19. The Women's Movement in Italy

Submitted by Steven. on August 14, 2009

The following three items give some background about the development of the women's movement in Italy. First a preface, followed by a letter from two
sisters in Bologna, and then the concluding document agreed by the National Conference of the women's movement, February 1978.

The situation of women in Italy is one of the most backward in Europe. Feudal and patriarchal customs continue to exist: many of these are savage, with the law looking kindly on men who beat their wives - or even kill them, in the case of adultery. As in other Catholic countries there is a tendency for men to look at women either as "the Madonna" (to be respected) or as "the prostitute" (to be desired, b despised). Violence against women is widespread, and increasing. Any woman ravelling around a city by herself after dark is considered to be "asking for it“. And gang-rape is not uncommon. In this sort of situation, women have been forced to organise - and their organisation has extended to cover the "legal" forms of violence against women - ie treatment by doctors, abortion, birth etc.

The anti-women attitudes are rife on the Left as well, and until not so long ago, on the revolutionary Left too. Women had a hard struggle to make themselves heard in the revolutionary organisations, and too often were either considered simply as "so-and-so's girlfriend", or as a useful person to turn a duplicator handle.

When the workers and students began to move in Italy in 1969-70, the women’s movement was hardly even in embryo. There were influences from the women's movement in the USA, but these were not very widespread. In fact it was only really the Divorce Referendum in 1974 that gave the push to the movement: the campaigning against the Right's attempt to abolish the divorce law was seen by some groups as mainly an issue of national party politics - but it began to raise women's issues in a fundamental way.

Abortion was also a key issue - an issue which provoked a major scandal inside Lotta Continua. The first big national demonstration over the abortion issue was called in Rome, December 6th 1975: it was "for women only". Men were not to be allowed to march. However, at one point Lotta Continua's "servizio d'ordine" (march stewards) attacked the march, demanding to be let in: this attitude led to a crisis which had far-reaching consequences for that organisation and for the whole of the revolutionary Left.

Apart from demonstrations, the movement mainly took the form of consciousness raising groups, which started to spring up all over Italy as a place where women could meet and begin to discuss their problems specifically as women. Alongside this movement came the "crisis of the couple", in which thousands of women (mainly on the revolutionary Left, it must be said) started to challenge their relationships with the menfolk, and began exploring new kinds of relationships.

The high point of the movement can perhaps be dated at April 3rd 1976, when 50,000 women from all over Italy marched through the streets of Rome demanding the right to abortion on demand. Even the PCI's Union of Italian Women' marched. But the Christian Democrats, with the CP, concocted a sort of compromise Bill, giving ultimate decision-making power to the doctor, not to the woman. This Bill began its course through Parliament, and opposition from women in the streets has been at a low level - partly because the women's movement has seemed to take up a sort of rejection of politics. However, on the one hand the practical everyday organising (for instance arranging abortions for women etc) has continued. And on the other hand the movement has periodically taken to the streets again, around specific issues. One was the case where some rich Fascist youths raped two young women, murdering one in the process. Another was the case of Claudia Caputi (see p.69), and there have been others. Needless to say, the repercussions of the growing women's movement have not only been felt in women's issues: their impact has been throughout the Left organisations. When the new revolutionary movement began to emerge in February 1977, it was firmly based on the material and other needs of the participants themselves, and no longer on some abstract "commitment to the needs of the working class" in abstraction. In this new movement, the feminist component has been more strongly present than ever before, particularly in the struggle to integrate the "personal" and the "political" aspects of politics, and in the struggle against hierarchy-structures and leader-figures.

A letter from Bologna

Dear Sisters,

It is very hard to describe the situation of our movement in so short a space. We'll try to outline some of its tendencies, and explain to you some of our own points of view.

The past 5 years of struggle have meant a tremendous amount of work, analysis and organisation against the system. We have insisted that our movement is specific and distinct. As a feminist movement we have fought to establish the fact that our daily life is political - we are autonomous political agents. We have challenged the holy myth of the "centrality" of the industrial working class. We have stressed that social life has a primary political importance, especially as far as women are concerned, as part and parcel of the new restructuring of Italian capitalism along the lines of the "diffused factory" (See p .123). We have also chosen to be autonomous from the so-called revolutionary parties where women had become the 'Florence Nightingales of the duplicator'!

Because of all this, we have been constantly critical of the politics and the practice of the established Labour Movement and the revolutionary movements, because they deny women the status of political individuals in their own right ~ living with a specific form of exploitation. Instead, we have moved in a different direction. We have looked at our marginalisation in order better to understand and impose our needs. And our main objective has been to satisfy those needs.

We have been working on consciousness-raising as our method of analysing
our family life, our sexuality and sexual experiences, our relationships with other women/men, and with the institutions. On that basis we have formed women's health collectives; groups to do abortions (which are still a 'crime' in Italy); self-analysis groups; "wages for housework” committees; and intervention groups based around hospitals and factories. Our intention has been to create as many channels of counter-information and propaganda for women as possible. Partly because our movement is not a single, unified whole, our main problem is the relationship between the women's movement and the political arena outside of it. This is partly brought about by the way the State has been dealing with our struggles.

