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Italian Feminism

February 22, 2010

I first heard of Letizia Battaglia during a recent trip to the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. (Admission is free all day on Tuesdays!) They are currently featuring an exhibit of Italian contemporary art, and Ms. Battaglia was mentioned as inspiration for many of the artists. Best known for photographing Mafia victims’ corpses in Palermo, she is also described as a political activist and a feminist. Digging further, I couldn’t find any concrete actions or quotes to support the latter title. The most conclusive information I found was that she supported “women’s issues” during her political career. Intrigued, I started to investigate the Italian Feminist Movement.

By all accounts the movement reached its heights in the 1970s and 80s. Women mobilized to organize protests, rallies, and petitions focused on two main points: violence against women and reproductive rights. In arguably the most Catholic country in the world, the latter has always been a hotbed issue. As with the second wave American Feminist Movement, it began with primarily upper and upper middle class women, but expanded to include women of different educational and socioeconomic levels, primarily through the organized labor movement. Different accounts exist of the “decline” of the Italian Feminist Movement, but I suspect that it suffered much the same “decline” that its American counterpart did: none. With less Gloria Steinems and more Jessica Valentis, feminism has become a more democratized, and therefore a more nebulous and hard to categorize, movement, resulting in its unwarranted death pronouncements.

In 1982, the First International Conference on Women and Work was held in Turin with the theme Production and Reproduction. (This year’s conference will be held in Udaipur, India from March 30- 31 with the theme Gender and the Changing World of Work and Health.) The close alliance of feminism and trade unionism is certainly different from the American Feminist Movement at the time.

Bianca Beccalli, the former director of the Center for Women’s Studies and Gender Studies of the University of Milan (which seems to no longer exist),was mentioned in several articles and websites in connection with the modern feminist movement in Italy. In 1984, she and Cynthia Cockburn published an article entitled “From Equality to Difference: Women and Trade Unions in Italy” in Palgrave Macmillan Journals. (I could only find the first page online.) She also co-authored an article, with the same journal, titled “How Far Have We Come? Women’s Organizations in the Unions in the United Kingdom.” In her own bio she describes herself as a “militant in the ‘new left’ in the sixties and early seventies” and the editor of Italian leftwing journal Cuarderni Piacentini, which has since ceased publication. (I could not find a copy of this article online.) Ten years later she published an article in the New Left Review titled “The Modern Women’s Movement in Italy.” The abstract posited that the once vibrant movement had dissolved into “just another form of lifestyle politics.” As recently as November 2008, she appeared at a colloquium titled “Gender and Citizenship: New and Old Dilemmas, Between Equality and Difference.”

The first Italian chair in Women’s History was created in 1998, at the University of Bologna. In 2002 they began a research project called Bearing Witness which focused on “critical theory on gender and Women’s Studies, Post-colonial criticism, neohistoricism, and African-American criticism.” The first Italian feminist publishing house, Tartaruga Edizioni, was founded in 1975 by Laura Lepetit in Milan. Several other feminist publishing houses opened in the eighties and major publishing companies began to publish texts of a feminist interest. More can be read about this in The Feminist Encyclopedia of Italian Literature.

The language barrier provides a clear obstacle for me to totally explore this movement as I can’t understand very much written Italian. With all the current president’s disgusting antics, I have no doubt that Italian women have voiced their disapproval and continue to fight to put an end to violence against women, protect reproductive rights, and promote gender equality in their country. If we have any Italian feminist readers out there, please chime in and let us know about movements happening in your country!

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