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Italian communism and the 'woman question' in post-war Italy: from memory to history.

From the very beginning of the Italian Republic, Palmiro Togliatti, leader of the Partito Comunista Italiano (Italian Communist Party, or PCI), had argued the theoretical necessity of women's emancipation as part of the transition to a democratic society. In his speech at the First Conference of Communist Women, held in Rome at the beginning of June 1945, he defined the questione femminile (woman question) as 'one of the central issues in the renewal of the Italian state and of Italian society'. Furthermore, he linked the creation and the success of the new democratic regime with women's emancipation. His statement that 'Italian democracy needs women and women need democracy' soon became a motto for communist women. (1)

In line with orthodox Marxist-Leninist doctrine, the handbook for women in the movement, the Breve Corso Zetkin (the 'Zetkin' short course), published in 1953, clearly indicated that access to (paid) work was the necessary condition for women's emancipation. (2) One innovation was the attempt to promote an alliance of women on the basis of gender. According to Togliatti, women's emancipation could not be achieved by a single party or a single class, rather it was the task of all Italian women. Thus, women were to unite together in spite of class and party affiliation to fight for their emancipation, at an economic, social, political and moral level, in the women's association Unione Donne Italiane (Union of Italian Women or UDI). (3) This organisation was created in 1944, but Christian Democratic women left very soon afterwards, and it remained the association of women on the left for the entire post-war period.

From a theoretical point of view, the woman question was to be at the core of communist politics and was to be solved in a rather straightforward process. How and to what extent were these theoretical assumptions implemented? A new line of research into the gender dimension of post-war Italian communism has emerged in recent years. These studies, discussed below, suggest that there were a number of discrepancies between theory and the practice within the PCI, as well as inside its flanking organisations, namely the UDI and the trade union Confederazione Generale Italiana del Lavoro (Italian General Confederation of Labour or CGIL). Moreover, this new line of research is starting to fill a gap in the field that was previously virtually unexplored. It also finally provides an analysis that goes beyond the narrative created by the abundantly available layers of memories and memoirs on this issue.

Feminist historiography, born in the 1970s, for a long time showed little interest in examining how the woman question was addressed by the PCI and the UDI in the period from the end of the second world war to the explosion of feminism in the late 1960s and 1970s. Generally speaking, the politics of both the UDI and the Communist Party were strongly criticised, in particular for their focus on the 'economic' aspect of women's oppression and their general lack of attention towards inequality in the private sphere. The UDI was described as a mere transmission belt for the PCI, with no autonomous elaboration whatsoever.

But though academic interest was scant, collections of interviews with grass roots female UDI and/or PCI militants, feminists, and communist party leaders flourished in the 1970s. (4) And although the Communist Party is often depicted as the most pro-women party available in the Italian context, its inadequate efforts in promoting changes in family law, contraception and so on, are a recurring theme in most of these testimonies. As a response to this critique, female communist politicians produced numerous historical studies outlining the main themes and debates surrounding the woman question within their party, in an attempt to prove that communist elaboration had been rich and had led to a series of achievements over time. (5)

The UDI itself started to preserve its own memory at an early stage. In 1982, when the UDI decided to dismantle its institutional and representational organisation and become an independent and horizontal association, a special Gruppo Archivio (archive team) was formed. The team's task was to reorganise sources for the association's history, and to create archives at both national and local level. At the same time, three former leaders of the UDI (Maria Michetti, Margherita Repetto and Luciana Viviani) began working towards a publication which traced the history of the UDI from its constitution in 1944 to its refoundation in the early 1980s. UDI: laboratorio di politica delle donne (1984) provides interesting source material, such as position papers, protocols and proceedings from the UDI archives, introduced and commented on by the authors. (6) Their comments clearly reflect the authors' own disenchantment with traditional leftwing politics, and the impact that feminist critique had had on their own organisation at that time. In essence, they look back at the history of the UDI and highlight its major flaws, and the opportunities it lost to become an authentic women's organisation that could go beyond socio-economic marxist analysis on the woman question. For example, during the 1950s its main campaigns were directed at peace and child welfare--goals that were clearly in tune with the party line, but which were not directly relevant to women's rights. More specifically, the UDI's elaborations on the value of housework and the question of women's double burden were not followed up with a critique of the gendered division of labour within the household, but with a call for public social services. However, the authors also claim that, given the circumstances, the UDI was to some extent able to generate debate on the left, and to show a certain degree of autonomy, for example in its withdrawal from the Moscow-based Women's International Democratic Federation in 1963-4.

