Behind the Visual Propaganda of the ‘New Italian Woman’ in Fascism | Victoria de Grazia’s ‘How Fascism Ruled Women’
Victoria de Grazia explains in her book, “How Fascism Ruled Women: Italy, 1922-1945,” that the New Italian Woman (Nuova Italiana) in the Fascist Ideal was not as one might imagine as displayed in Italian and German pictures, or in the propaganda of marching, busty and fit, militant and disciplined Athena-esque women. There was really no new woman, or new ideal and role of the woman in this New Italy. “Fascism’s vision of female roles was dualistic and contradictory,” Marta Petrusewicz stated in a review, as merely “reproducers of the race,” or the submissive woman. These facts present themselves differently from the state-propaganda. They tell the ideas and vision of these ideologies through images and film, which were masterful, deliberate means of state-propaganda to present an image, masking the true condition of the people. In the creation of a new state, there is always that exuberance of the masses, even amidst bloodshed and tyranny. The fascist concept of the “NUOVA ITALIANA” was part of a masterful, deliberate means of state-propaganda to present a clean image, masking the true condition of the people under Fascist rule.
I was inspired to write this after reading the story behind Mussolini’s picture posing on the horse as if he was in action, and how he took the picture many multiple times to get it just right. So, what we will do here is go into the reality and historical context behind the visual propaganda of women under Fascist rule in Italy, as shown in the pictures we see below and others, as opposed to what these visuals want to portray. I am actually also encouraging you if you want to study more on this topic, to find this excellent book and others on it.
Victoria de Grazia begins by explaining, that Mussolini’s Fascist regime stood for returning women to home and kitchen duties, restoring patriarchal authority, and confining female destiny to childbirth.
“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. Italian fascists: Hegel the philosopher of the State said: “He who is not a father is not a man.”BENITO MUSSOLINI, 1928.
To complement this limited attitude and thinking, “Maternity is the patriotism of women,” added the nationalist Scipio Sighele. The fear was that women’s individualistic propensities encouraged by feminism would cause reduction in birthrates and soldiers for the nation. Women were presumed to be antagonists of the state, acting within the family interest, without regard to their greater duty for the nation’s needs, and that need was a matter of quantity rather than quality. Fascism in a time of tension between modernity and tradition saw itself as “forward moving,” though where such constraints on women were considered normal. Fascism stood visibly for recognizing the rights and duties of women in a strong national state, celebrating this through the ideal of the Nuova italiana, or “New Italian Woman.” Although, in fact Fascists condemned all of the social practices connected by custom with the emancipation of women and women’s demands to equality, autonomy and voting rights, in the effort to mobilize all of the Italian society’s resources and build up national economic strength, their modernization of social services and belligerent militarism helped undercut conservative notions of the female roles and family styles.
The regime’s reformist zeal towards gender relations demanded and encouraged camaraderie of volunteer organizations and institutions that ordained new kinds of social involvement, but which recasted older notions of masculinity and femininity. This restructuring of gender relations went hand in hand with the changes in economic and political institutions. This was a time when state-interventionist capitalism emerged throughout Western societies, and decisions were made whether government policies would take the route of authoritarianism or democratic positions towards labor, whether to allow women greater freedoms, or impose more restrictions on them. Nazi Germany was intent on exploiting the old traditions of mercantilist thinking in its attempt to address the issue of female emancipation. This was affected by the emergence of a new biological politics at the very beginning of the Great War (World War I), based upon Darwinist notions of survival of the fittest.
Ethnic diversity and female emancipation became identified as obstacles to success, leading to a fusion of antifeminism and anti-Semitism. When bourgeois governments sought to nationalize men in this period, Mussolini’s government sought to nationalize Italian women. The nationalization of men, of involving men in the duties of bourgeois nationhood depended on institutionalizing the separateness of women’s domain of action, again undercutting Victorian notions, which considered the destiny of nations depended on manly skills and the virtues of the soldier-citizen.
The dictatorship interpreted every aspect of being female as in what was of the state’s interest, for the purposes of state building. Virility was promoted for the males, and the female was castigated and idealized, hence the illusion. While rehabilitating older patriarchal notions of family and fatherly authority, Fascism sought to establish more control over female bodies, particularly their reproductive functions.
