From the rice fields to the modern day call centers – Marxism vs. Feminism. Part one.

Tomorrow, March 8, is International Working Women’s Day, and to mark this important event we are publishing this article which has been translated from the original Italian version. It was first published in issue Number 5 of ‘In difesa del marxismo’, the theoretical magazine of the Italian Marxist journal FalceMartello. Although originally written for an Italian audience we believe it is of interest to labour movement activists and youth around the world. 

“The woman free from the man,
Both free from Capital

Camilla Ravera
in L’Ordine Nuovo, 1921

In 1808, in his Theory of four movements, Fourier explained that “social progress is measured by the progress of the woman towards freedom”. Later, Marx and Engels analysed the development of human society in detail, not only from the economic viewpoint but also culturally and in the relationship between the sexes.

Marxism analysed the origin of women’s oppression and laid the theoretical basis for overcoming it. In particular Engels, in The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884), starting from the scientific and anthropological knowledge of that time, showed the dynamic nature of social structures and how these structures are linked to the level of development of the productive forces.

“The increase of production in all branches – cattle-raising, agriculture, domestic handicrafts – gave human labour-power the capacity to produce a larger product than was necessary for its maintenance. (…) As to how and when the herds passed out of the common possession of the tribe or the gens into the ownership of individual heads of families, we know nothing at present. But in the main it must have occurred during this stage. With the herds and the other new riches, a revolution came over the family. To procure the necessities of life had always been the business of the man; he produced and owned the means of doing so. The herds were the new means of producing these necessities; the taming of the animals in the first instance and their later tending were the man’s work. To him, therefore, belonged the cattle, and to him the commodities and the slaves received in exchange for cattle. All the surplus which the acquisition of the necessities of life now yielded fell to the man; the woman shared in its enjoyment, but had no part in its ownership. The “savage” warrior and hunter had been content to take second place in the house, after the woman; the “gentler” shepherd, in the arrogance of his wealth, pushed himself forward into the first place and the woman down into the second. And she could not complain. (…)

“The man now being actually supreme in the house, the last barrier to his absolute supremacy had fallen. This autocracy was confirmed and perpetuated by the overthrow of mother-right, the introduction of father-right, and the gradual transition of the pairing marriage into monogamy. But this tore a breach in the old gentile order; the single family became a power, and its rise was a menace to the gens.(1) (Fredrick Engels, Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State, Chapter IX: Barbarism and Civilization.)

Since these ancient origins, women have been looked on as inferior beings. A contemporary of Marx in Italy, the abbot Rosmini, inspired the upbringing of many “young ladies” from good families and appealed to nature to emphasise their age-old subjection to men:

“It is for the husband, according to the convenience of nature, to be lord and master; it is for the woman, and so it should be, to be almost an appendage, a complement to the husband, entirely consecrated to him and dominated by his name”(2).

These theories may cause some amusement and sound out of date, but they formed the basis for family law in Italy right up until 1975, when it was finally reformed after very hard struggles.

While struggles and debates have arisen around this question in many moments in history, the rise of capitalism marked a decisive transition which radically changed the relations between individuals.

Liberation outside the walls of the home

As Engels explains, the oppression of the woman within the household was the result of change outside it. To the degree in which the labour of the man, linked to herding and agriculture, began to produce the wealth of those societies by producing a surplus over and above family needs, which was “sold”, domestic labour ceased to be the fundamental wealth. It was of a private nature, could not be exchanged for other goods on the market and thus lost its value. The labour of the man, whose products were exchanged for gain, became productive, while that of the woman, whose product was not for sale, became unproductive. This change outside the family marked an overturning of the balance of forces within it. To quote Engels again:

“We can already see from this that to emancipate woman and make her the equal of the man is and remains an impossibility so long as the woman is shut out from social productive labor and restricted to private domestic labor. The emancipation of woman will only be possible when woman can take part in production on a large, social scale, and domestic work no longer claims anything but an insignificant amount of her time. And only now has that become possible through modern large-scale industry, which does not merely permit of the employment of female labor over a wide range, but positively demands it, while it also tends towards ending private domestic labor by changing it more and more into a public industry.”(3) (Fredrick Engels, Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State, Chapter IX: Barbarism and Civilization.)

The development of the capitalist mode of production actually had important repercussions on all women, from those of the upper classes to proletarian women. It was precisely the processes explained by Engels which pushed bourgeois women, and even some from the nobility, to demand more rights, and, as we shall attempt to clarify here by describing some of the struggles at the turn of the 19th-20th centuries, to shake up consciousness and the social system.