Further compendiums of documents and oral testimonies have been collected at a local level, such as in the 'red' region of Emilia-Romagna, sometimes with the support of the local UDI archives and women's centres themselves (centri di documentazione della donna). In these cases, a more positive representation of the UDI emerges. Militancy is portrayed as an empowering experience for grass-roots militants and the UDI as an important and successful pressure group at a local level, where significant practical outcomes were achieved in the field of welfare and assistance (for example, the internationally known Reggio Emilia preschools). (7)

More generally, some former communist female politicians and UDI leaders have published their own memoirs, particularly in the last few years. (8) In all of these memoirs the difficulties in pushing women's demands onto the party's political agenda are a recurring theme. At the same time, they take pride in what they did manage to achieve within the party, in spite of men who in general paid lip service to the cause of women's emancipation but were in reality indifferent if not resistant to it.

This vast set of testimonies provides very interesting insights into women's experiences, and into practices that would have been difficult if not impossible to infer from archival and published sources. And they have been widely drawn on by historians investigating the complex relationships between orthodox marxist theorisation on the woman question, practices within the PCI and its flanking organisations, and the models that were proposed to women by the left in the context of everyday life. As a result, a more nuanced--but also contradictory and ambiguous--image of Italian communism is emerging.

The status of current research

So far, studies of the gender dimension of post-war Italian communism have focused on the period between the immediate aftermath of the Second World War and the early 1960s, a period characterised by the party's attempt to become a mass organisation and the fierce polarisation between the left and the catholic worlds. More generally, Italy was still an agricultural country, in which the legacy of traditional gender roles was strong and where the majority of women were not in paid work.

The first comprehensive survey of women's presence within the most masculine of left-wing organisations, namely the CGIL, was published in 1999 by Simona Lunadei, Lucia Motti and Maria Luisa Righi. E brava, ma ...: donne nella CGIL (1944-62) draws largely on a series of interviews with former female union leaders, together with printed sources, memoirs and, to a lesser extent, archival sources. (9) Biographical profiles of the interviewees are collected in the second part of the book, thus giving a voice to individual contributions, something unusual within the history of the union. The first more analytical section outlines how the CGIL set up and conducted campaigns on female labour as well as women's experience within the union. The image of the CGIL which emerges from these testimonies is that of a 'male institution' with a 'male language', where women felt uncomfortable and sometimes inadequate. Women even felt unable to express themselves in such a language. Interviewees stress how speaking in public was something new and intimidating for women in a country where the public sphere still seemed to be reserved for men. At the same time, female union leaders express pride in their achievements and professionalism, in particular when they could draw on a specific female outlook, as in the case of welfare. They recall their work experience in the CGIL as all-encompassing. As women, they stress how reconciling their union activities with family commitment was only possible thanks to the support of other women, and emphasise women's solidarity with each other, in contrast to the difficult relationship they had with their male colleagues.

Another revelation that emerges is the general disregard for women's issues on the part of male union leaders and members until the mid1950s. This attitude is poignantly defined as 'passive indifference': men were not openly against women's demands but simply tended to ignore them. The marginality of women within the CGIL was evident in its structure. The commissioni femminili (women's commissions) were meant to promote initiatives for the recruitment of women and propaganda, but not to elaborate their own proposals. More generally, there was a discrepancy between women's presence at a grass roots level and their representation within the union cadres and leadership. While women still constituted a minority of union members, proportionately even fewer female representatives were present within the union leadership.

