Following on from our publication of Part One of this article to commemorate
March 8, International Working Women’s Day, we are publishing Part Two, which
starts with the role of women in the Italian resistance movement and then goes
on to analyse the Italian feminist movement from the Second World War up until
The strikes of 1943
It was in this situation that rebellion broke out. The strikes of March 1943
were organized in completely clandestine conditions and were the first after a
long silence of more than twenty years.
In Turin workers called for an increase in cost of living supplements and
payment for everybody of the 192 hours’ overtime which were then paid only to
evacuated family heads.
At the Mirafiori Fiat works the strike was to begin at 10 a.m. when the
air-raid sirens sounded, as they did every day. But that morning the alarm did
not sound and it was the women workers who got the strike under way with a few
clear signals and an energetic campaign among the workshops. Similar struggles
spread throughout the North. There were strikes at Lancia, Michelin, Manifattura
Tabacchi (cigarette factory). At the Picco factory, Vegliomosso, it was the
women who brought the workers out. The police arrived and two women were
arrested. The 500 workers at a nearby wool mill immediately came out in
solidarity, the strike spread and the bosses and their fascist friends realised
it would be better to concede something: wage increases were granted and the
At the Borletti factory, Milan, it was the women of the winding-machines who
got the strike going on March 25. During the strike at the Falck works the
fascist squads came into the factory with cudgels but were beaten off by the
workers. At the Abbiategrasso cotton mill 700 infuriated workers chased off the
fascist leaders who had come to repress the strike. The strike was successful
also in Milan: Pirelli, Face Bovisa, Caproni and Brown Boveri all came out.
The following evaluation was made by a close collaborator of Mussolini, the
fascist Farinacci, in reply to the dictator: “… If they tell you that the
movement has taken on a purely economic character, they are lying… The party
is absent and powerless. Now incredible things are happening. Everywhere, in the
trams, the cafés, the cinemas, the shelters, the trains, people criticise and
rail against the regime, running down not just this or that fascist official,
but the Duce himself. And the terrible thing is that nobody objects any more.
Even the police authorities are absent, as if their job were now useless. We are
in for days which may be made more anguished by military events …”.(10)
The regime was now dented. The March mobilizations had been largely
successful and above all had given great confidence to the oppressed masses.
As we know from the pages of history, Mussolini was arrested on 25 July 1943.
Immediately, already that night and then the next day, jubilant demonstrations
and strikes broke out. At the Montecatini jute-works, Ravenna, when the women
workers heard about the fall of Mussolini they called a strike for the release
of one of their comrades who had been arrested for protesting against speedups
at work. Everbody saw the fall of Mussolini as meaning the end of the war and
felt that the time had come to fight back.
But it was not to be. Badoglio, head of the new government appointed by the
king, warned that "gatherings are prohibited. The forces of law and
order have instructions to disperse them pitilessly". The head of the
general staff gave the order to shoot straight into the crowd. In Bari on 27
July the army fired on a demonstration, killing 23 people and wounding 70. At
Reggio Emilia, the day after a similar demo, a woman was killed.
And the war went on. But insubordination among the masses was increasing, as
shown by events among the rice-workers in 1943-44. In the region of Emilia
thousands of women would leave for Piedmont every year to work in rice-weeding:
40 days up to their knees in water, bent under the sun as they freed the rice
plants from weeds ready for transplanting. At that time it was something of an
enlistment. But in summer 1943 there were fewer and fewer women available; in
summer 1944 the bosses called for 10,000 women and a thousand or so men. But
only 300 left for the rice-fields. And those who did leave created trouble, as
the bosses complained in the papers: "The rice women, have arrived under
the influence of an extreme antinationalist propaganda and have gone on strike
in several areas, calling for wage increases and better food". And the
struggle paid: travelling expenses were to be paid by the bosses, the daily wage
increased to 35 lira (more than a Fiat worker’s pay) and finally bread, cheese
and jam for the return journey!
The partisan war and the women’s question
After 8 September 1943 the Italian army was fully demobilized and the
partisan war began. Women’s defence groups were formed, an underground
organization to aid freedom fighters, with the task of organizing strikes in the
factories and acts of sabotage to war production. Here we cannot go into the
details of this situation, but suffice it to say that the atmosphere of mass
participation by women, which had been growing over the previous months, found
its clear expression in the partisan struggle. And, as a demonstration of how
struggle ennobles the human being, in this period there was a wide circulation
of clandestine books among the workers, both men and women. Thousands of workers
learned to read and write in the underground sections of the PCI, or by
themselves, anxious to raise their cultural level as they became more and more
aware at that time of their role in society. As women fought alongside men, they
were more and more seen as equals by them and were involved in these reading
sessions, which were not only political, and had a great importance in forming a
revolutionary consciousness. This is testified to by the tales of women workers
who laboriously read Gorky’s The Mother, or Jack London’s The Iron
Heel, as they learned to read. They no longer read the love stories
permitted by the regime but stories of working and oppressed people, who the
worker identified with and developed a desire to rebel.
Women had an important and very useful role in the partisan struggle: they
had more freedom of movement, were not forbidden to ride bicycles and aroused
less suspicion among the fascists. Thus they were used in large numbers for
carrying messages, weapons and equipment between the various partisan brigades:
they were the famous couriers. It was a very hard and extremely dangerous job,
involving thousands of women. As a partisan woman of the time recalls:
"Until two years earlier a girl couldn’t go out alone in the evening.
