21. Feminism and a new politics

When Marx wrote that ‘Men make their own history .. . but they do not make it under conditions chosen by themselves’, he was no doubt referring to ‘Man’ as a universal category. However, it is a word that is also revealing of the hegemony of men in the public sphere. Women, it could be said, make history under conditions which are largely ‘man-made’. Certainly, the language of politics has historically been fashioned in male Terms. The social movements of 1968-9 were no exceptions to this. Women were active participants, but they acted as ‘students’ and ‘workers’, and seldom as ‘women students’ and ‘women workers’. Their experience of the strikes and occupations, of the open meetings and demonstrations, were, therefore, contradictory, at least in retrospect. It is from the frictions emerging from the persistence of old roles and the invention of new ones that a women’s movement developed in Italy during the 1970s.

The student movement, which was especially significant for the formation of feminism, was lived by many women activists as a great release from stifling social conventions. Parental pressures and institutional tutelage bore down heavily on women students, who were glad to escape from them through solidarity with their peer group. The social movement expressed their anger at injustices, and provided a vehicle for creating new ways of living. It entailed the learning of new skills, meeting people, discovering a whole world through discussion and reading. At the same time, there were limits put on how the freedoms could be used, and channels tended to direct the energies of women students in particular ways. For example, the assignment to women of secretarial functions was so blatant that this role was widely dubbed the angelo del ciclostile (the roneo angel). The process of social mobilization in many respects changed women’s position in relation to male peers, but the change was for the most part slight, and required a conformity to pre-existing notions of comradeship.

However, it was this change of situation and the assertion of ideas to do with equality and freedom which made long-established injustices intolerable. To duplicate hundreds of leaflets at the behest of some student leader or political activist seemed, suddenly to be a form of complicity in the hypocrisy of those who claimed to be communists.

Feminist anger and criticism were directed first of all against male student activists, who were seen to reproduce dominant values. Although the causes of the women’s movement need to be related to a number of structural changes in women’s access to education and the labour market, not to mention cultural developments, the initial grievances were directed at the men around them. The ‘salesmen of the new inevitability’, who did so much to explode the justifications of the dominant group in society (for example, the meritocratic ideal in education), and who provided alter- native standards with which to make political judgements, conjured up disaffection from within the movement they led. Their instruments of analysis were turned against them. In Mariella Gramaglia’s words: ‘Feminism, at least in its first political acts, came into being as revolutionary education for revolutionaries, as living proof of their limitations’. However, the women’s movement was not a simple extension of a tendency within the preceding social movements. During the 1970s, feminists wrestled with a legacy of which they were a part, but from which they increasingly sought to escape.

The aim of this chapter is to trace some of the routes taken by feminists which led out of the 1968-9 experience. Perhaps more so in Italy than in many other countries, the women’s movement after 1968 was divided along political lines. Women tended to become feminists after they had already been activists on the Left, and the differences within the wider political field were echoed within the movement. In the first section, some of the major tendencies among the pioneering feminists are briefly outlined. The purpose of this is to show how the movement began as a struggle to create a new politics out of an old one; this was a process internal to the experience of the generation who went to university in the mid to late 1960s. The next section deals with the growth of the mass movement around the abortion issue, and with how feminism established its presence in a number of spheres, including the unions and workplaces. However, the women’s movement, as the final section argues, remained marginal and antagonistic to the dominant forms of politics on the Left. So, when the latter was in disarray at the end of the decade, feminism seemed to represent a potentially alternative politics.

Pioneering Years

The idea of women’s equality was not invented by the generation of ‘68; it already had a respectable history as part of the more general struggle for democratic and civil liberties led by the Socialist and Communist Parties. The idea of ‘emancipation’ meant establishing women’s full rights as citizens as guaranteed by the Constitution, and their integration into the workforce (and thence into the mass organizations of the labour movement). In the absence of a tradition of ‘bourgeois feminism’ in Italy, this role was assumed by the Left; as Victoria De Grazia has written:

Insofar as it actively promoted the rapid and pervasive changes in custom and culture following in the wake of the economic miracle of the 1950s and 1960s, the Left, it could be argued, fulfilled the historical role of bourgeois feminism by modernizing the status of Italian women. In the process, the stage was set for the neofeminist associationalism of the early 1970s; its precedents were not so much early twentieth-century Italian feminist as post-1968 American liberationist.

When the women’s movement began, it was therefore vital for its protagonists to differentiate themselves from this tradition. Its short- comings were discussed at length, with the accent being put on its conservatism; for instance, Togliatti’s founding address to the Unione delle Donne Italiane, the PCI’s organization for women, was regularly quoted:

We do not want Communist women to distance themselves from their every- day lives, nor to renounce what I understand to be their duties . . . Nor that they should in any way lose the attributes of their femininity.

In other words, the emancipationist approach of the traditional Left was criticized for making women fit into male-dominated party structures and policies, and for overlooking the inequalities flowing from the sexual division of labour in the home and at work. It was this conservativism and reliance on the institutions which feminists rebelled against, just as the student movement had done in the late sixties.