More generally, the union did not show strong support for women's right to work until the mid-1950s. The only important and successful campaign on a women's issue was that in favour of the so-called legge Noce (Noce law) in 1950, which reformed maternity leave regulations. The authors indicate a slight change in this trend from 1956. From that moment onwards, for example, the campaign for equal pay was taken up by the whole union.

The period between the end of the 1950s and the early 1960s, the years of the so-called miracolo economico (economic miracle), saw a considerable growth of female employment. This led to a fierce debate on the left about the meaning of female emancipation: sections of the movement argued that economic growth was somehow itself solving the woman question by pushing women into the labour market. Unfortunately, the book only hints at some of the significant transformations that the union and women within it were undergoing as a consequence of this process.

More insights into how the woman question was dealt with in the Italian left are provided by Maria Casalini's research. Her Le donne della sinistra analyses how representations of women were shaped by the left between 1944 and 1948, from the Resistance to the beginning of the Cold War. (10) This clearly constituted a very peculiar period, characterised at first by an explosion of new models and expectations for women and then by a slow process of 'normalisation'. The most visible example of this return to traditional female roles was the cancellation of the memory of female partisan fighters. Women who had participated in the Resistance were to be represented in caring or at least less virile roles, for example as nurses or couriers. This process of retrenchment can be seen in the more general context of an emphasis within communist propaganda on family and motherhood, in order to counteract Christian Democratic accusations of being against those institutions. However, Casalini shows that the messages sent out to women were often more complex and/or ambiguous than might be expected. Through an analysis of the UDI women's magazine Noi Donne, she shows that, though the magazine provided a reassuring representation of women as good mothers and wives, at the same time it hinted at unconventional and alternative models through its picture stories and fiction.

One of the greatest merits of this work is that it offers a historical analysis of the contradictory relationship between the Italian left and women's right to work. Casalini traces the strategy of the post-war left back to that of the workers' movement in liberal Italy, which oscillated between appeals for equality and the practice of protection. In other words, the left continued to propose various devices for the protection of female labour (thus rendering it uneconomic), while paying lip service to the cause of equal pay and women's right to work in general. But the message that was sent out to women in this period was even more ambiguous. In contrast with orthodox marxist theory, the communist (male) press exalted housewifery and did not present paid work as a means of emancipation at all. Working women were depicted as exhausted, not empowered, by work. They were forced to work because of economic necessity, not out of choice.

Casalini shows that Noi donne presented a more nuanced, if still contradictory, position. It oscillated between supporting the idea of work as emancipation and at the same time praising housework, at times even demanding the status of 'worker' for housewives. As a result, what constituted women's emancipation seems to have been very unclear.

The following years are analysed by the same author in Famiglie comuniste. (11) Casalini's research into communist theory and practice in relation to the family confirms Sandro Bellassai's analysis of the party as being substantially conservative, as outlined in his seminal work La morale comunista. (12) Traditional gender roles were perpetuated within communist families, which continued to be constructed around the male breadwinner model. More generally, male members of the party showed a strong resistance towards women entering the public sphere, even though this was an attitude that went against the official party line, and which was (vainly) criticised in the party press and by party leader Togliatti on many occasions.

As in her previous work, Casalini's research draws on the UDI magazine Noi Donne. She shows that concepts that challenged traditional gender roles were in fact presented to women through this magazine, and sheds new light on the long-term controversy over the lack of attention given to the private sphere by the old left. In particular, after 1956, Noi Donne started campaigning for civil rights and changes in gender relationships within the family (divorce, contraception, family law, illegitimate children). Once again, 1956 is indicated as an important watershed. In the case of the UDI, it marked the start of a process of increasing autonomy from the communist party and its political line. Special attention is given by Casalini to an article published in 1956, entitled I figli, quanti ne vogliano, quando lo vogliamo (Children, we decide when and how many). This opening towards the private sphere was not received favourably by public opinion. More interestingly, even UDI members seemed not to be ready for public debate of such a topic.