No totalitarian dictatorship exists in a vacuum. Victoria de Grazia says, that in Italy “fascist policies toward women were at every moment conditioned by the legacy of institutions the dictatorship inherited from the liberal state.” The emerging fascist movement exploited the liberal state’s neglect of issues regarding women’s motherhood. The movement defined Italy’s democratic-liberal past as foreign-born and degenerating, and Italian women became merely the hapless victims of the dictatorship, because of the limited choices provided to women. World War I had created a division between the younger and older generations of women, and while given new choices by the dictatorship, were imposed upon by legal discrimination.
Class difference became more pronounced under the fascist regime, and official policies reinforced through stereotypes circulated through the mass media in the regimes attempts to manipulate the meaning of the habits associated with mass culture. Women had no ways to register their complaints and special grievances. The opinion of women was never factored into the equation. The regime exalted youth, yet censured women’s emancipation as out of fashion. History clearly is repeating itself. However, how Italian women responded to fascist rule were not of a passive subordination or zealous enthusiasm, and experiences differed based on geographic region. The Fascist regime’s recognition that women were important to the state, seemed as the Fascist propagandists put it, a signal of progress between the modern and traditional.
Women before Fascism had striven for emancipation through three currents of feminism, organized and largely involved in: Catholic (to separate themselves from secular women’s groups after 1908), socialist, and lay-bourgeois feminist organizations (critics called “old” feminism, a current that dominated Italian feminism into the mid-1920s), something which continued in basic, exploited form under the regime. The first of women to speak for emancipation were working-class and lower-middle-class women (teachers, clerks, factory workers of north Italy) inspired by the radically egalitarian views of Anna Maria Mozzoni, founder in 1881 of the Lega promotrice degli interessi femminili. Women publicly organized under fascism, identifying itself with modernity associated more and more with an erosion of the private sphere, and the political with the public sphere. There were other modes of socialization and institutions that shaped the perceptions of social order before Fascism, therefore it is crucial to take into account contexts.
Despite their limited choices, women still attempted to fight for new outlets of self-expression. The fascist regime sought to control how they perceived the paths being opened up for them, systematically preventing Italian women from experiencing these occasions as individual struggle and a story of collective emancipation. None of your actions existed outside of the motion of the Fascist dictatorship. The cause of women’s rights in Italy suffered during the rising nationalism criticized as being alien to the Italian soul, by linking them to the British suffragists. Competition was created among feminists, due to the Catholic movements and the support of the Church for conservative reasons to prevent socialist advance and as a struggle to preserve the family’s integrity.
Middle-class women, frightened by working-class radicalism began to disassociate from the women that would begin to organize themselves in socialist leagues. The socialist women later were suppressed, along with the militant young loyalists of the Italian Communist party. The middle-class women that turned on them early were becoming more moderate, adopting what has sometimes been called “maternalist” or “social” feminism.
“This powerful desire to obtain recognition of a special female mission in modern public life would cause many middle-class women seeking emancipation to rally to nationalist causes during the war. Not long after, they would prove susceptible to Mussolini’s resounding claims that female citizenship in a reconstructed national society was soon to be achieved.”
—VICTORIA DE GRAZIA, HOW FASCISM RULED WOMEN, 24.
The bourgeois feminists of Italy did not believe, like the Anglo-Americans, that economic progress and universal suffrage would lead to their emancipation. Some well-known supporters of women’s rights, like Paola Baronchelli Grosson and Teresa Labriola (Italy’s best-known feminist intellectual at the time) began to endorse and translate the nationalist program into terms emancipationists would understand and support. Socialist women with key positions in the labor movement persisted in their fight for women’s rights, while the Catholic movement combined modernity and traditionalism.
This would lead Italian Catholicism to become a powerful supporter of the fascist system, and also a competitor for women’s allegiances to the papacy and the Church. In 1909 during the beatification of Joan of Arc, Pius X urged women to undertake “duties outside the family circle that regard others,” reversing the nineteenth-century Papacy’s position that women should not exist outside family life. Although, the Union of Catholic Women in Italy was divided between Milan-based Christian-social wing composed of modernists and conservative groups of Roman charity women, the Church managed to lay roots in the Catholic movement. The fascists were quick to severely criticize and cause doubt in liberalism, associating it with neglect, exploiting these divisions to enlist support from thousands of female volunteers, and outlaw any oppositional associations.