Historical View

Mothers and Family in Fascist Italy

        During the early twentieth century in Italy, the role of women and the structure of the family underwent a lot of change. Initially, this was the result of a shift from an agricultural to industrial society. However, when the Italian Fascist Party took control in 1922, there was a change in direction; women industrial laborers were no longer accepted, and the party began a restoration of the traditional female role. The ideal of women as mothers and managers of the home became prevalent as the dominating values of fascists created emphasizing and a hierarchy of gender. The party implemented many laws and used propaganda that promoted the importance of family, but exploited the household in ways that served the party itself. And, while many women submitted to the new fascist policies, a few women resisted the government’s unauthorized involvement in their private lives.

        The initial change in female roles came with World War I when the sons of peasant families began to work in industry. This was the beginning of a shift in the family economy from agriculture to industry. This shift in both male and female employment to industry in some regions, largely in North Italy, undermined the patriarchal role of the male head of the family because values changed and agricultural values needed for survival, such as procreation, were no longer as important. Furthermore, when the men of the family left for war, the women were left to manage the family economy – both agriculturally and industrially.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Benito_Mussolini (Accessed 12/12/05)
                              Mussolini Speaks

        The reasons for the rise of the Fascist Party were high unemployment, currency inflation, the shock of defeat in WWI, political polarization and fears of socialism and communism, and women’s increased participation in industry jobs as a result of the war.   The male-dominated Fascist Party had traditional misogynist views. As a result of fascist thinking about the role of women in the family, women faced poor treatment in almost all areas of daily life outside the home including politics, economics, and society. Even more, this type of treatment was upheld by fascist legislation that served to underline the male’s dominating rank. This legislation reinforced the patriarchal authority, barred women from paid wage labor, and took away their choice in decisions about reproduction. 

        Motherhood quickly became associated primarily with the act of making babies rather than the traditional, maternal values like love, guidance, and care. Women became like machines. Procreation basically came to define their social role and the authorities were determined to implement these newly defined roles for women by suppressing illegitimate sexuality, like prostitution, from public consumption. In addition, they set up numerous policies and incentives to emphasize women’s roles as mothers. For example, abortion was considered a crime. The government also issued family allocations, maternity insurance, birth and marriage loans, and career preferment for fathers of big families, as well as organizing special institutions for infant and family health and welfare.  Unfortunately, even though these policies to some extent recognized women as political subjects, they failed to grant real privileges to women.

        When Benito Mussolini came into power, implementing these policies, his regime tactics proved to take a lot from women, acting to exploit them in various ways. This held true especially for working-class and peasant women. First, fascists sought greater control over the already traditional role of the female, particularly motherhood. For example, in 1934, a law was passed that expanded benefits and coverage for women employed in industry. As a result, these women were given a two-month paid “compulsory leave.” They were also guaranteed time off to breast-feed newborns until they were a year old and the government provided feeding rooms for nursing women working in factories that employed more than fifty working women so they could breast-feed their babies at work. Furthermore, women were allotted a lump-sum payment when they gave birth, which immediately gave them a two-month wage when they had a baby.  Additionally, to offset the costs of big families, the party looked to make childbearing seem as if it were a service to the state. To do so, the government set aside a day to honor mothers and distributed various posters that depicted motherhood as a national duty for women. Thus, Mother’s Day came to celebrate prolific mothers and especially recognize those mothers who had the most children. Women were constantly reminded of the importance and honor of being a mother of many children.

                                                                                                                                          http://www.library.wisc.edu/libraries/dpf/Fascism/Women.html (Accessed 11/27/05)      
                                                                                                                                                                       Melting Wedding Bands

        The government gave women a lot of incentives to have large families. However, unlike in liberal states, like Finland, that extended political rights with social welfare services, Italy did the opposite. Where the interest was to promote the Italian nation, the welfare of the infant superseded that of the mother. So, while propaganda insisted that, naturally, women were only contented in motherhood and that childbearing was a “biological destiny,” government social services doubted whether women were naturally the best nurturers and questioned the control traditionally given to female kinship and community networks over childbirth and infant nurturing. Consequently, Italian mothers of all classes were made to feel incompetent, apprehensive, and dependent - that they needed male intervention in order to make correct decisions about motherhood.   

        Additionally, while the government was setting up protective laws for mothers in factory jobs, it was also drafting laws to drive women out of the work force. For example, the same law that vowed equal opportunity contained an article that excluded women from “those positions that involve the exercise of public judicial authority, political rights or power, or the military defense of the state.” Women were also kept out of teaching and directing upper-grade schools and lecturing on subjects considered to be important such as history, philosophy, Italian, Latin, and Greek. Also, the government set up quotas that served to limit, or even exclude, women workers in numerous workplaces, such as banks and insurance companies.  Women’s wages were decreased as well in comparison with men’s wages.