If she did it was a scandal. But then came the Resistance, and who took notice
of these things any more? If you had to go out you did, and nobody said
anything. It seemed natural. We didn’t think of equal rights with men, but we
wanted certain freedoms that we had never had before. There were also arguments
between us. I remember that once a GAP (Patriotic Action, a non-communist group
– Trans.) group gave me the task of going to the Command. When I arrived, the
comrades began to reproach me for deciding by myself to make contact with that
group. So I said in clear terms to the comrades: ‘You’re the commander and you
can tell me off. But you should know that you need me; let that be clear,
because without us couriers you can’t do anything, anything at all’."(11).
Once again we see how material conditions and the general struggle of working
men and women change consciousness and cultural relations and also therefore the
relationship between the sexes; there was a rapid change from the darkest
obscurantism to the kind of situation described above.
And this was clearly a mass phenomenon. 75,000 women belonged to the defence
groups, 35,000 to the partisans; 4,563 women were arrested, tortured and
condemned, 623 killed and 2,750 deported to Germany(12).
This movement, the Resistance, represented the struggle of the oppressed
masses, of the working class and the peasantry, not only against nazi-fascism,
but against the capitalist system that was responsible for it. The masses longed
to set up a new order and their leading role and self-sacrifice were determined
by the desire to overthrow the bosses, "to do the same as in Russia, where
the workers rule and the bosses don’t exist any more".
This was not so. In Russia, the bosses no longer ruled, but neither did the
workers. The bureaucratization of the state apparatus there had weighed heavily
on all the Communist parties, particularly the Italian party, where internal
discussion had been reduced practically to zero in the underground conditions
imposed by fascism.
The end of the Resistance – universal suffrage
The line was no longer the taking of power or world revolution, but the
"Italian road to socialism", as proclaimed by Togliatti’s (PCI general
secretary’s – Trans) “Salerno turn” in 1944. As soon as he returned to Italy
from the USSR, Togliatti gave his fullest cooperation to Badoglio, so that the
PCI could cooperate in forming the "first government of the parties"
and build bourgeois democracy in Italy.
After 1945 the partisans had a rude awakening, not without conflicts, and at
times bloodshed: all arms to be handed in, everyone go home, power to the
Constituent Assembly… this was not exactly what they had been expecting.
The ruling class, terrified by the rise of the working class, had to rely on
the involvement of the PCI to make a show of genuine will for renewal; this was
simply to allow the forces of reaction to reorganize. The personnel of the state
apparatus remained intact and many simply changed their party allegiance from
the fascists to the Christian Democrats. The “compromise” was embodied in
the constitutional charter, which did not represent at all any democratic
aspirations on the part of the bourgeoisie and its parties, but was just part of
the concessions that were necessary to bring the armed working class back under
These were the conditions which led to the winning of the vote for women in
1945. The masses aspired to the socialist revolution, but did not find a
political leadership in the PCI to lead them to power and were served with the Constitution
and universal suffrage instead.
Part of women’s important role during the resistance was channeled into the
UDI (Italian Women’s Union), an organization linked to the PCI, which took up a
reformist stance on the women’s question within the capitalist framework and the
Although many of Togliatti’s speeches at the time referred to women, their
rights and the need to fight for equality with men, in reality the words
remained a dead letter, as any legislation to meet these demands would have come
into conflict with the Christian Democrats and the "Catholic world",
who the PCI meticulously wanted to avoided frightening.
The work of the party and its members was thus mainly oriented to industrial
struggles for the protection of women workers, who in fact suffered exploitation
and enormous discrimination. However, this struggle was never to go beyond the
limits of capitalist compatibility, as the "Italian road to
socialism", according to the PCI leadership, must necessarily involve a
stage of strengthening of bourgeois democracy. The virulently anticommunist
campaign run by the Christian Democrats, portraying Marxism as the bearer of the
worst moral dissolution, put the PCI on the defensive. Instead of fighting back
and denouncing the hypocrisy of the DC and the Catholic church, with the aim of
opening up a chasm between the oppressed masses and these institutions in which
they still trusted, they exalted the "high" values of the family and
other questions dear to Catholic culture, in the obviously unsuccessful attempt
to ingratiate themselves with the Catholic authorities.
After voting in favour of the famous article 7 of the Constitution, which
guaranteed the validity of the agreement between the Vatican and the Fascist
state, with all the privileges this involved for the Catholic church, Togliatti
boasted that "this vote will guarantee us a place in the government for the
next twenty years". But in reality the bourgeoisie was to go onto the
counteroffensive, kicking the PCI out of the government in 1947 and launching a
vicious attack against the working class.
The post-war years were those of reconstruction and economic boom, and at the
same time the years of violent repression of the struggles of the workers, who
were not resigned to going back to their former place in the political arena.