Carla Ravaioli recalls an incident which brought the new feminism and emancipationists into head-on confrontation. At a conference in June 1970 on ‘Women and the Choices facing Italian Society in the 1970s’, she writes that:

a woman’s voice full of aggression and scandalously out of keeping with the measured decorum of the debate broke in: ‘My name is of no importance. I belong to the movement Rivolta Femminile. Over these days I have heard words like “inclusion”, “participation”, and “integration” .... It appears to me that what you want is exactly what already exists .... For you, this culture is fine. The only thing that you’re asking is that women be a part of it. The women you want are exact duplicates of the men’.

The attempt to bring women into the orbit of the institutions, without radically changing those institutions, was totally rejected by the early feminists, who worked to create a social movement opposed to them. The defiance and the language of revolt learnt in the social movements of 1968-9 clashed with the procedures and style of parliamentary politics. Yet, the need to act autonomously had arisen because of the failure of the movements to take up women’s specific grievances and aspirations.

A statement by the De Mau group (Il Gruppo Demistificazione Autoritarismo), which was founded in Milan in 1966, observed:

It is quite absurd at a time like this which is characterized by so many radical struggles by young people against authoritarianism, alienation and the division of labour, that no qualitative leap is being made in the direction of an analysis ... that discusses the position of men and women in relation to the division of labour and the rigid fixing of social roles .... You really have to ask why the anti-authoritarian movements don’t put this at the very heart of their struggles but instead remain locked into the mystique of the ‘political struggle’ .... It seems they are too involved in the male logic of the old culture they claim to be attacking.

The De Mau group was short-lived, but it was important in setting up one of the first women’s study groups. They studied the family as an institution which reproduced relations of dominance and subordination, adapting the theories of Reich, Marcuse and the Frankfurt School, and asserting the need for women to ‘define themselves’, instead of seeking integration into the dominant culture. They anticipated developments which led to the foundation of autonomous women’s organizations in 1970.

The setting up of formal organizations in the wake of the social movements (Rivolta Femminile and Movimento de Liberazione della Donna (MLD) in 1970, and Lotta Femminista in 1971-2), can partly be explained as a response parallel to that which led to the formation of so many political organizations at the time. Without the favourable conditions of mass mobilization, when small, informal collectives could be formed ‘spontaneously’ in workplaces and educational institutions, a greater degree of formalization was necessary. However, the response was even more a reaction to the rise of a neo-Leninism which seemed to reinstate authoritarian models. The feminist pioneers saw themselves as developing the anti-authoritarian politics of ‘68, and rekindling the ‘movementist’ spirit. Thus, the organizations they set up were very different in structure and methods of working from the others. As Lesley Caldwell has written, the earliest groups, until 1973-4, concentrated on the importance of the small group which practised consciousness-raising:

They attempted to confront the internal dynamics of what happens when groups of women meet together, i.e., a concentration on work within the group at a series of different levels .... So that a politics of the personal, of sexuality, of the body was organized around the possibility/feasibility of beginning to live differently now and according some weight to the relational aspect of masculinity and femininity.

It would be wrong to try and put all the various experiments in feminism into organizational boxes. In cities like Milan, there were complex webs of relationships, which owed their existence to experiences shared inside the social movement - from the acquaintance of ‘comrades’ to close friend- ships. These facilitated contacts, arranging meetings and so on. It was seldom a question of membership, as with the extra-parliamentary organizations, but rather a participation in intersecting networks and circles. Often a meeting-place, such as the women’s centre in via Cerubini in Milan, acted as a focal point where discussion would be combined with the search for new forms of sociality which did not involve men. Nonetheless, in the context of an intensely political subculture, tendencies were identified with organizations. One of the first consistently to discuss the issue of female sexuality was Rivolta Femminile.

The Manifesto of Rivolta Femminile, published in July 1970, is one of the key founding documents of the Italian women’s movement. It was uncompromising about the need for autonomy at a time when other organizations, such as MLD, were still open to men. It starts:

Women must not be defined in relation to men. Consciousness of this underpins both our struggle and our freedom. Man is not the model to be aspired to in women’s process of self-discovery .... Equality is an ideological attempt to enslave women further.

The Manifesto denounces marriage as an institution of male domination, and declares feminism to be the ‘first political stage of a historical critique ‘of the family and society’. Unpaid domestic labour is identified as the work which allows private and state capitalism to survive. Male control of women’s sexuality is rejected in the name of a ‘free sexuality in all its forms’, and the ‘right of all children to sexual play’, but the target of attack is not only the dominant ideology and institutions, but Marxism itself.

The importance of Rivolta Femminile lay in its pursuit of women’s liberation through a return to the sphere of the private, the subjective and the personal, which was seen as fundamental for understanding how power was exercised in society at large. Freedom and difference are counterposed to the idea of equality. The problems of sexuality and the family were brought to the centre of the stage. Carla Lonzi, a leading writer in the review Rivolta Femminile, developed a theory relating to sexual behaviour and forms of domination. She denounced the idea that sexual satisfaction could only, or primarily, be derived from penetration of the vagina, and canvassed stimulation of the clitoris as a way of freeing women’s pleasures from men’s control. Demands for contraception and abortion were framed in terms of increasing women’s control over their bodies and their sexuality.