The class struggle and the struggle against patriarchal society

However, the capitalist mode of production marked an irreconcilable break between the interests of the exploited and the exploiters. The capitalist system pushes the individual to find a role in social production. Thus not only did bourgeois women come out of their “gilded prisons” to demand a seat in Parliament or a place in male professions, but also millions of peasant women and housewives were thrust by want into large-scale production: the factory, the mill, the mine, the office and the call center have become the place of a further form of oppression: class oppression. This second burden, however, brings them out of the solitude of the four walls, gives them the chance to find other female and male comrades in the fight against their exploited position, become protagonists in their own lives, break their subjection to men and strike a blow against patriarchal society. The whole experience of women workers’ struggles teaches just this: the struggle in the workplace is always accompanied by a crisis in the family, with men looking suspiciously on the new female protagonism while women, gaining confidence in their abilities, no longer put up with abuse and ridicule by fathers, husbands and brothers.

Entry into the world of labour, the earning of a wage and, ultimately, the class conflict, do not automatically lead to the liberation of the woman, but communists who set themselves this aim must understand the connection between these two aspects; it is the class conflict that most clearly reveals to women in general the reactionary nature of the family as a place where individuals, and especially women and children, suffer oppression. Communists must take advantage of this objective condition to put forward a different idea of how human beings can live together, based on the socialisation of economic resources, of household tasks, of the care and upbringing of children. But above all they must make it clear that the cause of the tensions and violence that are part of daily family life lies in the private nature of the responsibilities that capitalism necessarily unloads onto the shoulders of the family and of women in particular. So breaking women’s oppression, breaking down this private character, means making the struggle for women’s liberation part of the struggle against capitalism. Taking up the women’s question is not just an extra, but a decisive issue which brings the struggle against capitalism onto more advanced ground. Communists do not fight this system only because it forces three quarters of the world into the most inhuman poverty, but also because it is a brake on the development of culture, science and human resources, and from a simple brake it is transforming itself more and more into a system leading to barbarism in human relationships even in the advanced capitalist countries. Thus the battle is also an ideological one.

The nature of feminism

Up to now we have avoided using the term feminism in relation to the struggle of the women’s movement and we believe that a few clarifications are needed concerning this term.

It was Fourier who first spoke of feminism, giving the term a positive value as it meant the struggle of women against their oppression. However, historically the term has been taken over basically by movements with a bourgeois or petty bourgeois leadership, often coming into conflict with the labour movement and its organisations.

The feminist movement, particularly after the Second World War, produced ideas and analyses which were unquestionably valid, and in some cases adopted revolutionary Marxist ideas. However, the fact remains that overall it remained a prisoner of a reductionist view of the women’s question, which saw it as a central battle with all women being lumped together regardless of their social background and separately from all other struggles (wages, social conditions, etc.).

While it is true that the denial of rights affects women of different social classes, there is an enormous gap between the conditions of women, according to the class they belong to, and this distance is inevitably reproduced in the aims they set themselves.

First of all there is the question of property. Bourgeois women have to look after their own and their family’s and acquaintances’ property. Proletarian women, with their class demands, together with their demands as women, are a constant threat to bourgeois property, which is challenged not only by the programme of the labour movement (which may be more or less advanced) but particularly by the methods of struggle (strikes, occupations, etc.) and the mass character of these struggles.

Secondly there is the problem of the goals of the struggle. Historically the feminist movement has had many different expressions which we will analyse later in this text. Here we will try to summarise these objectives: the central theme for bourgeois women in the feminist movement is the cultural battle. At the beginning of the 20th century this was expressed in the extension of democratic rights, such as the right to vote, the right to study and access to the “male” professions (lawyers, doctors etc.), but it later found its demands in female protagonism and against a Catholic culture which saw the woman as the “angel of the hearth” (divorce, abortion rights). This cultural battle was often accompanied by a strong verbal radicalism and also by “exemplary” actions aimed at showing the revolutionary and universal character of those demands. Basically, however, although democratic rights for women are universal, in other words they involve everyone, posing the cultural struggle separately from the economic system gives this battle a partial character. It may have striking effects but does not undermine the system. Hence the eternal debate as to whether we should demand women’s emancipation or liberation. The most moderate sections of the movement naturally limited themselves to demanding a few adjustments to women’s conditions, campaigning for a more or less slow emancipation process. Other sections, which were more radical but often more confused, demanded a genuine liberation, but did not understand that to achieve this they had to go beyond the narrow limits of feminism and take part in a broad struggle against capitalism, putting forward a more radical, revolutionary programme within the workers’ movement.

