Elena Musiani, Conservative women in Italian society and politics 1880s-1980s


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Elena Musiani

Conservative women in Italian society and politics 1880s-1980s


The scholarship on the gender and conservatism is conspicuously thin. Part of the explanation for this historiographical blind spot has been the reluctance of women’s historians and especially feminists to engage with research subjects whose ideologies are “anathema” to First, Second, and Third Wave Feminisms, as, historically, conservative women have been depicted as adversaries in the struggles for women’s liberation. Yet the number of women supporting and participating in conservative politics has always been far greater than those engaged in feminist activism (Nota 1).
In order to address the theme of conservative women in Italy, first of all it is necessary to focus on certain aspects of the Italian social and political system. Secondly, it is useful to attempt to provide a definition of what is meant by “conservatism” when the concept is applied to Italian society. There are two points to deal with in order to address the question. On the one hand, the concept of conservatism in Italy should be considered independently of the concept of political party, given the fact that, despite various attempts, the creation of such a political construct has never been achieved (Nota 2). In addition, it is necessary to underline the fact that it is not accurate to identify conservatism with political ideas associated with the Catholic Church, although the Church has always proved to be a constant and influential factor in Italian society. In Italy, the concept of conservatism cannot be compared exclusively with Catholicism because, since the Restoration period, there has existed a lay conservatism that developed during the Risorgimento and pervaded the construction phase of the Italian State.
The foundations themselves of the Italian State are to be traced to periods when certain political and social elements found themselves “excluded”. The liberal ruling class, which was made up in the main of landowners, nobles and the upper middle class, was in fact the driving force during the Risorgimento. It had not only initially defeated those democratic forces closer to social issues, but this same ruling class had then chosen a centralized lay model for the State, and such a choice determined a definitive split between legitimist and clerical groupings in society. Such a split was definitively confirmed following the conquest of Rome (1870) and the decision by the Pontiff to exclude Catholics from Italian political life by means of the non-expedit that would last at least until the start of the twentieth century.
The non-religious choice taken by the ruling élite of unified Italy, and the widening of the divide between State and Church indeed long prevented any form of alliance between those political and social forces (landowning aristocracy and upper middle classes with solid traditional religious values) which elsewhere gave rise to conservative parties (Nota 3).
At the same time, this ruling class – which became known as Destra e Sinistra Storica, precisely for the difficulties in giving it a political and party label at the same time – chose to govern in parliament by means of policies which aimed at attracting the necessary support when required in order to pass laws. This kind of politics saw the prime minister, and not parliament, as the pivot on which the political system turned. This favoured the formation of “mobile” parliamentary factions and groupings, and as such the presence of a conservative or liberal party would perhaps have been seen as an obstacle.
Furthermore, such a political choice favoured governance of the public arena “from above” and thus neglected the demands/needs of civil society.
The system in fact determined an ever-greater divide with society where the forms of representation came in the shape of associations, leagues, and later unions. The same system, moreover, had difficulty adapting to a society that was undergoing great change. From the second half of the nineteenth century, the economic and social conditions necessary for the great twentieth-century development in Italy were created. This development brought with it significant social costs with worker in agriculture and industry unprotected by labour laws, which in Italy would not be developed until the early years of the twentieth century. Liberal institutions were not capable of responding to the needs of the masses due to their incapacity to put forward a unified political programme. It would come as no surprise then that the first political parties of the masses to form in Italy were those capable of bringing together and representing the ideas of civil society: the socialists and Catholics (Nota 4).
Italian conservatism can therefore be defined as a “composite” conservatism incapable of providing itself with a political formulation. This incapability at a social level led to a series of actions carried forward by civil society in an attempt to find a solution to problems that the political class was not able, or not willing, to resolve and women were caught up in this situation (Nota 5).
At a political level, therefore, the main women’s associations began to develop in the second half of the nineteenth century even here a split gradually developed between those adopting more progressive lines as opposed to those who were more conservative in their ideas.