The rigour with which Rivolta Femminile brought the personal to bear on every issue, and the lucidity of their analyses made many other groupings take them seriously, though it was not until 1972-3 that the themes they addressed were discussed more generally within the movement. Even then, as one feminist recalls, ‘We had no words for talking about our sexuality, and to speak of our personal problems as crucial during a meeting seemed absurd.

However, it was through rethinking the body as the site of identity and power, with the help of books such as the Boston Women’s Health Collective’s Our Bodies, Ourselves (translated into Italian in 1974), that its relegation to the ‘private’, and, therefore, ‘apolitical’, was challenged. Women’s experience and the practice of starting from one’s own experience and everyday life was counter-posed to a politics saturated in ideological formulations. Instead of a politics in which the problem was defined in terms of state power, feminism proposed a new politics based on the transformation of everyday social relations. Thus, it gave a specific content to the rather abstract notions of prefigurative and direct action propagated by the student movement.

The part played by Lotta Femminista in the formative years of the Italian women’s movement has been largely identified with their responsibility for the ‘wages for housework’ demand. While other feminists explored the cultural and social dimensions of women’s oppression, the Lotta Femminista collectives focused their attention on the ‘material’, economic exploitation of women in the home, which, they said, underpinned all the other aspects of their situation. Their analyses are reminiscent of the Pisan Theses, which had been so influential in the students’ , movement, and which helped make operaist Marxism a vital strand of thought in the social movements in the following decade. The Lotta Femminista analysis was simple but novel in its application. It applied Marxist categories to the role of women (as housewives and mothers) in the reproduction of labour-power, and claimed that a vast amount of surplus value was being extracted by capital from the female proletariat. The ordinary woman’s position was, in many respects, seen as analogous to that of the prostitute, only she did not even get paid for her services. The demand for wages was, therefore, essential for the ‘recomposition’ of the proletariat. In the 1971 Programmatic Manifesto of Housewives in the Neighbourhood, Lotta Femminista put forward the vision of a society in which the state would pay men and women for housework. There would be a neighbourhood canteen, a drastic reduction in working hours, the elimination of unpleasant work and night shifts, and the building of free and beautiful houses. A utopia fully in the tradition of 1960s utopian thinking.

In retrospect, the Lotta Femminista approach seems reductively economic. It bears all the hallmarks of a Marxism which is being used to make sense of social processes without relinquishing or adding to the categories supplied by reading Capital or the Grundrisse. Moreover, as Andre’ Gorz has observed, the demand to extend waged relationships into every area of people’s lives (thereby reinforcing the operaist idea of society as a factory) is not necessarily likely to improve their quality:

The logical conclusion of this argument is that professional prostitution is an advance over the traditional couple, and that women’s liberation requires the transfer of all family-based tasks to the public services. Emancipation will be consummated only when the full-scale statisation of relations has eliminated the family as the last vestige of civil society. This line in demands obviously conflicts with the struggle to redefine relations within couples and to achieve a balanced, freely chosen distribution of household tasks between equal male and female partners.

Nonetheless, the ‘wages for housework’ campaign provoked a consider- able debate internationally as well as in Italy, and brought the issue of domestic labour to the centre of attention.

While acknowledging the validity of criticism made of Lotta Femminista, it needs to be said that they tackled problems which were crucial. As Maria Rosa Dalla Costa’s pamphlet The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community shows, their analysis of housework and reproduction brought them to propose and theorize political action , around the problems of housing, transport and nurseries, which the main organizations of the Left treated as mere adjuncts to the struggles in the factory. They took up the campaigns of the prostitutes, who had other- wise been regarded only as victims. However, the relative marginalization of Lotta Femminista within the Italian women’s movement stemmed from their tendency to bring everything back to the ‘fundamentals’ of economic exploitation at a time when feminists were trying to deal with the complexities of relations at every level in society. While Lotta Femminista’s demands remained on paper, the activities of the radical democratic wing of the movement had much more resonance.

The Movimento de Liberazione della Donna put forward a programme in June 1970 which combined elements of the anti-authoritarian politics of ‘68 with the perspectives of the Radical Party, to which it was formally affiliated. Unlike the Marxists, they stated that it was no longer relevant in advanced industrial societies to distinguish between struggles in the ‘structure’ (economic) and struggles in the ‘superstructure’ (ideological). They were all equally valid, and liberation had to be in all spheres of life. MLD’s demands were divided into four sections: firstly, those aiming to win for women the right to control their own bodies (free contraception, legalization and liberalization of abortion with the provision of free medical services); secondly, demands against ‘psychological conditioning and models of behaviour’ (elimination of gender discrimination in schools, attacks on myths, such as the ‘ideal mother’); thirdly, demands for the elimination of economic exploitation (socialization of services, socially controlled public nurseries); and fourthly, legal equalities (civil disobedience against sexual discrimination, against male authoritarianism e.g. surnames, proposals for laws using the referendum). This perspective was important because it promoted a fight against the ‘values and behaviour’ of a society which was described as ‘patriarchal’ and ‘clerical’, as well as capitalist. Furthermore, it put forward a line of action which was neither integrationalist not purely anti-institutional, but envisaged law-making as well as law-breaking.