Working women and patriarchal ideology

On the other hand, for women workers, their oppression within the home is interwoven with social conditions. For women workers this is represented by the suffocation of housework and child-minding. Unlike bourgeois women they cannot unload these chores onto wage labour (baby-sitters, maids, etc). Over the last few decades in the advanced countries there has been a certain involvement of men in looking after the children and in housework, but the ultimate responsibility continues to rest on the shoulders of the woman. In the poorer layers and the working class this responsibility is even greater, as capitalist society has no interest in socializing it. This situation changes the role of the woman, and particularly the woman worker, in society; time is dedicated to the house, the children, running the house in general at the expense of study, union activity, politics, improvement of working conditions etc. However, while working class women, unlike bourgeois women, are also oppressed by their menfolk, they are forced to take a more tortuous and laborious path to free themselves. The men of their social class do not have a nice, well-paid profession for them to envy or compete for. Although men workers on average are better paid than women workers, it is still wage labour. What remains is a couple and family life which is unsustainable from a human and economic viewpoint, and inevitably goes into crisis. And here too we see the greatest difficulties affecting women workers; for them the prospect of divorce means having to face life as a single person, probably with children (who in 98% of cases go to the mother), on a starvation wage and with an extra rent to pay. Capitalism imposes on the women the double burden of work outside and inside the home. When this burden is unbearable no solution is offered except more loneliness and a disrupted social life. About half of households in Italy are no longer of the traditional type (father, mother, child/children); in most cases they are women desperately looking for a way to emancipation from family oppression, but while they may escape from their obligations towards a husband, they cannot escape the women’s role that capitalism in any case thrusts upon them. The care of the children remains, discrimination in the workplace remains, economic need remains and even increases, as does the need for human solidarity, but here the division of roles by sex is once more reproduced.

Women workers, unlike middle class women, can react to this loneliness of oppression suffered in private by taking up a role in struggles in their workplace. The class struggle is a collective struggle and demonstrates the power of women workers, increasing their confidence in their abilities and helping to make broad layers of the female working class aware of their oppressed condition as women in society, showing how collective action can combat the oppression of women too.

In order for this to be expressed in a conscious struggle for their own liberation, a revolutionary analysis and programme are needed. But the reformist organizations of the labour movement have gone from a sometimes openly hostile attitude (consider the Italian socialists who opposed the vote for women) to posing the problem in an exclusively economic manner (equal pay, conditions, hours etc.), without taking up the revolutionary implications of the struggle against women’s oppression and even claiming that the problem was something concerning exclusively middle class women.

Subsequently, in the absence of an independent class analysis, the reformist leaders capitulated completely to feminist conceptions, adopting the ideas and demands of the most moderate sections. To this it should be added that the feminist movement has always looked on women workers as “second-class sisters”, partly because they were less open to its arguments and partly because they were looked on as practically irretrievable victims of male domination of the workers’ organizations. This attitude of self-sufficiency is shown by the almost complete absence of writings about the struggles of working class women, compared with a far greater number of publications about the strictly feminist movement, not to mention the deafening silence surrounding women’s conquests in the Soviet Union thanks to the October Revolution.

Feminism and the workers’ movement

Having said this, we must seek a correct relationship between feminism and the labour movement and between the conflict between the sexes and the class struggle. While the women’s question must be taken up by communists, as explained above, we must oppose a partial approach which places the cultural battle at the centre of our campaigns, independently of class origin. This approach causes a lowering of the consciousness with which women approach their condition, where women can see only a description of their oppression without being offered the means to overcome it.

As we have explained, women’s oppression did not originate with capitalism, but the existence of capitalism represents the decisive obstacle to overcoming it. This system is obliged to base its rule on the oppression of the working class and so has to encourage all possible divisions within it. The patriarchal ideology is fundamental to guarantee a wide layer of female labour where it can impose inferior wages and conditions, and who can enter and leave the labour market as needed, acting as a constant downward pressure on the wages and conditions of the whole working class. In exactly the same way, racism is used to divide the working class on race lines. Thus, although capitalism thrusts women into social production, along with immigrants from the more backward areas of the world, it must at the same time promote the idea that a woman’s duty is to stay at home to look after her children and family.

Thus capitalism, along with its church ideologues, has become the fundamental instigator of women’s oppression. For anyone dealing with the women’s question, it is an inescapable task to expose this link, showing how the patriarchal culture is used and promoted by capitalism to maintain its rule. Any struggle that does not take this into account is not only doomed to defeat, but will be incapable of orienting women workers and those middle class women who do not just want to adjust their conditions but aspire to genuine liberation.