The 1960s: some brief notes on Anglo-American feminism
By the 1960s Italian society had changed profoundly compared with the
immediate postwar period. The reconstruction of the country, a significant
industrialization, particularly in the north, and a steady proletarianization of
the peasantry, which meant a flow of immigration from the south, swamping the
cities, all these factors brought about an increase in the wealth produced
together with an increase in social contradictions. The impressive economic
growth had not meant an equally impressive improvement in the conditions of the
working class and the immigrant labour force was subjected to inhuman
exploitation inside and outside the factories. These, very briefly, are the
basic factors which unleashed the anger of the working class, first in a number
of bitter struggles (for example in various sectors of the class for their 1962
wage agreement), to regain lost ground, then with a generalized struggle, the
"hot autumn" of 1969, where the question of power was once more
posed.(13) In this atmosphere the struggle for women’s liberation also came to
Books and analyses produced by American feminists began to circulate among
intellectuals and the student movement. In particular Betty Friedan, with her
book The mystique of womanhood in 1964, set off a hue and cry by bringing
down the myth of happy fulfilment for women in the American family, later called
"the cosy concentration camp" by another American feminist, Kate
Miller. Friedan was a bourgeois intellectual who, starting from her own
experience, took up the frustration of the women of her own class. In 1920 the
percentage of women attending college was 47%; by the end of the 1950s it had
fallen to 35% and the birth rate was rising steadily while women’s employment
fell. In her book she showed just how convinced women like her really were that
their highest aspiration was to get married, live in a nice house and bear four
children, almost ashamed to admit any dissatisfaction or frustration. On this
basis there was an increase in the number of women who suffered existential and
psychological crises and had to seek psychotherapeutic treatment. Friedan
founded an organization, NOW (National Organization of Women), which limited its
demands to the right to a profession and a career and a greater presence of
women in the institutions, on company boardrooms etc. The problem of housework
was to be solved by proposing its rationalization, with the use of labour-saving
devices and frozen and dried foods. Other intellectuals went further than this
in their criticism of the system. Juliet Mitchell argued that "until there
is a revolution in production, the position of the woman in a men’s world will
be determined by her working situation", though she concentrated her
attention on the criticism of the patriarchal ideology. Kate Miller developed a
historical analysis of the need for a "sexual revolution", starting
from Engels’ considerations on the abolition of the family.
These and many other writings of various types, some of them seeking,
unsuccessfully, a Marxist, revolutionary interpretation of the women’s question,
undoubtedly had an influence on the consciousness of the left intelligentsia and
in the student movement. However, what enabled these formulations to come out of
their restricted intellectual circles was the general ferment in society, the
rise of the workers’ movement and the general belief that in this climate of
mobilization it was really possible to put an end to the capitalist society.
The student movement in Italy
In 1967 a movement of university occupations began, starting in Trento and
then spreading nationally in universities and high schools. Everywhere the
police applied a policy of harsh repression, with a series of forcible endings
of occupations, clashes in the streets, arrests of the leaders of the movement
and full-scale pitched battles, the most famous of which was at Valle Giulia,
Rome, on 1 March 1968, which ended with four arrests and 228 people being held.
The student movement poured oil on the fire which was already blazing in the
labour movement. On 10 April 1968 the women workers at the Marzotto factory,
Valdagno, began a militant strike against speed-ups. On 19 April they pulled
down the statue of Count Marzotto and there were 47 arrests. On 1 May that year
the students spoke at the trade union rally in St. John’s Square, Rome. In June,
in Trento, a joint rally was held between students and engineering workers. At
the same time strikes spread throughout the engineering industry, all over the
country, while at the same time there were mobilizations in the South over water
shortages. Demands multiplied regarding workers’ interests inside and outside
the factory, against regional wage differentials, for pension rights, housing
and fair rents. The most important aspect that emerged was the nature of these
strikes; mass strikes which showed the will of the working class to rise up
against capitalism and for workers’ control over negotiations. This last aspect
represented the main worry for the union bureaucracies and the bosses because it
represented a form of workers’ power in workplaces and in society, questioning
the very existence of bourgeois power.
The leadership of the PCI was concerned about this rise of the movement. Its
line was not the taking of power for a revolutionary transformation towards
socialism, but a slow change through parliament, the "Italian road to
socialism" that we have already mentioned. Its moderate policies, all
oriented towards the institutions and to not damaging relations with the
Christian Democrats meant that the mobilizations were to express themselves
through the birth and growth of a wide range of extraparliamentary groups, the
so-called New Left, which grew mainly from the student struggles.
In this situation, a galaxy of organizations and groups arose which placed
the women’s question at the centre of their initiatives, which to different
degrees demanded the need for a feminist revolution. The prevailing feature of
this feminism was a kind of grudge against the traditional organizations of the
labour movement, and also against those of the New Left which spoke of
revolution but either ignored or exploited the women’s question, starting from
the relationship between male and female comrades of the organizations
themselves. Hence a well-rooted demand of almost all the groups to form separate
organizations made up of only women, seeing this as the only possible way to
enable the women comrades to express their personality and political views
freely and independently.
We shall try here to give a brief description and assessment of the main
groups and their debates from the late 1960s on.
A look at feminism: the Demau group
The first group to declare the need for an autonomous organization was formed
in Milan in 1966, the Demau group (from DEMistification of AUthoritarianism).