It is in the second half of the nineteenth century where early women’s activities are to be traced: the first gatherings and actions in a sphere which as yet could not be defined as openly public. However, they were able to express themselves ‘outside’ the four walls of their homes where society had relegated them until then. Deprived of basic civil and political rights by the Napoleonic code and by a series of ‘scientific’ texts which set out to prove the biological inferiority of the female gender, Italian women were not unaware of events concerning the emancipation of women in the wake of what was happening in the rest of the world. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, women would gather in salons, which were created as places for strictly cultural conversation, but would increasingly become the arena for political debate (Nota 6).
Excluded from voting in local and national elections, in the nineteenth century Italian women carried out their struggle at a social level. They did so along lines which in reality were not that distant from philanthropy or aristocratic welfarism of a conservative matrix, and thus made no outright demands for emancipation. In the early years, then, certain groups of aristocratic women set up both crèches for needy mothers and forms of private charity, but things would reach the point where, through their participation in the first friendly societies, they became more active and started laying out their demands (Nota 7). Initially created as sections of corresponding male associations, and developing to the extent that they became independent, women’s friendly societies worked with the aim of providing mothers with assistance, as well as organizing sewing and knitting courses with a view to providing women with a degree of economic freedom (Nota 8).
Women’s groups continued to develop, and towards the end of the century they had developed to such an extent that, according to Fiorenza Taricone, it would be «simplistic to define the movement as one purely pushing for rights or greater emancipation as their ideas, and social activism, showed the movement to be a political testing ground, as well as a formidable bond between civil society and political institutions» (Nota 9). In reality, however, given the long socially and geographically fragmented nature of the country, the movement developed mainly at a local level.
The association movement continued to grow, but particularly in the first decade of the twentieth century, when Italian society as a whole would experience a period of great change. The economy, based on agriculture, would become an industry-based economy, and this would bring change in not only the forms and ways of working, but also at civil society level, with change affecting the family and relations between men and women.
From an analysis of developments within the women’s movement, here appeared the same contradictions apparent in Italian politics. Historiography has long highlighted a split between two different lines of thinking: lay socialist feminism and the female Catholic movement. Two conceptions which Paola Gaiotti De Biase judges to be distinct «in their logical and historical origins» (Nota 10).

Historically lay feminism was born from the country’s new economic structure and resulting demands for women’s rights, while its ideology was founded on the principle of equality between the sexes. Catholic feminism, however, had to contend with a complexity of questions the Church was posed by modern society, and its logical basis lay in the equality of the supernatural vocation of men and women. […] While lay feminism would consist, above all, in demanding reform, Christian feminism would remain primarily a ‘service’ (Nota 11).