Finally we must deal with the reasons why the class struggle has a central place in comparison with the struggle between the sexes. Firstly, from what we have said so far, it is clear that liberating the woman, or at least creating a basis for her liberation, means first of all liberating the economic resources to enable the socialization of housework and child-minding, chores which tie women to their responsibilities and to their role as women in society. Freeing these resources means coming into conflict with private ownership of the means of production, with the ruling class. It means posing the need for a revolutionary process towards socialism, with the taking of power by the working class; the nationalisation of the multinationals and of the commanding heights of the economy with the planning of these resources under the control of the masses who are exploited today. Only in such a context, in a socialist society, could they be used for the benefit of the masses themselves.

The central position of the working class in this process is determined by its role in social production, by the fact that the workers, as a class of wage labourers, enable capitalism to function and exist, even though they may not be aware of this power in normal times. Their involvement is therefore decisive so that their strength can become a conscious force, able to challenge the established order.

This central position has recently been disputed in the left, by those who argue that there are other equally important conflicts, such as precisely the conflict between the sexes, or over the environment. Here we are not questioning the importance of these issues. What we are stressing is what is the central contradiction round which all the other contradictions turn.

The women’s question, like the environment, cannot be solved independently from the abolition of capitalism, a system which is now incapable of guaranteeing a harmonious development for women and for humankind in general. In addition it is not possible to conduct a cultural battle without posing the central question of breaking the motor force of this culture and overthrowing the ruling class which expresses its interests through that culture.

Thus it falls on the shoulders of the working class, which has the potential, as explained above, and the responsibility to carry out these tasks which the capitalist system cannot guarantee, starting now also an ideological campaign, first of all among women workers themselves and then, once power has been conquered, implementing our proposals for liberation.

The brief notes which follow are of a mainly historical nature and aim to illustrate the ideas set out above. As we have already stated, we are interested in pointing out both the validity and the limitations of the middle class movements internationally, among the most important of which was the British suffragettes movement, but for reasons of space we will be concentrating on the Italian experience.

The bourgeois ‘revolutionary’ women

As early as the 1700s, in both America and Europe, discussion circles on equality of the sexes grew up, but they were of an extremely moderate nature, with education as the central issue. Even in Italy, noblewomen debated as to the usefulness of study and its superiority to fine clothes.

The French revolution was the first time that these restricted circles were flooded out by the masses, by the common people, who saw the revolutionary process as their chance to put an end to their poverty and bring about equality between the sexes. Olympia de Gouges, a bourgeois Ironist, took up these aspirations and in 1791 presented her Declaration of the rights of women and of women citizens. Here, however, we see clearly what Marxism later analyzed, i.e. the superiority of class interests over gender interests. When the revolutionary process entered a critical stage, with reaction organizing to strangle the revolution, de Gouges did not understand that, in order to defend the rights she claimed to be fighting for, it was necessary to defeat the supporters of the monarchy, otherwise the masses in revolt would be betrayed and defeated. In 1793 she opposed the execution of the king and Robspierre’s policy of terror and for this reason was herself guillotined.

However, the struggles which took on a mass character were to come later and had a clear political content: the right to vote.

A women’s movement developed in the USA, starting with the war between North and South for the abolition of slavery. The women were not allowed to sign the abolitionist declaration of the Northern states and for this reason they founded a women’s antislavery society in 1830. This society began a campaign which drew a parallel between black people’s and women’s conditions and began a long series of public debates (which were practically forbidden to women at that time) with publications demanding the right to vote, the right to dispose of property and earnings, custody of children in case of divorce and a better education for women. In 1850, when the first national conference for women’s rights was held, out of a million workers about a quarter were women. Although this meant there was a significant proportion of women among the proletariat, the interest of the women’s associations was focused, apart from the question of the vote, on the protection of their rights in a bourgeois class context.