This group was engaged primarily on the theoretical side, criticising all
women’s associations and movements which limited themselves to demanding women’s
emancipation and assistance to enable them to take part in activities outside
the family. On these grounds they came to oppose the concept of integration of
the woman into society as this meant putting her into society as it is, a
society dominated, according to this group, by the values of male
authoritarianism and the "irreconcilability of two pre-established
roles". They argued that also in the working environment the jobs reserved
for women were always second class ones and, when necessary, women were laid off
to make room for men. What Marx had explained as to the inevitability of this
phenomenon (for capitalism women represent a part of the reserve army of labour,
as one form of downward pressure on wages and conditions) was not even taken
into consideration. The question of the socialist revolution, which should
create the conditions for overcoming the pre-established roles of the sexes and
abolishing the family which binds the woman to her role, was disputed by the
Demau group on the basis of the condition of women in the USSR, where in spite
of the change in the relations of production, it was still one of subordination
to the man, and the old family remained with the resulting responsibilities for
The existence of the Soviet model was to have a very negative effect on the
development of the debate in many of these groups, as the Stalinist
degeneration, which the majority of them did not understand, represented for
them an unquestionable indictment of Marxism’s failure on the women’s question.
Thus the Demau group argued that in order to work out a more advanced theory
of socialist revolution women should independently develop a consciousness of
their role, analyse all fields of human life (scientific theory, legal rights,
sexual relations, family relations and relations at work) to understand how the
oppression of women by men was manifested in them, and go on from here to work
out a theory to emancipate the man himself from his condition as an oppressor
and thence the whole of humankind.
The questions posed were of enormous value, but they were posed upside down,
as they did not understand that women cannot work out a new culture by shutting
themselves off in a room and standing aside from the need to struggle together
with the entire labour movement for the overthrow of capitalism. The group, once
the high-sounding theoretical aspirations are removed, having laboured then “gave
birth to mice”, for example the opportunity for a fair distribution between
the sexes of the work of looking after and bringing up children.
It must be said, however, that these theorisations, which were a subject of
debate in many publications at that time and involved many intellectuals,
achieved results whose fruits we still see today, although in an increasingly
eroded form. To give a few examples: books published on pedagogy, which strongly
criticised the authoritarian relationship towards children in the family and the
institutions, allowed for the training of staff in nurseries and kindergartens
(whose limits were recognised) in different educational projects which were
designed to respect the creativity of the child and improve his or her learning
abilities, when they were placed in conditions of greater freedom.
The whole debate about the self-determination of the woman led a significant
sector of doctors to favour the practice of the so-called "gentle
birth" in the hospitals, where the woman was not a victim at the mercy of
the doctor, but was seen as a person in full autonomy who was going through the
exalting, but also very dramatic, experience of giving birth to a child. The
self-run legal aid groups to help women divorce and find a home and a job, and
rebuild their lives without their husbands, were the ideal reference points
which inspired many municipal women’s centres. The creation of family planning
centres, following the struggles of that time, bore the imprint of those debates
which demanded the overcoming of sexual taboos and the prevention of diseases by
a thorough awareness campaign in the community at large.
These things, which were undoubtedly conquests from the ideological point of
view and in the quality of life, influenced the characteristics of the welfare
state which was set up following the struggles of the 1970s. However. so long as
economic resources and political power were firmly in the hands of the
bourgeoisie these conquests necessarily had a transitional and partial
character, so that while some hospitals practised the gentle birth, doctors were
at the same time allowed (as they are today) not to practise abortion in public
hospitals (conscientious objection) and then offer their services at
extortionate prices in private clinics. All experimenting in nursery schools in
the so-called “child-friendly” projects gradually withered away through lack
of finance and were practically closed down. These examples highlight the
contradictions between the enormous thrust of the mass struggle from below and
the needs of capitalism and its ideology, which remained dominant.
Carla Lonzi and Rivolta femminile
Another group; which was also engaged mainly in theoretical questions, was
Rivolta femminile (Women’s revolt), formed in 1970, whose clearest and most
extreme theorisings were provided by Carla Lonzi. This group took the theme of
rejecting equality between men and women to the limit. Its manifesto reads:
"The man is something else in relation to the woman. Equality is an
ideological attempt to enslave the woman on higher levels. (…). Virginity,
chastity, faithfulness are not virtues but bonds to build and maintain the
family. Honour is the resulting repressive code.
In marriage the woman, deprived of her name, loses her identity, signifying
the passage of ownership which has taken place between her father and her
Divorce is a graft on marriage, from which the institution comes out
This extreme position meant that divorce and then the abortion rights
demanded by the feminist movement were regarded by Carla Lonzi as part of a
series of concessions aimed at reinforcing women’s oppression. Obviously this
extreme position prevented the theories of the group from gaining supremacy
within the Italian feminist movement. Besides, by rejecting the concept of
organization as authoritarian and "male", as did many organizations,
each group supporting Rivolta femminile had completely autonomous positions and
working methods, so that they rejected the very concept of gaining the majority.
Nevertheless, Carla Lonzi did have the merit of clearly stating her position and
drawing all the extreme conclusions from the assumptions of separatism and
antiauthoritarianism. Because of this she could not win many disciples, but
nevertheless represented a theoretical reference point and her theories, if in a
new, and somewhat diluted form, are still to be found today in sections of the
antiglobalization movement which follow Toni Negri.
Carla Lonzi even went to the point of denying the value of any kind of
culture, as this would be male dominated, and called for “deculturization”:
"The deculturization that we opt for is our action. It is not a
cultural revolution following and completing a structural revolution, it is not
based on the verification of an ideology at all levels, but on the lack of any
From this it follows that the struggle for the liberation of the woman "makes
taking power a vain goal"(16).
For a whole period Lonzi’s reference point was the hippy community, where,
she claimed, sex distinctions were cancelled out in daily behaviour.