However, as far as this distinction may be correct, it is necessary to analyse, the part played by conservative elements within what is defined ‘lay feminism’. In 1899, the Unione femminile italiana was established in Milan as coordinating body of the various Lombard associations (Nota 12). These attracted women of democratic, liberal and socialist tendencies. A few years later, in 1903 in Rome, the Consiglio nazionale delle donne italiane was founded (Nota 13). This was an association built along the lines of the International Council of Women and was supported by women from Rome’s upper middle class who, despite lacking strong emancipationist ideals, had a strong philanthropic spirit. It was certainly not an example of progressivism.
There were similar differences appearing among Catholic women. During the same years in the early twentieth century in Milan, the phenomenon of Christian feminism was taking shape and immediately found itself differentiated by two “tendencies”: one “young and working class” which ran the «Pensiero e Azione» periodical directed by Adelaide Coari and the other, “more prudent and conservative”, represented by Elena da Persico, director of «Azione Muliebre» (Nota 14). In spite of these basic differences, Catholic women immediately committed themselves to improve the working conditions of women and fight for social justice and freedom. An initial attempt to provide the movement with a certain degree of unity was made in Milan in 1907 when a meeting between Italian feminist groups was organised. It was an opportunity to put forward some of their major demands: equality in the workplace, greater emphasis on female education, and the right to vote in local elections. The meeting, however, highlighted differences in Catholic lines of thinking. The difference between the «Pensiero e Azione» group, which was one hundred per cent behind the drive for the vote, and the more conservative «Azione Muliebre», which was less inclined to make overtly political demands. The latter would, in the end, be the direction taken by the movement.
Despite attempts made in Milan, women were still far from establishing any common ground between the lay and Catholics in the early years of the twentieth century. This was further evident from the conference the following year, in 1908, in Rome promoted by the Consiglio nazionale delle donne italiane. That year, fewer Catholic women participated and mostly did so as individuals, and the conference marked a definitive split between the two Italian female groups. This was due to the decision made by lay elements at the conference to approve Malnati’s agenda against religious education in state schools. The split also saw the end of «Pensiero e Azione» and the start of a “new story for Catholic women”. In the same year, Unione fra le donne cattoliche was founded following an initiative by princess Cristina Giustiniani Bandini and with the approval of Pius X, who became convinced of the need for intervention by Catholic women in society, to counter the liberal and socialist movements. The agenda of the Unione fra le donne cattoliche, however, was similar to that of Gioventù femminile di Azione cattolica: solely religious and providing a sort of «female apostolate active in civil life» (Nota 15). With the end of «Pensiero e Azione», which had been steadfastly supported by Adelaide Coari, came the end of a movement which, until then, had taken on a federal nature. This would be replaced by system firmly driven from the centre, as Azione cattolica would be.
A split between female associations came with the outbreak of the First World War, and the split brought to light a contradiction which had always been present between progressivism and conservatism. The Italian women’s position in the face of war was not in fact unified, and divisions had first appeared with the onset of the colonial wars. The majority of those belonging to humanitarian socialist thinking, and pushed for a neutralist and internationalist line, committed themselves from 1912 to the creation of Unione italiana delle donne socialiste. This group occupied a central position in the Socialist party organization and its mission was to fight for women’s fundamental civil and political rights. These women opposed war and hardened their stance with  the outbreak of war itself, and their position was ratified by the International Conference in Berne in 1915 (Nota 16).
A similar position was taken by Catholic women, who generally supported Benedict XV’s appeal against the «futile slaughter».  But in spite of such principles, in the face the rapidly developing events the major associations of Italian women – both Consiglio nazionale delle donne italiane, and Unione donne cattoliche italiane – called on women to support the national war effort and not oppose it by means of defeatist attitudes. Their commitment was evident through the moral and material support given by women to the civilians affected by war and soldiers.
The end of WWI did not see Italian women – unlike their British counterparts – given the right to vote and, therefore, women took up their fight again through associations, only to see it soon curtailed by the advent of fascism. There have been numerous studies on the female condition during the regime, which agree time and again that the system was laden with contradictions (Nota 17). There is no doubt that the female image propagandised by the regime was that of the wife and mother, but certain progress was made during the twenties. One example was Opera nazionale per la protezione della maternità e infanzia, instituted in 1925. This had as its mission the moral protection of and material assistance for mothers and children. Another contradiction was that of the image of the woman as custodian of the home, set alongside gymnasts employed in various organizations of the regime. One example is that of the women enrolled at the Accademia femminile fascista di educazione fisica in Orvieto (Nota 18). This institution was recognized at university level and its task was to train future physical education teachers, who were also trained in literary subjects and guaranteed future employment. These were all women who found a place in the regime. Besides such figures, what must not be forgotten is the presence of both lay and Catholic anti-fascists, forced to work underground and often in exile, but whose importance would become evident during the years of the Resistance.
From 1943 onwards, lay and Catholic women contributed to the struggle for freedom and, from November of that year, they began organizing themselves into Gruppi di Difesa della Donna (Nota 19). From this experience in the immediate post-war years, arose the two main female associations which characterized the life of the Italian Republic: Udi (Unione Donne Italiane) and Cif (Centro Italiano Femminile).
These two great female organizations were founded at practically the same time in the autumn of 1944 not as the result of a spontaneous drive, but as the result of precise strategies developed in strict relation with the imminent vote for women originating from the two opposing political line-ups. One organization would have at its ideal the Leninist tradition of the relation between party and mass organizations. The other adopted the plan, drawn up by Azione cattolica during the period of fascism, to conquer civil society.
Unione donne italiane was founded in Rome in September 1944 under the umbrella of the Italian Communist Party (Pci) and developed along the lines of the organizational model of the Popular Front active in France between 1936 and 1939 (Nota 20).
The other, Centro italiano femminile, was instead the legacy of the Catholic female association movement, and in particular of the two female branches of Azione cattolica. Its vital source was the parish network and the foundations were laid at a meeting held at the offices of the Assistenti dell’Azione cattolica in Rome in October 1944 (Nota 21).
With the birth of these two associations, and the acquisition of the right to vote for women (1946), the distinction between the lay and religious groups became clear. The point of reference of Udi was the Pci, whilst for Cif it was the Christian Democrat party (Democrazia cristiana). However, both associations worked, at least up until the 1970s, with a view to gain female emancipation at both a political and social level: a common central issue being that of supporting working women in order to integrate them into political and social life. Certainly, the greatest difference between the two groups was the religious influence in the case of Cif, but I do not believe that it must necessarily be defined as conservatism (Nota 22).
The period in which differences between the two became evident was that defined as the ‘second feminism’. This was when debate shifted to women’s self-determination regarding life choices and their bodies. During the 1970s, the laws on divorce (1970) and abortion (1978) were debated and passed, and on these two issues Udi and Cif, were divided. Even today, divisions remain on these two issues although to a much lesser degree.
The 1990s were defined in political terms as ‘the end of the first Republic’, that is the Republic was brought to an end by scandal and corruption, and by the collapse of a political system created after WW2 dominated by two major parties (Nota 23). This marked a new period in relations between conservatism and progressivism, a period that newly dismantles the concepts, and is an issue that requires a new and separate discussion, one less historical and more political.



