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

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 today.

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and their fascist friends realised it would be better to concede something: wage increases were granted and the arrests withdrawn.

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 control.

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 traditional family.

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 the surface.

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 woman.

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 husband. (…)

Divorce is a graft on marriage, from which the institution comes out strengthened“(14).

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 ideological need“.(15)

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 question.

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, anti-authoritarian society“.(20)

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 physical development.

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 practising abortions.

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 things.

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 everything!“(24)

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.

Some conclusions

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, 1967

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.

16 Ibid.

17 Significato dell’autocoscienza nei gruppi femministi, Rivolta femminile, 1972

18 Giuseppe Fiori, Vita di Enrico Berlinguer, Edizioni Laterza.

19 Ibid.

20 Bozza di piattaforma dei principi del movimento di liberazione della donna (Mld), in Rosalba Spagnoletti, Op.Cit.

21 Ibid.

22 Ibid.

23Rapporto da Lotta femminista, 1973, in Biancamaria Frabotta (edited by), Femminismo e lotta di classe in Italia (1970-1973), Savelli editore, Roma 1973.

24Aborto di Stato: strage delle innocenti, collettivo internazionale femminista (edited by), Marsilio editore, Venice 1976

25 Ibid.

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