It should also be added that in one of her most important writings, Sputiamo
su Hegel (Let’s spit on Hegel), she clarified her position with regard to
Marxism, extending the criticism made by the Demau group. It was not only the
experience of the USSR that needed to be criticised, but the so-called ‘authoritarian
basis of Marxism’. While Fourier outlined a society freed from all oppression
where "every man can have all women at his disposal and every woman can
have all men at her disposal", Marx and Engels insisted on the need to give
back a private character to human relationships, which should simply be freed
from economic restraints. The Marxist conception was rejected by Lonzi as
moralist and authoritarian as it did not call for sexual freedom for women. Here
too culture has its role: for men and women do not simply relate sexually to
each other like animals. To deny this (as Marx and Engel certainly did not)
would mean denying the cultural stratifications of human beings that can evolve
only after the overthrow of capitalism, with the control of all resources in the
hands of the exploited masses.
Of course, Lenin who expressed himself on these concepts during and after the
revolution, in Lonzi’s eyes, also revealed the “conservatism” of Marxism in
the struggle against patriarchal ideology. The aim of Rivolta femminile was
therefore to carry out striking actions in which women would become conscious of
themselves, as was well expressed in the conclusions of the group’s manifesto:
"We want to be able to confront a universe without answers. We seek the
authenticity of the gesture of revolt and do not sacrifice it either to
organization or to preaching to others".
The means for carrying out this practice was self-awareness. In her writings,
Carla Lonzi clarifies perfectly what this means. She counterposes self-awareness
to "gaining consciousness". Through the latter, in left-wing groups,
women came to realise their oppressed condition as workers and women and then
joined in the common struggle against capitalism. Self-awareness meant the
"cancellation of culture", "separateness" and
"starting from oneself"(17), in other words women should meet
together in small groups, independently, rejecting culture as masculine and
starting from their own experience in life as women, to find a unity of outlook
with other women, without any form of imposition.
The method of the small group and of self-awareness was practised by
virtually all the feminist groups, perhaps to varying degrees, but always
expressing this concept.
These theories and methods, behind their apparent radical nature, in reality
represented a reactionary view of the women’s question. The idea of rejecting
culture and starting from individual experience in fact meant taking their
actions onto a more backward level, based purely on individual experience,
rejecting that growth of consciousness which is always the most important result
of mass struggles and movements.
Each one of us can only free him/herself from the backward ideas that the
ruling class imposes on us by combining our individual awakening of
consciousness with the collective exchange and mass action to put an end to the
motor force of that culture, the bourgeoisie.
Rejecting this concept meant letting in through the window (self-awareness)
the subordination to dominant bourgeois culture that they wanted to throw out of
the door (high-sounding revolutionary theories). It is in this light that we
should understand the refusal of this group to set itself the task of taking
power and even of organizing its own forces.
The Cerchio Spezzato and the Rome groups
Among the student groups which took up the women’s question, we can mention
that of the University of Sociology at Trento, "Il Cerchio Spezzato"
(The Broken Circle) and the women’s groups of the student movement in Rome. With
some slight variations the Trent experience adopted the concepts described
above. Perhaps here more than anywhere else we see the anger of the female
students against their male comrades in struggle. This group denounced the idea
of the "angel of the duplicator" as a demonstration of the fact that
not only in the home (angel of the hearth) was the woman considered as second
class, but also in the political organizations. Women spoke less in public, were
afraid to make fools of themselves and so were consciously relegated by their
male comrades to organizational chores, financial aspects, duplicating, with
these tasks being seen as almost degrading. Undoubtedly there was a certain male
chauvinism in many left-wing groups at that time and many saw the so-called
sexual revolution, the new libertarian customs against the system, as simply an
opportunity to overcome the narrow bounds of monogamy, with a political
justification into the bargain. The fact remains, however, that the separatist
choice represented a defeat, because it did not provide the means to carry on a
truly revolutionary political struggle on the social and ideological planes.
The groups in Rome distinguished themselves from the experiences described
above because they placed the capitalist system at the centre of their analysis
and based themselves on Engels’ analysis of the origin of women’s oppression.
Their debate was influenced by the ideas of Livio Maitan and the Fourth
International. In analysing the contradictions of capitalism they put the
women’s question in its right context, but their material lacked a forthright
criticism of the prevailing feminist ideas to bring out the latter’s
contradictions with its revolutionary claims and Marxist conceptions.
Unfortunately many women, mainly students but also some workers, were
fascinated by feminist theories because in those years there was no party
putting forward a genuinely Marxist revolutionary analysis of the women’s
The PCI maintained a conservative position on the women’s question; it called
for the defence of men and women workers, the extension of the welfare state,
but all within the limits of what was compatible with the capitalist system, of
the "democratic framework" as it was called. This position allowed
other ideas to gain the upper hand in the movement. The UDI itself was strongly
influenced by feminism, so that in the course of the 1960s it was dominated by a
debate which in 1978 led it to take up a separatist position.
The moment in which the PCI revealed its greatest subordination to the
Christian Democrats was undoubtedly when the debate on divorce began.