It's not accidental that the State is choosing this period to reorganise the plan for the social services: this has coincided with the first struggles of the women's movement - the moment when we, as women, are starting to leave the housework and the children to our husbands, making our own needs the basis for a new relationship with our menfolk. Also we have been forcing doctors to visit us not alone, but in the company of other" women, and forcing them to explain simply and in detail what is wrong with us, so that we can actively participate in the problems of our own health. It also coincides with our refusal to allow ourselves to go on dying from clandestine abortions, or to go on suffering giving ,birth in inhuman conditions.

We have demanded a social services system run by and for women, on the basis of our needs. The State has replied by setting up laws and institutions to deal with us individually (and not as a movement),thereby reducing the overall problems of woman's life to a whole series of separate aspects.

For example, we have always said that abortion should be available free and on demand - a fundamental moment for a wider struggle around the whole issue of health. But the State has drawn up a law which is experimenting the Historic Compromise on our health and our autonomy, and the result is highly repressive. We could tell you of all the comrades who have been arrested fordoing free abortions .... We could tell you of the indiscriminate protection that is allowed to the practitioners of legalised rape, who are allowed to violate us first before then giving us abortions at an average price of hundreds thousands of lire. And we could tell you a story that's been in the news this week - a doctor in Rome violated a really young girl just before performing her abortion - a violence he justified as being part of the treatment! And we could tell you of the violence and the police arrests that are used against women who have to carry out abortions with primitive instruments - women who have to turn to the hospitals in the event of an emergency, and then wind up in prison.

The problem that we face at national level is precisely how we are going to deal with these institutions which, while they are not what we wanted, could perhaps be turned into a means of control and counter-power for women. It will not be easy. We run a danger that our control of this area as women in the women's movement might end up turning into a system of co-management alongside the hierarchy of the medical Establishment - which is precisely what the system is planning.

Anyway, for further information we are sending you the document that was approved at our last National Women's Conference on February 25th-26th 1978.

National Women's Conference

This is the final document approved by the recent national conference of the women’s movement, a united position on the problems of abortion, contraception and sexuality, put forward as the basis for a national mobilisation on March 8th 1978.

As the women's movement we have carried forward a struggle for abortion - a struggle which has affirmed the right of women to make our own decisions about our own bodies, our own role as mothers, and our own lives. In our meeting in Rome we have felt that it is necessary to re-open the debate and the struggle, in all towns in Italy, and in all our collectives, to raise the problem of abortion and of sexuality, in order to reaffirm our conception of women as
whole, autonomous, individual beings.

The central point of this struggle is to reaffirm the principle of women's self-determination in all fields. In relation to abortion this means that the women's movement refuses to accept any law which establishes control women and over our rights to decide our own lives. Abortion must be available as an emergency service in all public hospitals, and must be available at women's request. We shall fight for all those employed in the public health services to be bound to assist in and practice abortion. Women are opening up this struggle in particular cities, concentrating on particular hospitals: uncovering and denouncing clientelism, exposing connivance and repressive attitudes among health service personnel, is a first step towards a different sort of medicine, for a sexuality based on life and not on death.

Therefore we suggest that the women's movement organises a struggle against the Bill being proposed by the 'Movement for Life' - a law which sees women simply as a receptacle for children. We also reject the law proposed by the lay parties, because it contains no statement regarding women's right to self-determination, and because it sanctions State control of women's bodies. No party has the right to legislate on women and on women's bodies - particularly today, when the demands of the women's movement are being traded and sold as part of the political stabilisation project between the Communist Party and the Christian Democrats - as part of patriarchal power.

Abortion must immediately have all legal penalties removed from it, and this should take place via referendum if necessary. Regarding the public “family" pregnancy advisory services, these are clearly being set up by the Government and the political parties as a response against the proposals brought forward by the women's movement. For this reason we will combat them, with the aim of transforming them into public abortion clinics "for women", based on the aims and activities of the women's movement, and under the real control of women. The self-managed abortion clinics and the principle of self-help and self-managed abortion are an essential heritage of the movement: they must be continued and broadened in all situations - not as "women's solution to the problem of abortion", but as a moment of struggle and re-appropriation of knowledge, for a medical service that really serves women. The correct way to pose the problem of sexuality is to base it on a deep consideration of sexuality, on the precise and fundamental objective of separating the reproduction aspect from sexuality as such.

In relation to this, we see the necessity of organising at the national level, through groups in each town, setting up study groups to look at the literature, the statistics and the problems, with a view to reappropriating in real terms all those instruments of knowledge that, together with our struggle and our control, will finally lead to the creation of safe, reversible, harmless contraceptives for men and for women.

The National Women's Movement Conference asks all women and all collectives to mobilise all over Italy on March 8th, on the lines proposed in this document.

We also ask sisters to attend the trial which will take place in Salerno on March 13th (t.n. a trial of women involved in a pro-abortion campaign), in order to express our opposition to the fascist and religious ideologies that want the practice of clandestine, illegal abortion to continue.
Rome, February 26th 1978.