A radical secular culture and politics has traditionally been weak within Italian society. It has been squeezed between the forces of the Church and Christian Democracy, on the one hand, and the forces of the Communist Party on the other. Although the PCI had an honourable record in resisting Fascism and actively campaigned against repression in the wake of the 1968-9 movements, it has also shared a certain antipathy for liberal thought, which was in part common to the extra-parliamentary Left as well.

In the 1960s, radical opinion was represented primarily through publications like the magazine L’Espresso, rather than through formal political structures; the Radical Party was not refounded until 1967 (after its dissolution four years earlier). Radicals, moreover, played no significant role, as an organization, in the 1968-9 movements. However, they were well-placed to take advantage of the liberatory impulses coursing through Italian society.

The Radical Party itself had a flexible federal structure which was open to collectives as well as individuals who wanted to join it for a limited period and over specific single-issue campaigns. Unlike the democratic centralism of Leninist organizations, this allowed for a sensitivity to demands and pressure coming from social movements ‘on their own terms’. The Radicals developed anti-authoritarianism and demands for greater civil liberties - demands which other organizations treated as deviations from the class struggle. They drew on ideas coming from the United States, where the movements of women’s liberation and gay liberation were well-established before they had any counterparts in Italy. Although they remained a small force numerically, during the first half of the 1970s the Radicals took a number of crucial initiatives in conjunction with the embryonic new social movements. The most important of these centred on the issue of women’s rights.

Growth of a Mass Movement: The Abortion Campaign

The campaign in favour of divorce and abortion, and against sexual violence, which became key political issues in the mid seventies, marked a new stage in the development of feminism in Italy. The activities of the small groups, which were based on the attempt to re-think politics starting from women’s ‘otherness’ (for example, consciousness-raising), were overtaken by ‘public’ events in the traditional political arena. The sudden and massive growth in the women’s movement, which followed the extra-parliamentary Left’s adoption of the MLD’s initiatives, was problematic in many respects for the early pioneers. Rivolta Femminile, for example, rejected the very notions of equality within the male-defined institutions and polity. The idea of the family, which a sizeable part of the pro-divorce lobby said would be strengthened by defending the laws against attacks from the Church, was anathema to these feminists. It looked as if the new politics would be taken over by male-dominated parties and organizations. However, it was out of these conflicts that feminism developed, while the organizations of the New Left, which emerged out of 1968, found themselves riven by contradictions.

The demand for the right to have an abortion as ‘a woman’s right to choose’ was promoted by CISA (Centro Italiano Sterilizzazione e Aborto), following the efforts of the MLD to gain support for a campaign initiated in 1971. Of all the mobilizations, action on abortion was perhaps the most significant for the creation of a mass feminist movement. Demonstrations were enormous; in 1975, demonstrations mobilized a maximum of twenty-five thousand, while in 1976 the number rose to one hundred thousand. The collection of signatures (five hundred thousand were needed to call a referendum) ended by getting the support of some eight hundred thousand people. Furthermore, women organized ‘illegal’ abortions, and the denounced themselves publicly (autodenuncia). Abortion was a single issue, but it was one which embodied in microcosm a whole set of social conflicts.

The practice of civil disobedience and illegality brought activists into confrontation with the authorities, and challenged established procedures and values. They revealed a continuity with the ideas of direct action, control and self-management, and movement, which went back to 1968- 9. However, mobilization took off by using the referendum, which was a citizen’s right guaranteed by the Constitution. It was, in fact, the Christian Democratic Party which wanted to repeal the divorce law of 1970 that first decided to use the referendum, but it subsequently became a crucial weapon for fighting battles over civil rights. Not since 1968 had there been such a revival in grassroots political activity. But the feminist approach to the abortion issue gave a new dimension to the struggle against the authoritarian power structures in society by showing how they were organized by men and through masculine discourses.

The demand for women’s right to free and safe abortion was not exclusive to Italy in the mid seventies, and was common to several countries of the industrialized West. However, it had great implications in Italy because of the power of the Church (through the Christian Democratic Party) in relation to legislation as well as moral attitudes more generally:

The Church’s attitude to the family, in particular its insistence on the primacy of reproduction and the rejection of sexuality, has helped to create and justify a repressive set of formulations . .. and even the construction of laws which distinguish the importance of crimes according to whether they are committed by men or women.