The British suffragettes

The movement which most aroused consciousness through its radical methods of struggle was that of the British suffragettes, who demanded universal suffrage. The Labour Party, right from its birth in 1900, had demanded the right to vote for women. Women activists in the trade unions and the Independent Labour Party campaigned for women workers to have the vote. In 1903 the Women’s Political and Social Movement was founded by Emmeline Pankhurst. This association declared the methods of rallies and petitions to be out of date and began a campaign of boycotting liberal candidates and of symbolic actions. The suffragettes disrupted liberal rallies, chained themselves to lamp-posts and intervened at all political events with placards demanding the right to vote. The government adopted the methods of harsh repression. There were mass arrests and many women were condemned to hard labour. In prison they staged hunger, thirst and sleep strikes; and to prevent them from dying the government ordered force-feeding. The Labour Party, which supported the movement, denounced the torture in prison, but the government did not change strategy. In November 1909 two suffragettes were killed by the police in a demonstration. This led to an increasing spiral of violence and feminists reacted by setting fire to buildings and railway carriages, and shop windows and letter boxes were destroyed. The prisons were filled with women who promptly began hunger strikes. The police, to avoid torturing them, would release them to rearrest them shortly afterwards, beginning the famous “cat and mouse” strategy. In 1913 the police raided the feminists’ premises, suppressed their paper and dissolved their organization.

The same year, in a fit of despair over the blind alley the movement had entered, a suffragette, Emily Davidson, threw herself in front of the horses during a race attended by the king and queen, and was trampled to death.

The First World War broke out soon afterwards and many leaders of the feminist movement embraced patriotic propaganda. Emmeline Pankhurst was released from prison and the government put her in charge of organizing women to replace men at work who had been called up.

The suffragette movement was made up of mainly young women from the middle-class, rebelling against the hypocrisy of society, which required them to be just good wives at the service of their good husbands. Undoubtedly, however, they earned sympathy and support among the working class for their self-sacrifice and perseverance, particularly in the first years. Subsequently, as the strategy of outrageous actions began to run out of steam, a split opened up in the movement. One section, led by Emmeline Pankhurst’s daughter Sylvia, entered into contact with the women of the labour movement in the East End of London and understood that, in order to really defend women, the vote was just a means for extending the more general struggle against the oppression of women and against capitalism. Sylvia was one of the founders of the British Communist Party.

The struggle of women workers in Italy

The vigour of the movement in Britain was not reflected equally in all the other countries. In particular the Italian bourgeoisie was too weak and backward to be able to be influenced by feminist propaganda. As late as 1908 the first national conference on the women’s question saw the participation of all the political parties, in the presence of the queen, and was inspired by so-called “interclassism”. The introduction reads as follows: “Our feminism does not call to struggle, but on the contrary works for the union of the classes, which is one of is dearest aspirations”. The inspiration of the participants was so feeble that they “forgot” to include the issue of the vote for women in the agenda.

In fact, in Italy the women’s question was not first raised by bourgeois circles, but by the workers’ movement, which showed the vitality of a new social class seeking a way out of its own poverty and that of the entire society.

At the end of the 19th century there were a million and a half women textile workers, as well as 300,000 peasant women in cottage industries, spinning linen and hemp. In the textile industry men accounted for only 10% of the workforce. Other industries with a high percentage of women workers were tobacco and match production. The first forms of organization of women workers arose in the textile industry. In 1889 the “Society of sisters of labour” was founded, which led a large number of strikes to improve wages and reduce the working day to ten hours. At the trades councils the first women’s sections were formed. The first, in Milan, was founded in 1890-91 by three socialists: Linda Malnati, Giuditta Brambilla and Carlotta Clerici. They had to work in very difficult conditions; poverty and widespread illiteracy were aggravated by the enormous possibility of blackmail by the bosses and the scorn women were subjected to by their own menfolk, as witnessed by some letters published by the socialist daily Avanti. Here are some extracts from one of them:

Starting with our brothers, who are mainly members (of the union – Ed), they would not tolerate our showing such a wish, so you can imagine what it’s like with our parents and, why not, even with our sons. It’s no good, we women are not supposed to think about certain things, if we do not intend to give up the joys of the family. Better to be slaves, as we are called, of propriety, than slaves of ridicule. There is little to be gained and much to be lost.”(4)

However, the dramatic conditions in which women worked forced some of these “slaves of propriety” to take up militant struggles and join the labour organizations. From 1880 to 1890 in Italy a wave of struggles gave rise to the first workers’ associations and organizations: leagues, friendly societies, unions, trades councils, with the founding of the Socialist Party in 1892. The movement was very active particularly in the countryside with a high female participation. The first strike of the women rice-workers took place at Molinella in 1883, with the demand for a small wage increase. Three years later came the turn of the rice-weeders at Medicina, with similar demands. At Monselice the strike was bloodily repressed, with three women killed and 11 others seriously wounded. In the lower Po valley the mobilizations forced the bosses of the rice fields to resort to organized scabbing. Other women were brought in from Ferrara and Romagna to replace the strikers, but the struggle was so militant that also the scab labourers joined the strike and the boss was forced to retreat. Following this struggle, 42 women workers were tried on the charges of “attacking the freedom to work and resistance and outrage against public officials”.