Casalini's research suggests that this attempt to revolutionise the debate on gender within the PCI was instigated by a section of the party's female intelligentsia. Sections of the party press (Noi Donne in the first instance, but also Vie Nuove and Nuova Generazione) provided an impetus towards the 'laicization' of a party which frequently appeared traditionalist, and too close to catholic and bourgeois ideas of respectability. She also shows how Noi Donne continued to be ambiguous about what was supposed to be at the core of communist women's emancipation, namely access to paid work. Working women were often represented as being demeaned and not emancipated by work. Moreover, the new category of 'double burden' was introduced, to express how women were oppressed by housework in addition to their paid work. Significantly, solutions for the double burden were to be found in society (through social services, reduced working hours, improvement of technology). A different arrangement within the couple was sometimes hinted at, but never found theoretical endorsement.

Though with some ambiguity and limitations, the UDI emerges from these studies as a sort of vanguard for women's rights within the Italian left. This impression is confirmed by historian Patrizia Gabrielli's research. In particular, in La pace e la mimosa: l'Unione donne Italiane e la costruzionepoltica della memoria (1944-55), she argues that the 'hidden conflict' between the UDI and the PCI led to unexpected results, as the former managed to spark debate about the specificity of the woman question in a culture of the left that was affected by its focus on class. (13) This was particularly true after 1956. Even though the years leading up to 1956 were still characterised by a process of normalisation, the UDI had the merit of providing a (material) place where women could meet, cultivate relationships and participate fully in the new-born democratic state, in a society where the public sphere was still reserved to men. Gabrielli shows how the UDI achieved this goal, using a simple and elementary message to appeal to women, based on symbols and rituals (the mimosa and the celebration of 8 March, for example).

Scholars have made different evaluations about the amount of space that was available for women's agency in introducing gender conflict into left-wing politics, and about their ultimate effectiveness. Whether their critique was an important step per se, and whether it somehow prepared the ground for further steps or remained within traditional models and thus reinforced women's oppression, is still a controversial point. (14) However, a few general trends emerge from current studies on the gender dimension of post-war Italian communism until the early 1960s. While Togliatti had put the woman question at the centre of party politics, the PCI and its flanking organisations made no real effort to push for reforms. Women's right to work, which on a theoretical level was to be at the core of women's emancipation, was never truly supported. Interestingly, the left not only failed to recognise patriarchy as an important factor in women's oppression; it also seems to have failed to adhere to its own conceptions.

We still have very few insights into how these major trends evolved in the following years, when the 'economic miracle', the birth of consumer society and the centre-left dramatically changed Italian society and politics. Further research in this fascinating area might help an understanding of the continuities and ruptures in the way the woman question was dealt with on the left, and more generally in Italian society and politics. This line of research would also profit from a more attentive study of the possible relationships and mutual influence with the catholic world, which also underwent significant changes during the 1960s. An interest in women and women's associations within the catholic world is emerging as well. A broader perspective on the complex relationship between Italian communism and the woman question might provide more insight into a theme that has so far emerged as contradictory and ambiguous.


(1.) Palmiro Togliatti, 'Discorso pronunciato alla Conferenza femminile del PCI, Roma, 2-5 giugno 1945', in Id., Discorsi alle donne, Rome: Centro diffusione stampa nazionale del PCI, 1953, pp11-44, (quotations from p25, 31).

(2.) PCI (ed.), Breve Corso Zetkin sulla lotta per l'emancipazione della donna, Rome: La sfera, 1953.

(3.) Palmiro Togliatti, 'Discorso pronunciato alle comuniste intervenute alla Conferenza dell'UDI, Roma, 8 settembre 1946', in Id., Discorsi alle donne, pp45-71.

(4.) See, for example, Carla Ravaioli, La questione femminile: intervista col PCI, Milan: Bompiani, 1976; Chiara Valentini, Laura Lilli, Care compagne: il femminismo nel PCI e nelle organizzazioni di massa, Rome: Editori Riuniti, 1979.