The price paid by women was very great; in 1974, the weekly Panorama reported that all women had either had an abortion or knew of a friend who had. In circumstances in which contraceptives were not widely available, and ignorance about sex was widespread due to lack of education in schools, abortions functioned as a form of birth control. This phenomenon was not new, but was the product of centuries - a largely unspoken and yet pervasive reality, which testified to an extreme discrepancy between legal and official discourses, and women’s experience. In the eyes of the Church, abortion was a terrible sin, and for the state it was a crime punishable by a five-year sentence. But in the mid seventies, the private, individual and clandestine ‘solution’ was no longer tolerable to many thousands of women, who publicly protested their sense of outrage.

It was this dramatic emergence into the public sphere of personal experience not previously regarded as political which made the campaign over abortion quite unlike the mobilizations over labour contracts or educational reform. The role of the pioneering feminists was crucial in this respect; they prepared and anticipated the sudden diffusion of conscious- ness-raising, the search for new vocabularies with which to speak about women’s experiences, and the exploration of group dynamics. The very repressiveness of the Italian situation created conditions favourable to the making of connections between the issue of abortion and a whole complex of social relations. In Lesley Caldwell’s words:

The connections between abortion and procreation, between abortion and sexuality, between our ideas of ourselves as mothers and as sexual beings were opened up. Some groups drew parallels between the violence of abortion and the ways in which, at some level, we live heterosexual encounters and penetration as violence .... Others . , . looked at the way women live their sexuality linked to their biological potential for motherhood and what its implications are; motherhood as something both desired and refused .... They also linked our conscious and unconscious attitudes to this potential to the social conditions that prevent it happening.

In short, feminist politics transformed abortions from being a civil rights issue into a struggle over how power was being exercised in society. This process involved not just the state or the Church as institutions, but the ‘micro’ relations of power in everyday life.

Through mass mobilizations and a campaign of civil disobedience over abortion, the women’s movement established itself as a national force. Political parties looked for ways of responding to the challenge. Above all, the parties of the Left, particularly the PCI, sought to present bills which navigated the dangerous waters between the demands of the movement (and their echoes within their women’s sections), and the anxieties of Christian Democratic opinion. When, however, the legislation legalizing abortion was eventually passed in 1978, the law bore all the hallmarks of an unfavourable compromise.

A number of clauses limited women’s right to choose by making it compulsory to consult with a doctor or social worker, instituting a seven- day period for reflection, and requiring parental permission for those under eighteen. Most importantly, medical staff were given the right to conscientious objection, and this clause was effectively used by powerful opponents within the hospitals to make it extremely difficult for women to have legal abortions. In other words, the mass movement and the majority vote in the referendum counted for little when their demands were translated into the language and procedures of the institutions. As Gianna Pomata has written, the logic of the party system underpinned the ‘systematic collusion between medical corporatism and state power’; the predominantly male doctors had been given the function by the state of supervising the social control of reproduction and the exercise of power over the female patient.

Although the abortion legislation of 1978 did marginally improve women’s situation, and opened up some space within the institutions for further struggles, the results were largely delusory. However, the strength of the movement derived from its roots in civil society and its autonomy from the established representative organizations, the parties and unions. The legislative stage had always been regarded as secondary by many in the movement. In this sense, it was very different from the earlier historical movement for women’s suffrage, which focused its energies on opening up the institutions to women voters and had a firm belief in parliamentary democracy. The movement in the mid seventies was permeated by a deep antipathy for the state, disillusion with parliamentary institutions seemingly incapable of real reforms, and a suspicion of laws in general, as exemplified by the campaign around rape in 1978-9, which took little interest in actual drafting of legislation.

Instead, much more importance was attached to what could be verified, controlled, changed directly; to what was concrete and easily identifiable. In relation to medical provision, for instance, the movement worked for its own health centres created ‘by and for women’. The organizational structures the movement had given itself were not therefore, dependent on what happened in parliament. When mobilization around abortion subsided in the late seventies, organization around the issue, which had given rise to a dense network of collectives, ad hoc bodies and friendships, survived; although the movement ceased to be a force vis a’ vis the political system, it continued to be a social force.

The mass movement at a national level had anyway been characterized by particularism, localism and pluralism in its forms of organization and action. Feminists organized around questions of health, sexuality and childcare, and sought to work through their own situations at work or in the community, rather than just through general mobilizations. Bookshops such as the Libreria delle Donne set up in Milan in 1975, or reviews, like Sotto Sopra, were run by cooperatives designed to be ‘autonomous’ from immediate commercial methods and objectives, while health clinics were often self-managed and ‘autonomous’ from state provision. For the movement, the abortion issue had been crucial because it stood for a whole experience of oppression and injustice; the struggle by women for control of their own bodies was important, moreover, for establishing a sense of identity. It was a starting point for a redefinition of the objects and methods of political action and not an isolated single issue. The struggle for control of biological functions involved criticizing dominant values in society, and how these were articulated in medical, religious and political discourses. Abortion, contraception, and health care focused challenges which ultimately questioned how the ‘body politic’ itself was constituted.