Divorce and the role of the PCI
At the beginning of 1971 the debate began over the definitive approval of the
Baslini-Fortuna divorce bill. The Vatican of course set its face against this
law and the Catholics began collecting signatures to repeal it. The PCI depicted
the social situation in dark colours; there had been the colonels’ coup in
Greece in 1967, the terrorist bomb attack in Piazza Fontana, Milan, in December
1969, another one in 1970 on the railway lines at the station of Gioia Tauro,
followed by clashes, led by the MSI (neofascists), in Reggio Calabria over the
choice of Catanzaro as regional capital; the MSI had gained ground there in the
1971 local elections. In other words, in this situation, with the ascent of the
right, according to the PCI leadership, the country should not be divided by a
religious-based referendum. "The entire Communist leadership has no
doubts and agrees in sharing the choice of an alternative solution: a revision
of the Baslini-Fortuna law".(18) A rapid series of semi-secret
negotiations took place, and it was clear that the PCI had declared its
willingness to vote for a DC candidate as President of the Republic (presumably
Moro) in exchange for a dialogue on the question of divorce, which would have
avoided the holding of the referendum (the president is elected by the two
houses of parliament – Trans).
The strategy of the PCI was defeated all along the line. President Leone was
elected, with fascist votes, and the referendum was not called off. The PCI
leaders had failed to grasp the real situation, for the Catholics were soundly
defeated, with 19,380,000 (59.26%) votes against. And they were shown to be
wrong also on the alleged move to the right in society. In the 1975 elections
the PCI received a triumphal boost from the workers who were looking to this
party to give a political lead to their desire for radical change. The DC got
35.2%, losing 3.6% of its support, while the PCI rose to 33.4% with an increase
of 6.2%. In Rome, Milan, Turin, Florence, Venice, Naples, Perugia, Genoa,
Ancona, Cagliari and other towns the PCI became the first party.
Berlinguer (PCI general secretary) was taken completely by surprise: the
masses were exultant as they demonstrated in celebration of the results. At the
PCI national headquarters, "thousands of activists and sympathisers
called out with realistic eloquence: Enrico, give us a clenched fist! Berlinguer
tried to smile, but couldn’t manage more than an embarrassed grimace; instead he
waved a small scarf, a red rag given to him by a little girl. Meanwhile the
slogans came repeatedly from the street: ‘Now’s the time, power to the workers,
Victory, Red Rome!’"(19)
Was the Radical Party becoming revolutionary?
In this situation other forces tried to take advantage of the paralysis of
the PCI. One of these was the Radical Party, which in 1969 set up a structure
formally federated to the Radical Party, called the Women’s Liberation Movement
(MLD). The MLD had fully understood the changes in the situation arising from
the struggles that had been taking place. For this reason it put forward
programmes and methods of struggle which in their phraseology and propaganda
sounded very left-wing and certainly appeared to be to the left of the PCI on
the women’s question. For example, in the draft platform of the MLD we read:
"The struggle for women’s liberation is part of the more general
struggle for a revolutionary change in the direction of a socialist,
Clearly the MLD were putting themselves forward to collect what the PCI on
the one hand and the sectarianism of the feminist groups on the other hand had
failed to gather; they rejected separatism and all the anti-organization,
movement-based ideas. Basically their proposals were not at all revolutionary.
On the question of economic exploitation they proposed "the construction
of an organization of production, to be seen as a collective enterprise, in
which work is a moment of self-fulfilment and not of alienation".(21)
How the obstacle due to the existence of the bosses was to be overcome was not
stated. The justification for the deliberately confused reasonings was given,
according to the authors of the document, by the "absence of a class
able to take on the task of bringing about an overall renewal of society"
and therefore by the need to set "concrete objectives which do not
amount to escapism from real problems". This was right in the middle of
the Hot Autumn!
Thus the MLD and the Radical Party were not revolutionary, as some may have
thought at the time, but used a socialistic phraseology precisely to divert the
debate from the central point: the taking of economic and political power by the
workers. The proposals, of an advanced kind, made by this group should be seen
in this light. The MLD was responsible for the parliamentary bill for the
legalization of abortion, the battle for the liberalization of the contraceptive
pill and the formation of public, anti-authoritarian nurseries, as they were
defined then, demanding not places where the children of working class families
could be “parked”, but places catering for children’s psychological and
The MLD’s methods of struggle were actions of a striking nature: "mass
civil disobedience"(22) and the collection of signatures in support of
people’s laws; but they proved incapable of getting support among women workers.
They did however bring a certain disorientation, as they were the only party
that posed certain questions.
Feminist struggle and violent action
However, the group which showed the greatest determination in encouraging
striking actions and extending its influence by building itself organizationally
on a national scale was Lotta femminista (Feminist Struggle). The group was
formed under another name (Women’s struggle movement) in 1971 in Padua and
Ferrara as a result of the decision to separate itself from its organization of
origin (basically Potere Operaio, Workers’ Power). Within a few months the group
had headquarters in Milan, Venice, Verona, Modena, Reggio Emilia, Florence,
Naples and Gela. They defined themselves as Marxist feminists, maintaining that
"the class struggle and feminism for us are the same thing, as feminism
expresses the rebellion of that section of the class without which the class
struggle cannot be generalized, widened and deepened."(23)
In reality the group refused to apply a class interpretation to the women’s
question, and were all-out supporters of separatist ideas. The aim of women
workers was not to advance the struggle of the labour movement against
capitalism, linking it to the battle for women’s liberation, but to build an
independent movement of women in which only they could deal with the specific
themes of the women’s question. On this basis the group, on a number of
occasions, went to the point of physical clashes in the streets with men
(comrades of the traditional or extraparliamentary left) who wanted to take part
in the women’s demonstrations and offer their own contribution.