The outstanding courage of these women, who in collective struggle had succeeded in gaining confidence in their ability and their real power, could not fail to make itself felt within the household. The ridicule for taking an interest in union questions and “men’s things” had to give way to respect and an emancipation in the way of thinking of their equally exploited fathers, husbands and brothers. The most important sign of this change is to be seen in the setting up of women’s labour organizations, although skepticism among men workers remained and many of their organizations were closed to women.

And here we see how the oppression of the woman worker by the men of the same class is of a different nature from oppression within the bourgeois class. Abbot Rosmini’s and the ruling class’s prejudices against women were due to the will to perpetuate bourgeois rule over women and the working class; the prejudices of men workers and peasants, which are often expressed very brutally, are based on the ignorance in which the ruling class must intentionally keep those it dominates. The prejudices of the bourgeois cannot be overcome because they are the cultural condition of their rule, while the prejudices of the exploited, though deeply rooted, come into contradiction with their need for social emancipation and can be overcome by collective action. The working class has a common interest in freeing itself from the yoke of capitalism: in the class struggle it comes to understand its strength and to overcome the cultural poverty in which the bourgeois wants to bind it.

The role of the Socialist Party

So the class struggle is central. The new-born Socialist Party (PSI), whose principal woman leader was Anna Kuliscioff, focused its attention precisely on this question. In Kuliscioff’s appeal for the 1897 elections, we read:

This is the first time that we women too have felt the need to rouse ourselves. The days are gone when women attended only to the family and lived outside the struggles which shake modern society. The machine, large industry, the big store, the general transformation of the social economy, have torn us away from the family hearth and thrown us into the whirlwind of capitalist production. In this way the centre of gravity of our interests is necessarily shifted from family life to social life. (…)

But what is worse is that the woman is exploited and martyred far more than the so-called stronger sex. The boss looks after his interests, trying to make us work as much as possible while paying us as little as possible, and as he meets with no resistance he thinks up a new trick every day. (…)

The latest strikes by the spinners and weavers at Bergamo and Cremona have laid bare all the shame of our bourgeois civilization. Near Bergamo, where 11,000 out of 17,000 spinners and weavers are women or girls, the working day in some factories lasts from 4 in the morning to 8 in the evening and the women workers are paid on average 43 cents (of a lira – Trans.) a day, if they are not married. The married women get only 40 cents because the boss wants to guarantee himself against delays due to stoppages caused by pregnancy, childbirth and illness. And I have not mentioned our comrades who are left in the fields, the rice women, whose blood is sucked, as well as by overwork, by the leeches that cling to their flesh, and is infected by malaria, which throws them yellow and swollen into the dens that serve as sleeping places. No, for the women workers this is not life any more, but a slow martyrdom!”(5)

This impassioned appeal was part of the central battle of the party, for a law protecting female and child labour. Such a law was passed in 1902, as a result of hard class struggles, though in a considerably diluted form compared with the socialist proposal. However, the Socialst Party was involved in a heated debate over the women’s question. So long as it limited itself to demanding greater protection for those jobs which were clearly inhuman, everybody was in agreement, but when it came to making a deeper analysis large cracks opened up. The first battle was against economism, i.e. the tendency of the majority of socialist leaders, including Kuliscioff, to argue that once women had secured economic emancipation, thereby eliminating their economic dependence on men, the problem of their oppression would be solved.

Anna Maria Mozzoni in particular, a bourgeois woman from Milan, who had begun her activity precisely against the bourgeois hypocrisy that denied any autonomy to women, attempted a more elaborate approach, calling for a battle also on the cultural plane. Although Mozzoni had joined the PSI right from it foundation because she saw the liberation of the working class as the central question, she never succeeded in posing the women’s question in a revolutionary light and, while she rightly attacked economism, she did not transform her correct intuitions into a political proposal. So overall the Socialist Party was unable to pass from a correct propaganda to a revolutionary political programme and often delegated its concrete interventions to the workers’ leagues and the unions, which had an even more moderate programme.

As for the issue of the right to vote for women, the failure to understand the question comes out even more clearly. Although there was never a formal position against women’s suffrage, interest was to say the least luke-warm, so that in 1910, at the height of the campaign for women’s suffrage, with Giolitti (bourgeois politician – Trans.) declaring that giving political rights to so many millions of women would be a leap in the dark, Filippo Turati, the party leader, maintained that the “still sluggish political consciousness” of the mass of women would not bring great benefits and would in fact strengthen the conservative parties. Although there may have been some truth in this observation at the time, it was certainly no stimulus to a campaign to awaken that “sluggish consciousness”. Thus the PSI’s vote in parliament in favour of women’s suffrage was more of a correct but abstract petition of principle than a real commitment to carrying through this struggle.

