Emancipation or Liberation?: Women's Associations and the Italian Movement

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ENGLISH-LANGUAGE SCHOLARSHIP on Italian feminism and its relationship to its European and American counterparts has blossomed in the past decades. (1) The unique case of Italy, with its often tumultuous twentieth-century history, provides an exciting focal point for studies of women's movements throughout the world. When the fascist government of Benito Mussolini fell, and a democratic government was established in June 1944, Italian women could not vote, divorce was not recognized, and abortion was illegal. (2) Today Italian women enjoy the benefits of advanced political and social rights, but few Anglo-American readers are familiar with the women's movement in Italy. This is in part because the process by which these changes were achieved has received little attention from general post-World War II historians, and while specific studies on the Italian women's movement have been undertaken, these remain for the most part untranslated. (3) Within that scholarship, the birth of the women's movement in Italy in the years after World War II, and the later emergence of feminism in Italy in the late 1960s, has generally been characterized as a conflict between emancipation and liberation. Emancipation means working from within existing systems and trying to change them, whereas liberation implies a complete overthrow of the status quo. The programs promoted by large Italian women's associations, such as the Catholic Centro Italiano Femminile (CIF) and the left-affiliated Unione Donne Italiane (UDI), both of which were founded during the Italian Resistance, have been interpreted as emancipationist rather than liberationist. The smaller women's groups that emerged throughout Italy in the late 1960s and 1970s have been viewed as the main force leading women away from male-dominated institutions and toward a more liberated position. (4)

When the emancipation versus liberation theme is not taken up directly in the literature, authors instead minimize the contributions of associations like the UDI and the CIF or treat the feminist collectives as the primary vehicles for the advancement of women in Italy. Don Meyer, for example, states that the UDI was little more than an instrument for the Italian Communist Party (PCI). (5) Paola Bono and Sandra Kemp see the Catholic Church and its female adherents as adversaries of the promotion of women's rights and so make no mention of the CIF in their anthology of Italian feminist writing. (6) Luisa Passerini does suggest that the UDI, along with other historical women's movements of the pre-1968 period, may have been "relegated unjustly to the realm of emancipationism," but she does not offer a detailed account of the relationship of these groups to the feminist movement. (7) Even within the Italian-language literature, the women's movement is generally treated in a pre-1968 and post-1968 framework, with some more recent studies taking a post-feminist approach. (8)

Here I want to argue that the histories of the UDI and the CIF should not be dismissed as emancipationist and that the use of 1968 as a dividing point in the Italian women's movement is not useful in understanding its complexities. Instead, the UDI and the CIF should be seen as important models for operating as autonomous women's associations in post-World War II Italy and as central forces in a continuous women's movement. The women of the UDI and the CIF provided the women of the feminist groups an example of how to, and in some cases how not to, interact with Italy's political parties, trade unions, the Catholic Church, and other women's groups. They also set agendas as to which issues to approach and how to appeal to the largest number of women possible. In doing so, they laid the groundwork for the feminist collectives that would later label these historic organizations as merely "emancipationist." Although the division between large women's associations and the smaller feminist groups became more significant by the end of the 1970s, both the UDI and the CIF survived as organizations despite the challenges posed by the broader political situation and women's movement. …