In addition the group argued that in order to carry forward the revolutionary
consciousness of women it was wrong to demand their entry into the working
world. Mariarosa della Costa, one of the "ideologues" of the group,
declared that women already worked enough in the home and that, as experience
showed, women were not at all liberated by entering the workforce. On this basis
she said that the women’s struggle should be first and foremost against their
oppression within the walls of the home.
One of the demands of Lotta femminista was a wage for housework, as a measure
to make housewives conscious of their exploitation and of the need to
"radicalize the conflict" to achieve the abolition of housework.
In reality this analysis missed the essential point: while it might give rise
to a movement of housewives, who might well become more aware of their
exploitation, each woman would have been alone in the home to implement her new
ideas. Of course, as we have explained above, the woman will not be freed by
wage labour, but this is decisive in enabling her to participate fully in the
class struggle, on an equal basis with her male comrades at work. This is
therefore the place to begin, to build a struggle against capitalism as well as
against male domination. Finally the demand for a housewives’ wage,
independently of the intentions of those putting it forward, went in the
direction of legitimising and institutionalising housework, instead of raising
the need for its socialization in the context of a socialist society.
The outlook of Lotta femminista, which clearly showed the influence of the
"autonomy" movement (Potere Operaio) led them to try to instill an
instinct to struggle with very aggressive slogans and methods, but the only
basis for mobilisation that they offered was to take part in demonstrations. On
one occasion they called a strike of housework; although they claimed to be
satisfied with the outcome they did not repeat the experience. If the group had
limited their struggle to the housewife’s wage, they would probably not have had
much success. However, they did begin a very effective militant campaign on the
issue of abortion.
The struggle for abortion rights
The law on abortion that had been in force before law no. 194 (the present
law) went back to the Rocco code, where abortion was defined as a "crime
against the integrity and health of the family" and having abortions or
carrying them out was punishable by 5 to 12 years’ imprisonment. In spite of
this, and given that the pill was illegal, 3 million women a year had abortions
to avoid going through with unwanted pregnancies or giving birth to a child they
knew they could not maintain. Every year 20,000 women died as a result of
abortions. And these were just the official figures, because the cause of many
deaths was falsified to avoid arrest for those who had carried out the abortion.
Abortions were carried out by those same doctors who officially declared
themselves against it, but in exchange for generous payments were willing to
soften their ethical-moral outlook. The astronomical sums demanded by doctors
forced poorer women to seek the services of village women, considered experts,
who carried out the abortion with quinine, knitting needles and parsley, with no
anaesthetic and in frightfully unhygienic conditions. Needless to say, these
conditions enormously increased the risk of death for the woman.
In Padua in 1973, Lotta femminista decided to make a political case of the
trial of Gigliola Pierobon, who had aborted at the age of 17 and was being put
on trial six years later. Pierobon was a former textile worker and kept changing
her job because no one would give her proper employment while she had a trial
pending. A campaign began against the bosses, the state, the church and the
doctors for denying women’s fundamental rights.
On 15 February 1974, following the suspicious death of a woman, the police
requisitioned the clinical files of a doctor suspected of practising abortion
and arrested the 273 patients registered. Again in Florence on 9 January 1975
the carabinieri raided a doctor’s surgery arresting the six people
working there and dragging 40 women off to the police station where they were
subjected to gynaecological tests. All were suspected of either having or
These cases had the effect of tripling the prices of abortions on the black
market, but also of setting off a movement.
In Trento on 11 Febrary 1975 the national demonstration of Lotta Femminista
(which in the meantime had again changed its name to Movimento femminista) led a
demonstration of 10,000 women. Other demos were held in Florence and Padua. In
Rome on 6 December, 20,000 marched to call for abortion on demand, free of
charge and with anaesthetics and to oppose the attempts of the government to
draft a new law allowing abortion but giving doctors the last say as to whether
it should be carried out.
Clearly, in spite of the sectarianism of Movimento femminista and other
groups, the issue was of enormous importance for women and particularly for
those who had fewer means at their disposal (women workers, students etc.) and
were exposed to greater risks. The women’s determination in mobilizing was
certainly due to the aggressive campaign by the feminists, but this found
fertile ground in a context of general mobilization of the working class and in
the confidence, arising from this context, in the possibility of really changing
Movimento femminista carried on a campaign against the "white
pigs", i.e. the doctors. They went into hospitals handing out leaflets for
the right to abortion and interviewing women patients, who spoke out against
maltreatment by the doctors: scraping of the uterus without anaesthetic, the use
of alcohol on wounds to "purify", with patients crying out only to be
told, "you didn’t scream like that when you were making love".
All these stories were put into leaflets and then distributed outside
workplaces, in schools and universities, with the slogan, "we are many,
we are women, we’ve had enough. We’re not reproduction machines, we’re women
struggling for liberation! Tremble, doctors, you’ll pay dearly, you’ll pay for
Late 1975 and 1976 was a time of tension; demonstrations for abortion rights
were followed by wakes "in defence of life" organized by the
Catholics, who carried on a disgraceful campaign of denigration against wicked
women killing their poor children. In those months, clashes in the streets and
attacks by the police heightened the debate even more.
The initiatives held by the Movimento femminista and other feminist groups
raised the level of confrontation and the mobilization reached its peak with the
demo of 50,000 in Rome on 3 April 1976, supported also by the UDI, which was
soon to be fully won over to separatist and feminist ideas.