Women and the Unions

The women’s movement of the 1970s was mainly composed of women from middle-class families who had gone through further education. The student movement had been the principal political experience of the pioneers of Italian feminism. While the ‘emancipationist’ tradition was still strong within the Communist and Socialist Parties and trade unions, the new feminism was largely brought in from outside in the mid seventies. That is to say, it was the women in the extra-parliamentary organizations and the women officials in the unions who acted as intermediaries between the movement and women workers. This spread of the movement and its entry (albeit with schizophrenic consequences) into the institutions of the labour movement distinguished the Italian experience from many others. This is particularly well shown by the relationship between the women’s movement and the unions in Milan. Here, the role of women identified with the ‘union Left’ (sinistra sindacale) was especially important, notably in a section of the metalworkers’ union, the FIM-CISL. They were active in the education, research and training work of the union, which expanded considerably in the early 1970s and in the 150-Hours Scheme. This brought them into contact with large numbers of shop-floor delegates, and with ordinary workers wanting to catch up on their education.

The key figure in bringing ideas of the women’s movement into the factories, however, were the women delegates. With the help of the various organizers, they were responsible for setting up women’s collectives within sections of the unions, and in establishing women’s commissions in factory councils and coordinating bodies that cut across the confederations. In 1976-7, many autonomous women’s groupings grew up in this way. Usually these efforts to get together as women met with hostility; when the Coordinamento delle Donne met in Milan it was denounced by some officials as a ‘sex talking-shop’. This was not surprising since a whole set of assumptions about trade unionism were being called in question, and normal procedures were being broken (women-only meetings, for example, were seen as divisive). The iconography of the workers’ movement and the accepted forms of discourses were no longer taken as natural.

One of the first public signs of the new feminism within the unions was the presence of several women speakers on the platform making ‘collective interventions’ at union conferences. Then, at demonstrations, women workers organized themselves in separate contingents. They carried multi- coloured banners (instead of the obligatory red ones), shouted feminist slogans and publicly celebrated sisterhood in a context which had traditionally defined itself in terms of fraternity. And in the workplace too, women held meetings separately from the men in order to talk about their own particular problems and build up confidence in themselves. There was a sense that women had to express their opinions and feelings in their own words, rather than seeking always to follow men. In fact, feminine modes of speaking and listening were counter-posed to the masculine. An account of a woman trade union organizer reveals the discovery of a new identity through language:

It was through listening to a male leader that I too would succeed sooner or later in speaking in the same way; starting calmly, to put people at their ease, accelerating with a slow accumulation of facts and then stirring denunciation of exploitation, and culminating in a rapid crescendo, enumerating struggles and initiatives .... Later, I came to see that my words had no sound . . . it was as if I was mute among other women .... Then, I spoke in my own words, laughed, got worked up, contradicted myself.

Within the unions, the application of feminist critiques meant taking apart the abstract definitions of democracy and participation which had come out of the movements of 1968-9. It was becoming clear that most of the demands and gains had not been as egalitarian as everyone proclaimed. Women’s wages were on average 12 per cent lower than those of men, while 67 per cent of women as opposed to 23 per cent of male workers were in the lowest grades. They had the worst paid, least skilled jobs and little opportunity to become more qualified. Whereas following the Hot Autumn the representation of un-skilled and semi-skilled male workers increased greatly, women remained heavily under-represented: for example, a mere 6 out of 185 officials of the metalworkers’ unions in Lombardy in 1972 were women. However, it was not until the 1970s that they began systematically to criticize the unions for ignoring their needs and aspirations. Women workers too had, in one way or another, accepted a definition of themselves in terms of class and not gender. The language and frames of reference of the unions tended to exclude or stigmatize anything which seemed to encourage division or promote differences between workers. According to their rhetoric, all workers were equal. It took the growth of a mass women’s movement in society at large to stimulate and encourage criticisms of union traditions.

Much of the initial impulse behind the criticisms came from within the union Left, which extended an existing repertoire of analyses to examine women’s situation in the modern factory. Demands around wage equalization, the reduction of grades and the elimination of piece-work, which had previously been related to the semi-skilled worker in general, were applied specifically to women workers. The issues of health and safety, and childcare provision were especially important in establishing connections between the different aspects of women’s lives. Furthermore, the analyses of the operaist tradition, which had shown that machinery and technology was not neutral but designed to subordinate the worker, were re-thought to show how they were man-made for men, and therefore excluded women from the labour process. In short, a tradition of rank- and-file militancy forged in the 1960s, and propagated by the extra- parliamentary organizations, was adapted to express the disaffection of a generation of women worker activists, who organized independently of the unions’ formal structures.

For the activists of the women’s coordinating groups, the union was still the preferred means of bringing about social change; in this respect, their outlook was fully consistent with that of the union Left. However, for feminists, it was not simply a matter of adding ‘women’s issues’ to the union’s agenda. The women’s movement had developed ways of looking at the world that subverted deep-rooted assumptions about the centrality of waged work to projects of social change. It pointed to the contradictions between women’s values and desires, and those sanctioned in the world of work. Paolo Piva, an official of the metalworkers’ federation noted:

Leaving aside domestic tasks, we find our specific nature in our sexuality and maternity, which we do not know how to incorporate into the strategy of the working class. We experience these doubts . .. in personal ways in relation to maternity. From time to time, we discover a desire in ourselves to have children, which we have to suppress, or we start to feel that in the end this work is ‘not for us’. It is then that we remember there exists a barrier which divides production from maternity. The two processes develop in separate cycles - cycles which come into conflict and are the more highly prized for excluding one another.