Nota 1 See J. V. Gottlieb (ed.), Feminists and Feminism in the Aftermath of Suffrage, Routledge, London 2015; J. V. Gottlieb and R. Toye (eds.), The Aftermath of Suffrage: Women, Gender and Politics in Britain, 1918-1945, Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke 2013. See also A. Cova, B. Dumons (eds.), Femmes, genre et catholicisme: nouvelles recherches, nouveaux objets,in «Chrétiens et sociétés. Documents et mémoire», 17 (2012); A. M. Sohn, «Les Femmes catholiques et la vie publique: l’exemple de la Ligue patriotique des Françaises», Stratégie des femmes, Paris 1984, p. 97-120. Torna al testo

Nota 2 See P. Pombeni, Partiti e sistemi politici nella storia contemporanea (1830-1968), il Mulino, Bologna 2011. Torna al testo

Nota 3 See D.L. Seiler, Les partis politiques en Occident: sociologie historique du phenomene partisan, Ellipses, Paris 2003. Torna al testo

Nota 4 See G. Verucci, La Chiesa cattolica in Italia dall'unità a oggi: 1861-1998, Laterza, Roma-Bari 1999. Torna al testo

Nota 5 See G. Vecchio, Alla ricerca del partito. Cultura politica ed esperienze dei cattolici italiani nel primo Novecento, Morcelliana, Brescia 1987; M. Ridolfi, Il circolo virtuoso: sociabilità democratica, associazionismo e rappresentanza politica nell’Ottocento, Centro editoriale toscano, Firenze 1990. Torna al testo

Nota 6 See M. L. Betri, E. Brambilla, Salotti e ruolo femminile in Italia: tra fine Seicento e primo Novecento, Marsilio, Venezia 2004; E. Musiani, S. Salustri, Le donne per l’Italia. Il laboratorio bolognese, Bononia University Press, Bologna 2012; E. Musiani, Non solo rivoluzione. Modelli formativi e percorsi politici delle patriote italiane, Aracne, Roma 2013. Torna al testo

Nota 7 See E. Musiani, “Alla donna è confidato l’avvenire della società … facendosi la soccorritrice e l’educatrice del popolo”. La protezione dell’infanzia: alle origini del sistema di Welfare moderno, in «Storicamente», forthcoming. Torna al testo

Nota 8 See F. Pieroni Bortolotti, Alle origini del movimento femminile in Italia: 1848-1892, Einaudi, Torino 1963. Torna al testo