In 1978 law no. 194 was passed, introducing the right to abortion. It was a
great victory because women could finally have control over their own bodies.
This law however had strict limitations: it emphasised that everything possible
should be done to verify the appropriateness of terminating the pregnancy and in
particular doctors were allowed the right to conscientious objection.
Conflict with men’s organizations
However, the campaign which distinguished Movimento femminista most was that
of violent confrontation, where the practice was to impose their views by
physical force. Other groups too defended their autonomy by force and in not a
few cases the rallies and demonstrations of the feminists were attacked by
ill-defined male "comrades" carrying on their battle against feminism.
The feminists in turn heckled university lecturers and even disrupted
meetings of the PCI and of their ex comrades in struggle of the extreme left, as
shown by this passage about the tendency of men to make compromises in
legislation on the question of abortion:
"There are also those younger men, our comrades in struggle in 1968, who
today sit on the benches of parliament declaring haughtily that of course the
doctor should have control, then adding in a whisper that a way out can be
found. Certainly in 1968 we, together with other women, used to find the way out
for their girlfriends who needed abortions, finding the address [of the illegal
abortion centres] and collecting 10,000 lira each. But time passes and you can’t
expect people to remember.
And there’s precisely a whole series of things that are never remembered,
like the mother who cleaned up our shit and made sure we found our dinner ready
and the bed made. But what makes them think they can sit there
tranquilly?"(25). Obviously with this tone things ended up in violence.
In spite of these methods Movimento feminista was able to achieve a certain
influence, particularly among students, but also among some women workers.
The group in Gela (Sicily) for example ran a series of interviews on the
condition of discrimination of female students in the junior and senior high
schools, or went to the poorer districts to speak about contraception with women
who had seven, eight or even ten children. On some occasions they tried to
intervene among women workers, leafleting outside factories and intervening in
their strikes. The women were mainly distrustful, although quite a number were
attracted by the idea of rebelling against the injustices by their men at home
and some even joined and became active in feminist groups. In some cases, mainly
among women working in public offices, but also elsewhere, feminist workplace
groups were set up, speaking out against discrimination at work and the
repetitiveness of their jobs. However, this was not a widespread phenomenon.
A part of the spirit of rebellion that the women workers drew from feminist
propaganda was to be seen in the marches for abortion rights and in the
squatters’ movements, which saw the involvement of many women workers who had
come up from the south.
Then came the years of defeat for the workers and feminism began to run
aground. The women students grew up, many of them with a self-fulfilling
profession along with some nice memories of their youth.
The tragedy of feminism is that it channelled the revolutionary spirit of
many women away from the labour movement. The idea that women should stand
separately and autonomously in order not to be influenced has been proved an
utter failure: on the one hand feminism has run into a blind alley, leaving
behind just a pathetic caricature used by the modern-day epigones to justify the
needs of their various kinds of careers. On the other hand the reformist
organizations of the labour movement have been able to trace a furrow between
the demands of the women and those of the workers’ movement, contributing to the
downturn of the latter.
However, at that time, in spite of the leadership, the working class, by its
strength and determination, achieved important conquests on the basis of those
struggles. Today the Workers’ Statute, the right to a pension, a health service
equal for everyone and also abortion rights are once more facing an all-out
attack by the bosses’ class. There are already signs of a recovery in the
struggle of the working class, but if these are to lead to lasting conquests,
they need to be oriented towards the taking of power, to the overthrow of
capitalism, the nationalization of economic resources and their planning under
the control of today’s exploited classes. We sincerely hope that reading about
these stages of the women’s liberation struggle has convinced you of the extreme
relevance today of Marxism and the socialist revolution.
10 October 2002.
See Part one.
1 F. Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State.
2 Quoted by Gabriella Parca, L’avventurosa storia del femminismo,
Mondadori, Milan 1981
3 Engels, Op.Cit.
4 G. Parca, Op.Cit.
5 G. Parca, Op.Cit.
6 C. Ravera, L’Ordine Nuovo, 24/3/21
7 C. Ravera, L’Ordine Nuovo, 6 ottobre 1921
8 P. Spriano, Storia del Partito Comunista italiano, Einaudi, Torino,
9 Miriam Mafai, Pane nero, donne e vita quotidiana nella Seconda guerra
mondiale, Mondadori, Milano 1987
10 Miriam Mafai, Op.Cit.
11 Miriam Mafai, Op.Cit.
12 G. Parca, Op.Cit.
13 Cfr. In difesa del marxismo n° 2, 1968-69 un biennio rivoluzionario,
A.C. Editoriale, Milano, 2000.
14 Manifesto di Rivolta femminile, in Rosalba Spagnoletti, I
movimenti femministi in Italia, Savelli, Roma 1978.
15 Sputiamo su Hegel, in Rosalba Spagnoletti, Op.Cit.
17 Significato dell’autocoscienza nei gruppi femministi, Rivolta
18 Giuseppe Fiori, Vita di Enrico Berlinguer, Edizioni Laterza.
20 Bozza di piattaforma dei principi del movimento di liberazione della
donna (Mld), in Rosalba Spagnoletti, Op.Cit.
23Rapporto da Lotta femminista, 1973, in Biancamaria Frabotta (edited
by), Femminismo e lotta di classe in Italia (1970-1973), Savelli editore,
24Aborto di Stato: strage delle innocenti, collettivo internazionale
femminista (edited by), Marsilio editore, Venice 1976