Traditionally, women activists had had to conform to the dictates of a ‘man’s world’, and needed to be ‘superwomen’ to stand on an equal footing with male unionists. What the new feminism proposed, however, was that the work situation should be changed to accommodate the different needs and rhythms of women’s lives.

This vision proved difficult to translate into concrete terms. A book entitled Acqua in Gabbia (Caged Water), written by two women organizers, is interesting in that it gives a strong sense of women’s estrangement from the unions in the late seventies. The water metaphor is evoked to counter-pose woman as natural force/movement/life to the cages men construct around their lives. While this recourse to ‘essences’ played an important part in establishing women’s identity (again, it is the body which is the site and symbol for this), it tended to provide a means for condemning the existing state of things rather than for elaborating an alternative. Yet the implications for change were fundamental.

A series of demands, from the call for paid time-off for childcare for both men and women, to proposals for job-sharing and more part-time work, suggested the desire for a drastic reorganization of working hours. Feminist arguments started from the premises that waged work was not the only or most important form of activity, and that it should be subordinated to human needs, and not vice versa. Behind this approach lay a utopia - the dream of a society in which people had much greater control of their time - but it also raised more immediate questions about part- time and flexible working. For the unions, however, this was tantamount to heresy or ‘playing the bosses’ game’, since they were campaigning for more rigidly defined hours within the framework of a fixed working week. Such ideas, it was said, were all very well for intellectuals, but not for workers. The authors of Acqua in Gabbia replied:

Yet, women workers don’t only have material needs [i.e. the full wage]. It could be that, on the contrary there is an uneven but positive search to satisfy other needs … many want to do other more stimulating things and to do them straight away, as their participation in the 150-Hours Scheme show .... The real drama is that, while the contradiction between consciousness of the right to live better and the deterioration of working and living conditions gets sharper, the union offers a regressive solution to the problem.

However, the utopian discourse implicit in feminist writings like Acqua in Gabbia (which, because it records interviews and discussions with women workers, reflects a more diffuse current of opinion than that of the organizers themselves) sprang up in hard times. From 1976, if not before, the union leaderships were more attentive to the pressures of party politics than to the demands of their rank-and-file, not to mention the new social movements. Their response to the economic crisis following the oil price rise was to concentrate on bread-and-butter issues, and, in the name of realism, to avoid more ambitious and risky projects. While there was a flurry of conferences, inquiries and committees on the ‘women’s question’, demands for paternity leave, fixed quotas of jobs for women, and for changes in production processes designed to accommodate women, went by the board. Nor was the language of realism exclusive to the male leadership. A new generation of women organizers stressed the need to work within the institutions, while those who looked to the women’s movement found themselves increasingly isolated. The great hope in the unions, and the labour movement more generally, as a vehicle for women’s liberation was eclipsed.

Feminism and the Crisis of the Left

1978 marked a collapse and fragmentation of the social movements and collective action. The anniversary of ‘68 was more a burial service attended by the so-called veterans than a moment of revival. The disintegration of the New Left, the integration of the unions into the political system, the PCI’s historic compromise and forfeiture of its oppositional role, the demise of the movement of ‘77 and the momentary ascendancy of the Red Brigades, were so many markers in a desolate political landscape. The term ‘riflusso’ (the reflux) was often used to indicate that the tide had turned, and that a historic phase was over. The women’s movement, too, was deeply affected by this political climate; circuits of information were interrupted and intersecting circles of friendship and acquaintance split apart. In fact the period 1978-80 became known as the ‘years of silence’ (Gli anni del silenzio). The feeling that great changes could be carried through by collective mobilization was weakened by prevailing doubts and uncertainties. Yet, while the feminist project suffered from the crisis, it was not itself at the centre of that crisis; and it was precisely this distance from the dominant forms of oppositional politics, which were the main victims, that made the movement the carrier of hopes for a future regeneration of social movements in the following decade.

During the mid seventies the women’s movement had, to some extent, already exercised this function in relation to certain social groups. The formation of a gay movement in Italy owed much to feminist examples (consciousness-raising, critiques of Left politics, social support), and its influence was also felt in parts of the youth movement. Its power was such that it was able to provoke an irreversible crisis in the organizations of the New Left by attacking their authoritarianism and affirming the priority of ‘movement’ over ‘organization’.” Its own qualities as a movement consisted of its loose, informal structures (sovereignty of open meetings, small groups); its stress on means rather than ends, and on prefigurative and direct action; and its preference for personal and ‘natural’ forms of speech and behaviour. In a sense, the women’s movement spoke to all those wanting to go back to an anti-authoritarian, ‘movementist’ politics. Moreover, the women’s movement represented a potential alternative politics to that of the workers’ movement. The differences between the practices of the women’s and workers’ movements are succinctly summarized by Alberto Melucci:

The women’s movement affirms a different freedom; it is no longer freedom from need, but the freedom to need: no longer the struggle for equality, but for difference; no longer the freedom to act, but the freedom to be. The rupture and discontinuity with the Marxist and workers’ movement tradition appear irreparable.

