- How Fascism Ruled Women: Italy, 1922–1945, and: Il Duce’s Other Woman: The Untold Story of Margherita Sarfatti, Benito Mussolini’s Jewish Mistress, and How She Helped Him Come to Power
How fascism ruled women, and how one woman almost ruled the man who ruled fascism: the subjects of these two books are informed by sometimes complementary, sometimes contrasting views of the relation between women and the fascist regime in Italy.
Victoria De Grazia herself says it best: “how fascism ruled women is also the story of how Italian women experienced fascist rule” (11–12). This superb book, How Fascism Ruled Women, is the first in any language to take up the challenge of recounting and interpreting not only fascist policies regarding women, but the choices and responses of Italian women themselves, as they negotiated a way of life under the fascist regime. Previous book-length studies, such as Piero Meldini’s 1975 Sposa e madre esemplare (Exemplary wife and mother), and Elisabetta Mondello’s 1987 La nuova italiana (The new Italian woman), focused on fascist policies and fascist representations of women. Maria Antonietta Macciocchi’s controversial 1976 La donna ‘nera’ (The fascist woman) portrayed women as fanatically devoted to the Duce; more recent studies in Italian are dispersed throughout journals and edited collections (such as the 1988 La corporazione delle donne [The corporation of women], edited by Marina Addis Saba), and none offers the detailed panorama that De Grazia gives us.
In De Grazia’s book, discussions of policies and representations are balanced with portraits of women who are neither passive victims nor hysterical supporters of a regime that sought to turn them into incubators; rather, they are protagonists who respond differently to the contradictory interpellations issued by a fascism understood as a complex of competing imperatives. If fascism did its best to confine women to traditional roles and blot out emancipatory experiences, it also, De Grazia argues, sought to “nationalize” women, to give them roles and duties in the national state. As fascist policies redefined the relation between private and public spheres, the meanings of those spheres were also differently inflected by the women who increasingly inhabited both. Drawing upon materials that range from archival records, government statistics, memoirs, novels, and the growing body of material on women under fascism in Italian as well as studies of women in other European countries, De Grazia intelligently and sensitively explores women’s responses and initiatives during the ventennio. The chapters “The Legacy of Liberalism” and “Women’s Politics in a New Key” offer a fascinating account of women’s organizations, from the early suffragist groups who saw in fascism a liberatory force, to later groups whose “Latin feminism” was content to tout women’s superior [End Page 238] capacity for sacrifice, and official fascist mass organizations of women. De Grazia brings to light the importance of figures such as Elisa Majer Rizzioli, founder of the women’s fasci, and Teresa Labriola, a lawyer and the first woman to hold a university chair in Italy, and a committed fascist to the end of her life. In a chapter entitled “The Family versus the State,” she proposes that fascist policies designed to bring the family into the service of the state were in fact undercut by antistatist attitudes, in what she characterizes as “oppositional familialism”: the sedimentation of older traditions that, in the new context, functioned as a kind of resistance to fascism. Her chapters on “Motherhood,” “Growing Up,” “Working,” and “Going Out” document generational, regional, and class differences as exacerbated by the pull exerted by the pleasures of new mass culture, a pull always countered by the push to reproduce the race, and reinforced by the expulsion of women from the workplace, and their increasingly limited access to higher education.
This is not a theoretically...