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Journal of Interdisciplinary History 32.2 (2001) 304-305

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Book Review

Measuring Mamma's Milk:
Fascism and the Medicalization of Maternity in Italy

Measuring Mamma's Milk: Fascism and the Medicalization of Maternity in Italy. By Elizabeth Dixon Whitaker (Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 2000) 357pp. $49.50

Whitaker has made an original and important contribution to the social history of Fascist Italy. Measuring Mamma's Milk draws on medical literature, folklore, official statements, literary sources, and extensive interviews to illuminate Fascist demographic policies. Anyone interested in social history or the history of motherhood and infancy in Italy since unification should find this work essential.

Around the time of unification one-quarter of all infants died within the first year after birth (88). Although declining, the rates remained high into the 1920s. The Fascists brought to this problem an organic conception of state and society, coupled with a decision to increase the population from 45 to 70 million within the century. They immediately understood that only by reducing infant mortality could [End Page 304] they hope to achieve Benito Mussolini's stated aim. Infant nutrition was an area of obvious concern. By forging close relations with the medical establishment, the Fascists made a determined effort to introduce scientific rationality into traditional practices of breast feeding in Italy.

Whitaker's examination of the Fascist campaign to reduce infant morality centers on the region of Reggio Emilia and on a town that she calls Santa Lucia. She reconstructs rural life, the folk practices, and traditional theories of breast feeding that governed the mother-child relationship and, when the supply of milk was insufficient, the employment of wet nurses.

By the time the Fascists came to power in 1922, the rise of the medical specialist, the displacement of midwives, and the advances in germ theory led experts to focus on female ignorance as a factor in the continuing high rate of infant mortality. The goal of racial improvement demanded hygienic management of maternity and scientific breast feeding. The Fascist conception of the female centered exclusively on motherhood. Urbanization, women's work in general, and intellectual activity in particular had negative effects on procreative capacities and were to be discouraged. Pregnancy and breast feeding not only improved health but it also made women physically and spiritually beautiful and robust. Diets needed to be controlled both during and after pregnancy. Strict instructions were issued on feeding schedules and regular weighing of infants. Instruction in child care was delivered through a network of clinics of the Opera Nazionale Maternità and Infanzia (onmi), created in 1925, which reached over 550,000 mothers and children by 1937.

Some questions remain in Whitaker's treatment. At various points, she makes it clear that the rural world altered little under fascism and that the regime ignored the reality of peasant life. In fact, change in maternal care came mainly in urban areas that were more accessible to the medical system. But the continued decline of the birth rate in urban Italy raises questions about the success of the regime in inculcating its fundamental values, even where the onmi was most effective. If the regime did change behavior, how much of the new scientific practices were due to the general advance of medical technology throughout Western societies, and how much could be specifically attributed to fascism? Whitaker leaves no doubt that change came most rapidly after the economic boom of the 1950s and 1960s.


Alexander De Grand
North Carolina State University



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pp. 304-305
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