        Furthermore, the government exploited household economic resources by demanding that women act as efficient household managers, allocating the money of the house properly so as to have enough food and other consumers products. Likewise, they were urged to wisely use the the services offered by the limited social welfare system in order to ensure a healthy, large family.  Commercial culture became more widespread in Italy; advertisements were put into effect to encourage housewives to purchase appliances and other things for the home. Additionally, women were pushed to purchase new clothing to conform to the new social culture and individualism, where one’s outer appearance and etiquette were important in defining his/her social status as social gatherings became more widespread.

    More importantly, the national agency ONMI (Opera nazionale per la maternità ed infanzia) was established to oversee maternal and infant welfare. This agency served to influence mothers and other networks involved in infant care to follow new standards for prenatal and postpartum care, infant hygiene, and nutrition by promoting new products such as infant formula and medicines. At the same time, via protective laws that offered days off and resources to care for newborns, mothers were still encouraged to keep part-time wage paying jobs to add to the family income because Italy still needed to maintain a supply of cheap laborers in reserve.

                                                                 http://encarta.msn.com/media_1500698_761555207_-1_1/Italian_Partisans_Patrolling_in_Milan_1945.html (Accessed 12/12/05)
                                                                 Italian Partisans Patrolling in Milan, 1945.

        Finally, the regime cleverly devised a plan to give women just enough participation in the national community to satisfy their desire to be active citizens, by setting up a number of organizations, including the National Fascist Party itself, for social engagement. However, even though women had the opportunity to gather socially, poverty, a poor welfare system, and war made motherhood a difficult task, taking up most of their time to maintain the family and keep all members healthy. Family demands, social customs, and the fascist leaders’ own ambivalence about including women in the public sphere kept women away from political engagement.   Even when the time came to voice their grievances, they were limited to speaking out about their given roles as mothers, nurturers, and providers.  Overall, mothers were considered to be laborers, patriots, and social activists in their service to the state.  They generally remained in the house and accepted their roles outlined by the government because, at that time, it seemed like the right thing to do.

        Fascism led to changes in family values as well. Mussolini said, “A nation exists not only because it has a history and territory, but because human masses reproduce from generation to generation. The alternative is servitude or the end.”  He also went on to define a man through fatherhood, even decreeing that marriage and number of children should be an important measure when hiring his government officials. These men were considered civic leaders who set example for the rest of the people, and so fatherhood was a prerequisite.

        Reproduction was an important part of the party’s policy, not only because of the “mercantilist” motive that held that children were necessary in order to labor and help support the family, which was present even before fascism, but also because of the fascists’ goal of imperialism. An increasing population was considered an excuse for the government to demand colonies. At the same time, it provided the military with the manpower needed to conquer those colonies. What is more, these pronatalist policies helped to further the party’s goal of restoring the "correct" gender order that was altered during World War I. 

        As a result of all the new fascist policies, working women were left with even more hardships than they had faced prior to fascist rule. Even though the government provided welfare services and protective legislation for mothers, women were working for pay that was not enough to cover the simplest necessities. If they lost their job, they did not receive the unemployment benefits given to men for three months following the loss of a job. Furthermore, the maternity insurance, paid by working women ages 15 to 60, also did not pay out a sufficient amount needed to cover the real expenses of medical or hospital costs incurred by mothers, leaving many mothers impoverished.  And finally, no aid was given to mothers unless complete impoverishment was acknowledged. Women were forced to pay the costs themselves prior to being approved for aid, and even when such aid was given, they were expected to pay back the government in installments. As a result, many women were forced to suffer and find alternate ways to maintain the family. These incentives helped them to make the decision to have more babies, but they did not help them to support the health of those babies.

       Nevertheless, even with all the restrictions and hardships, there was evidence of women’s resistance to fascist policies. Even though many remained politically passive, a decline in birth rates shows that others did not submit to pronatalist policies. Urban working-class women struggled to keep control of their own bodies. Even when poverty and prejudices limited the use of the only legally available contraceptive, condoms, they turned to alternative measures such as makeshift abortions to stop pregnancies.    Although these alternative practices were more dangerous, it showed that women were determined to maintain a conscious effort in controlling their fertility in a state that sought to dictate women’s positions and duties to the state.

        In conclusion, it is clear that women in Italy underwent a lot of change during the early twentieth century. The first change came as a result of a shift from an agricultural society to an industrial one, and World War I. The second change came as result of the National Fascist Party coming into power and looking to undo the changes that took place during industrialization and the war. Fascism worked to bring women back into their traditional roles as mothers and managers of the home by means of new legislation and propaganda. The new fascist policies served to help women, but at the same time exploit them in various ways that benefited the state. However, the new way of life helped keep women and mothers in industrial jobs and involved in social matters by giving them a time and place to gather and discuss an array of issues ranging from family to politics. It was a paradox that ultimately contradicted women’s roles and gave, to those that wanted it, the opportunity to resist.