigarini. Muraro, Cigarini and others founded the ‘Libreria delle Donne’ (in english, the women’s bookstore), of Milan in 1975. This became very important for feminism and is still open today. 

‘In the years when the library was born there was a need to have a place that would emphasize the thinking and writing of women. So a feminist enterprise has originated that does not claim parity, but, on the contrary, says that the difference of women is there and we hold it in high esteem, we cultivate it with the practice of relationship and with the attention to poetry, to literature, to philosophy. For this reason, even when female production began to circulate more, the Library continued to live.’ (http://www.libreriadelledonne.it/chi-siamo/)

Feminism at this time celebrated the differences between men and women and emphasised women’s freedom in action. Muraro’s thought is sometimes labeled as ‘feminism of difference’. Second-wave feminists encouraged women to redefine their own roles in society rather than try to assume men’s role in society. However, achieving equality between men and women under the law was still an important part of feminism and was not yet achieved at that time.

In 1970 a law for divorce was introduced. In 1974 the Christian Democratic Party led an anti-divorce referendum which was voted down by 59% of the national electorate. In 1975 the family law in Italy was reformed. Adultery was removed as a crime and male and female partners in a marriage were now seen as equal under the law. The legal dominance of the husband was abolished. In 1976 the DC and the Neo-Fascist Party rejected the legalisation of abortion bill. This solidified the feminist movement as the only party representing the true voice of women. In 1978 a law legalising and regulating abortion was introduced. In 1981 the law which provided mitigated punishment of honour killings was repealed. Much progress was made towards the goal of equality under the law for men and women due to second-wave feminism.

Some members of the feminist movement began a campaign aiming to get women wages for any housework that they do. The group, named Lotta Femminista (in english, Feminist Struggle) began the campaign known internationally as ‘Wages for Housework’. Mariarosa Dalla Costa started this group in 1971 in Padua along with Selma James, Brigitte Galtier and Silvia Federici. Since men were paid for their productive labour, in their eyes it was simple that women should also be paid for their reproductive labour. Lotta Femminista saw the difference as it fit into the capitalist sexual division of labor. This changed women’s outlooks and they no longer wanted to fulfil men’s expectations of endless willingness to reproduce others for free. Women began taking action to make obvious their additional expected ‘reproductive labour’ by bringing it into the workplace. For example bringing young children to the office, refusing to continue to perform additional tasks that were asked of them only because they were women, and women in a factory in Udine who asked the management to organise a service with a doctor who would come into the factory to give them medical check-ups during reproduction, to save the workers from missing work-days. This example then spread to other factories. (https://www.viewpointmag.com/2015/10/31/introduction-to-the-archive-of-the-feminist-struggle-for-wages-for-housework-donated-by-mariarosa-dalla-costa/)

‘We wanted money for housework primarily in response to the serious problem of women’s lack of money, but also as a lever of power with respect to services …. On the other hand, there was the typical emancipationist position that aimed only at working outside of the home and called for a strengthening of social services. This was the position of the institutional left but also of other feminist strands.’  – Mariarosa Dalla Costa, email message, 22 September 2005.

Mariarosa Dalla Costa wrote ‘The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community’, published in 1972, with the English feminist Selma James. This was an important text for the Wages for Housework movement. The movement not only advocated for economic compensation for domestic work but also discussed women’s workers rights and exploitative labour practises against working women which they claimed the capitalist economies relied on. Not all strands of the feminist movement agreed with this stance however; it became a subject of divide in the movement as some feminists advocated for more women to join the workforce among men rather than be encouraged to remain doing housework. Women’s ‘Liberation’ versus women’s ’emancipation’ became polarising ideologies within the movement. 

Another subject that second-wave feminist activists discussed and promoted was educating people about women’s reproductive health. 

Women in Italy today owe much gratitude to the struggles and fight of the women of second-wave feminism. The movement made much progress towards the liberation of women. The fight, however, continues on today and women continue to look forward to the hope of a better, more equal Italy. Social and political change is complex and can be slow, but the movement showed us that change is possible and emphasised that self-reflection and liberation is the best place to start.