The October Revolution and the Communist Party

A decisive contribution to clarifying the situation and bringing more advanced positions to the fore came from the international debate in the labour movement. Clara Zetkin’s articles on the women’s question began to circulate in Italy too and the breaking out of the First World War precipitated the contradictions in the PSI. Propaganda in defence of the workers gave way to a total capitulation to the one’s own national bourgeoisie. Nearly all the parties of the Second International voted in favour of war credits, opening the way to the massacre of those same millions of workers it claimed to champion. In 1914 Lenin stood out against this patriotic orgy, denouncing the cowardice of the Socialist parties and called for the launching of a new international which set itself the goal of socialist revolution – its supporters were to break with those Socialist leaders who had betrayed the proletarian cause. The October 1917 revolution gave momentum to the new international and to the advancement of the debate in the socialist parties, which were forced to take up a position on this world-shaking event. In 1920-21, splits in the Socialist parties led to the formation of the Communist parties and the Third International, which proposed to conquer world power, thus spreading the Soviet system throughout the world and in particular in Europe, which was in revolutionary ferment.

We cannot here go into those great events and into the effects they had on the situation in Italy. However, it must be stressed that they had an enormous effect on the debate on the women’s question in Italy. For the first time the Communist perspective of women’s liberation gained sufficient momentum to form a leadership able to carry forward this battle.

In the PSI an opposition crystallised, which was to form the Communist party. In particular the men and women around the paper Ordine Nuovo in Turin consciously set themslves the aim of applying the Soviet experience to the situation in Italy and found themselves in the leadership of the occupation of the factories in Turin, and of a revolutionary movement on a national scale in 1919-20, known as the biennio rosso (two red years). [See The Occupation of th Factories 1920 – The Lost Revolution]

This was the climate that tempered the women communist leaders who wrote the finest and richest pages of the labour movement on the question of the liberation of women. The leading woman of Ordine Nuovo was Camilla Ravera, and the slogan which summed up the programme of the group was: “The woman freed from the man, both freed from capital”. They intervened in workers’ struggles, no longer with the paternalistic attitude of helping the poor and exploited, but campaigning to bring workers into the leadership of the struggles, training worker activists and winning workers over to the cause of communism. It was with this perspective that the intervention among the workers developed and Gramsci, editor of Ordine Nuovo, made Camilla Ravera responsible for editing a weekly column dedicated to the women’s question, the Tribuna delle donne (Women’s tribune).

This space carried articles by Zetkin, Kollontai, Rosa Luxemburg and the main Soviet leaders, with reports on the situation in the Soviet Union and on the development of the struggle for women’s liberation in the course of the revolution. As well as all this there was agitational material for work among women workers, which had a solid theoretical basis, so that in every article women’s oppression was highlighted and seen in the right perspective.

Ravera insisted on all the aspects, even the most private side of everyday life, where the bourgeois ideology was rooted in the working class and even “among the comrades themselves”. She denounced the squalor of life for the housewife, the inhuman fatigue to which the women workers were subjected in the home and the factory, and the brutal physical and moral poverty of most families, alongside which “all the bourgeois phraseology about freedom, love, the family, the relationship between parents and offspring, becomes all the more sickening”.

Their theoretical clarity enabled the women comrades of Ordine Nuovo to take up an advanced position on maternity too. They denounced the hypocrisy about the joys of motherhood and declared that for women workers child-bearing was a misfortune. So long as society did not recognise the social value of child-bearing and did not take responsibility for its tasks, women should have the right to accept or refuse it. Thus the right to abortion was put forward for the first time. Following the Stalinist degeneration this courageous position was no longer taken up by the Communist Party in the postwar period and it was not taken up again until the development of the feminist movement at the end of the 1960s.

In Tribuna delle donne, the emphasis was placed on the emancipation of women as a lever for the emancipation of men. When demobilised soldiers campaigned against women’s employment, Ravera did not miss the opportunity to intervene and denounce patriarchal culture, which saw the man as the unquestioned head of the family, and the commercialization of marriage and the relationship of the couple, which forced individuals into a brutal economic relationship for mutual support.