Nota 9 F. Taricone, L’associazionismo femminile italiano dall'unità al fascismo, Unicopli, Milano 1996, p. 12. Torna al testo

Nota 10 P. Gaiotti De Biase, Le origini del movimento cattolico femminile, Morcelliana, Brescia 2002, p. 22. See also C. Dau Novelli, Società, Chiesa e associazionismo femminile, Ave, Roma 1988. Torna al testo

Nota 11 P. Gaiotti De Biase, Le origini del movimento cattolico femminile, cit., pp. 22-23. Torna al testo

Nota 12 Unione Femminile Italiana, Manifesto fondativo, Milano 1899. Torna al testo

Nota 13 See E. Ginanneschi, L. Montevecchi, F. Taricone (a cura di), L’archivio del Consiglio nazionale delle donne italiane: inventario, Ministero per i Beni e le attività culturali, Archivio centrale dello Stato, Consiglio nazionale donne italiane, Roma 2000 and F. Taricone, L’associazionismo femminile italiano: il Consiglio nazionale delle Donne Italiane, in «Bollettino della Domus Mazziniana», 2, (1971), pp. 195-215. Torna al testo

Nota 14 P. Gaiotti De Biase, Le origini del movimento cattolico femminile, cit., p. 28. Torna al testo

Nota 15 M. De Giorgio, Le italiane dall’unità all’oggi. Modelli culturali e comportamenti sociali, Laterza, Roma-Bari 1992, p. 32. Torna al testo

Nota 16 See E. Guerra, E. Musiani, F. Tarozzi, Donne contro la guerra. Donne per la pace, in «Bollettino del Museo del Risorgimento», n. m. Archiviare la guerra: La Prima Guerra Mondiale attraverso i documenti del Museo del Risorgimento, a cura di M. Gavelli, anno L (2005), pp. 17-39. See also B. Bianchi, Pacifismo, Unicopli, Milano 2004; E. Guerra, Il dilemma della pace: femministe e pacifiste sulla scena internazionale, 1914-1939, Viella, Roma 2014. Torna al testo

Nota 17 See V. de Grazia, Le donne nel regime fascista, Marsilio, Venezia 1993. Torna al testo

Nota 18 A. Pintorello, Accademia femminile di educazione fisica in Orvieto, Milano 1935. Torna al testo

Nota 19 See M. Michetti, M. Ombra, L. Viviani (a cura di), I gruppi di difesa della donna: 1943-1945, Unione donne italiane, Roma 1995. See also P. Gaiotti de Biase, Donne cattoliche e scelta resistenziale femminile: un contributo al dibattito, in Tra la città di Dio e la città dell’uomo. Donne cattoliche nella resistenza veneta, Venezia 2005. Torna al testo

Nota 20 See A. Rossi-Doria, Diventare cittadine. Il voto alle donne in Italia, Giunti, Firenze 1996; P. Gabrielli, La pace e la mimosa: l'Unione donne italiane e la costruzione politica della memoria (1944-1955), Donzelli, Roma 2005. Torna al testo

Nota 21 P. Gaiotti De Biase (a cura di), I cattolici e il voto alle donne, SEI, Torino 1996, p. 135. See also C. Dau Novelli (a cura di),Donne del nostro tempo. Il centro italiano femminile, 1945-1995, Studium, Roma 1995; F. Taricone, Il centro italiano femminile. Dalle origini agli anni Settanta, FrancoAngeli, Milano 2001; M. Chiaia, Donne d’Italia. Il Centro Italiano Femminile, la Chiesa, il Paese dal 1945 agli anni Novanta, Edizioni Studium, Roma 2014. Torna al testo

Nota 22 See P. Gaiotti de Biase, Donne cattoliche e scelta resistenziale femminile, cit. Torna al testo

Nota 23 See P. Scoppola, La repubblica dei partiti. Evoluzione e crisi di un sistema politico 1945-1996, il Mulino, Bologna 1997. Torna al testo


Questo contrbuto si cita: E. Musiani, Conservative women in Italian society and politics 1880s-1980s, in «Percorsi Storici», 4 (2016) [www.percorsistorici.it]

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