(5.) See, for example: Aida Tiso, I comunisti e la questione femminile, Rome: Editori Riuniti, 1976; Nadia Spano, Fiamma Camarlinghi, La questione femminile nella politica del PCI (1921-1966), Rome: Donne e politica, 1972.

(6.) Maria Mich etti, Margherita Repetto, Luciana Viviani, UDI: Laboratorio di politica delle donne: idee e materiali per una storia, Rome: Cooperativa libera stampa, 1984.

(7.) See, in particular: Caterina Liotti (ed.), Volevamo cambiare il mondo: memorie e storie delle donne dell'UDI in Emilia Romagna, Roma: Carocci, 2002; Anna Lipari (ed.), Paura non abbiamo ...: lUnione donne italiane di Reggio Emilia nei documenti, nelle immagini, nella memoria (1945-1982), Bologna: Il nove, 1993.

(8.) One of the most cited works is Teresa Noce's autobiography: Teresa Noce, Rivoluzionaria professionale, Milan: La Pietra, 1974. See, also: Luciana Viviani, Rosso antico: come lottare per il comunismo senza perdere il senso dell'umorismo, Florence: Giunti, 1994; Marisa Rodano, Del mutare dei tempi, Rome: Memori, 2008; Ead., Memorie di una che cera: una storia dell'Udi, Milan: Il saggiatore, 2010; Nella Marcellino, Le tre vite di Nella, Milan, Sipiel, 2009; Marisa Ombra, La bella politica: la Resistenza, "Noi donne", il femminismo, Turin: SEB 27, 2009.

(9.) Simona Lunadei, Lucia Motti, Maria Luisa Righi (eds), E brava, ma.: donne nella CGIL (1944-1962), Rome: Ediesse, 1999.

(10.) Maria Casalini, Le donne della sinistra (1944-1948), Rome: Carocci, 2005.

(11.) Maria Casalini, Famiglie comuniste: ideologie e vita quotidiana nellltalia degli anni Cinquanta, Bologna: Il Mulino, 2010. Casalini also analyses communist gender policies in the 1940s-1950s more briefly in: Ead., 'Il dilemma delle comuniste: politiche di genere della sinistra nel secondo dopoguerra', in Nadia Filippini, Anna Scattigno (eds), Una democrazia incompiuta: donne epolitica in Italia dall'Ottocento ai giorni nostri, Milan: FrancoAngeli, 2007, pp131-153.

(12.) Sandro Bellassai, La morale comunista: pubblico e privato nella rappresentazione del PCI (1947-1956), Rome: Carocci, 2000. Bellassai confirms the inherently patriarchal nature of Italian communist politics and practices also for the years leading up to the early 1960s: Id., 'Mutamento ed emancipazione: la questione femminile nella cultura comunista degli anni Cinquanta e Sessanta' in Gabriella Bonacchi, Cecilia Dau Novelli (eds), Culture politiche e dimensioni del femminile nellItalia del '900, Soveria Mannelli: Rubettino, 2010, pp212-226.

(13.) Patrizia Gabrielli, La pace e la mimosa: l'Unione Donne Italiane e la costruzione politica della memoria, Rome: Donzelli, 2005.

(14.) See, for example, for a positive assessment of the achievements of the UDI (and the Catholic women's association Centro Italiano Femminile or CIF): Wendy Pojmann, 'Join us in rebuilding Italy: women's associations (1946-1963)', in Journal of Women's History, 20, 4, 2008, pp82-104. For a very critical assessment, see: Nina Rothenberg, 'The Catholic and the Communist women's press in post-war Italy: an analysis of Cronache and Noi Donne, in Modern Italy, 11, 3, 2006, pp285-304.
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Author:Schievenin, Pamela
Publication:Twentieth Century Communism
Geographic Code:4EUIT
Date:Jan 1, 2012
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