And she denounced the slavery of capital in the poverty of private life:

As a slave of capital, the man, corrupted by his own slavery, tries to gain revenge by subjugating the woman, exploiting her and tormenting her. Extenuated by work with no joy or purpose, the man seeks oblivion in alcohol, in drunkenness; the woman, guardian of the hearth, is always the victim of this. It is the woman who prepares the cannon fodder, the flesh to be exploited, the flesh for pleasure. The woman will not become free until the man is free”.(7)

The Communist Party, of Gramsci and Bordiga, which was formed from the split at the Livorno (Leghorn) conference of the PSI in 1921, was preparing on this basis to develop work among women, while at the same time remaining fully aware of the difficulties involved in this kind of work. The young Communist party had 1200 branches nationally and 96 women’s commissions, responsible for work among women workers. Female membership totalled 400 and from 1922 they had a paper, La Compagna, which sold 15,000 copies.(8)

Defeat and fascism

Fascism suffocated this whole experience at birth. By 1921 the Fascist Party had grown from just over 300 branches to more than 1000. Attacks by fascist bands in the first four months of 1921 left 102 dead. In six months 59 workers’ clubs, 119 trades council premises and 141 Communist and Socialist branches were burnt or ravaged. The organizations of the labour movement were reduced to a shadow and then forced underground, while working class living conditions worsened from day to day.

By 1927 women’s wages were half of men’s wages, which had already been seriously reduced. In an engineering factory producing precision machinery, male wages ranged from a maximum of 4 lira a day to a minimum of 2.50, while women were paid 1.50. In the countryside, male labourers earned 9 lira a day, while women did not get more than 5 lira.

A campaign was launched by the regime about the fertility of women, whose role was to stay at home and have children. In 1927 women were banned from teaching in certain university faculties and in high schools, and this was then extended to some subjects in technical schools and junior high schools; finally fees were doubled for female students. Fascism inherited the preceding legal code from 1865, where the man was considered to be the undisputed head of the family, taking all decisions regarding his wife and children and imposing his wishes even after separation and death through his will. The woman, as an eternal minor, had to swear absolute fidelity, adultery being punished by two years’ imprisonment, while of course the man was free to betray her as he wished. To this reactionary legislation fascism added a further law, article 587 regarding crimes of honour, whereby any man who killed his wife, daughter or sister “to defend the honour of the family” had a right to a one-third reduction of the sentence. This law, together with the law considering rape as a crime only against morality and not against the person, was not abolished until the 1980s.

Between 1921 and 1926 the percentage of women working outside the home fell from 32,5% to 24%, although in some industries low wages and the absence of qualifications were an incentive to employ women, whatever fascist ideology might think. From 1936 there was actually an increase in the number of women workers employed, which, according to the census taken that year, brought the number of women workers to 5,247,000. In the Second World War female employment grew further as women replaced men sent to the front; also their role grew in society and subsequently in the struggle against fascism.

The war years were extremely hard, with hunger and poverty putting the Italian working class to the test and undermining social stability. In Turin, workers were doing 10-11 hours a day. 40,000 out of 150,000 workers were women, air-raids had destroyed or damaged 25,000 homes and tens of thousands of workers were evacuated to the countryside. There was a similar situation in all towns. Food and firewood were rationed. Black market prices soared; in 1943 butter rose from 27 to 160 lira per kg, rice from 2.50 to 25 lira and flour from 1.80 to 12 lira. With rationing coupons a worker in Biella in January 1943 could obtain 1000 calories of food and, as most of the food was kept for the children, it is clear that the masses were starving. Even the bosses called for an increase in the food distributed by coupon, because production was falling with working men and women always sick. A Turin woman worker tells us:

I was always hungry, also because we always left the little that there was to the children. But I always came to work, even when I felt ill. Because of my weakness I had irregular periods; I would miss them one month and then maybe they would come every two weeks. I was lucky because I never had pains, but one woman at work couldn’t stand up when she had her periods. Go on, stay at home on those days, we said. But she was terrified of losing her job. She was alone, with a child and no husband”.(9)

Meanwhile, as news began to come though of military defeats at the front, the weakness of the regime was more and more apparent. Women workers with husbands in Russia were considered as widows. No one doubted reports that Italian soldiers did not have sufficient protection from the Russian winter and that during the retreat the Germans had requisitioned the trucks, leaving the Italians to retreat on foot. Those who did not make it remained behind and froze to death.

In January 1943 a letter from a woman worker was published in a fascist trade union newspaper: “I do the same heavy job as the male worker I replaced. But he earned 40 lira a day, while I get only 23 lira. Can you explain the reason?” The paper gave no trace of a reply.

10 October 2002.

See Part two.

Click to Donate

Are you a communist? Then apply to join Socialist Revolution!

Click to Donate