He argues that the questions raised by the women’s movement have effectively displaced those elaborated over the years by the workers’ movement:

It is perhaps not clear what point we have reached, but the questions of identity and difference, the precedence given to the right to be over the right to act, and the demand for living spaces free of society’s checks and interference . . . are destined to occupy a key position in the field of social conflicts.

While the feminist movement has been a movement of and for women, its effects have transformed the field of political and social action, as shown by the impact of Elena Giannini Belotti’s book, Little Girls. This study of the socialization of girls in Italy, which was published by Feltrinelli in 1973 and sold 450,000 copies, running into twelve editions, owed a great deal to 1968, giving a new edge to arguments first presented by J.S. Mill:

Legal equality, equal wages, access to all possible professions, are sacrosanct objectives which have been offered to women - at least on paper - at the moment when men have deemed it right. These rights will, however, remain inaccessible to most women until such a time as the psychological structures which prevent them from wanting and being able to appropriate these rights are modified .... The need to realize and affirm oneself as an individual, the desire for autonomy and independence which women are reproached for lacking, have already been severely shaken in women by the time the fundamental choices of adolescence have to be made.

As Alain Touraine writes, the consequences of feminism were felt by anyone comtemplating radical social change:

The women’s movement is a movement of liberation not only of women but of men by women. One of the most basic aspects is its opposition to all military and financial models of organization .... It represents a will to organize one’s life, to form personal relationships, to love and be loved, to have a child ....

It is this capacity of the feminist movement to generate new ways of looking at society, and to draw new maps with which to make sense of everyday realities, that has made observers see it as so significant a force for change. It appears (in Raymond Williams’ words) as an ‘emergent cultural form’, creating ‘new meanings and values, new practices, new significances and experiences’. Perhaps not since the formative years of the workers’ movement has there been such an interrogation of the ground-rules and language of politics. If in its early years feminism borrowed the vocabulary of ‘class politics’ - as suggested by the titles of some of its publications (Il compagno padrone, Comrade Boss; La donna sfruttata, Exploited Women) - it subsequently developed its own analyses with which to understand the particular power of men in society, through, for example, the concept of patriarchy. Psychoanalysis was especially important as an alternative to Marxism. Moreover, feminists created a new awareness of the implications of the pervasiveness of a masculine discourse of war within the Left, as seen in the terminology full of ‘fronts’, ‘lines’, ‘battles’ and the glorification of aggression. In addition, the whole notion of unity, which was often as important to the heretics as to the more established Left, was put in question. The diversity, pluralism and differences between and within the movements was made into a virtue; in the words of Anna Rossi-Doria concerning the fragmentation of the movement: ‘The aim is not to be “different" from what is “normal”, but rather to discover “normality” in difference’.

However, the idea of difference was developed within the women’s movement only after it had broken with the traditional discourse of the Left. The initial keywords were not new, except in their inflection, as with ‘emancipation’ and ‘separation’, or in their insertion into a new context as with ‘liberation’ and ‘autonomy’. The whole style of the early discourse of the movement was typical of the Left; it was

full of assertions, permeated with value judgements, and often consisted of demands. The principal preoccupation was that of adapting well-known categories to a new situation, introducing a new ‘object’ of discourse without dispensing with existing categories, as in the case of the specificity of women’s struggle within class struggle. The protagonists who spoke did not reveal themselves in what they said, made very little use of the first person, and frequent use of impersonal forms or the equally impersonal ‘we’. The interlocutor was generally an opponent - men, the institutions, the patriarchal order. It was rare for there to be a meta-discourse. Irony and ambiguity were entirely lacking.

Feminist discourse only developed original forms with the shift of the orientation from the ‘external’ (demonstrations, action in the neighbour- hood) to one centred on the ‘internal’ (consciousness-raising). In addition to the sessions of consciousness-raising, this appeared through forms such as diaries, letters, personal accounts and individual reflections on collective activities. Above all, it was the definition of a new subjectivity that was at stake - the discovery of the first person ‘I’, and an awareness of the inseparable relationship of language and social dynamics. However, there were usually two phases: an initial phase characterized by ‘solidarity among women’, in which a common identity was affirmed; and a subsequent one in which differences emerged, often exploding as contra- dictions within collectives. For some women, this transition was seen in terms of loss and destructiveness, but for many others it meant going beyond the limitations of a situation in which ‘the more subjective and experiential the discourse, the more it became indistinguishable from the most abstract and ideological forms of discourse’. Ultimately the refusal to speak because of the feeling that words failed to represent an inner identity showed up the limits of language, an important realization that was ‘not necessarily irrational or mystical but something common to everyone’s experience’. A movement which began by asserting the priority of voicing opinions and naming problems without a name found itself confronting the gap between the individual and the collective and between words and the non-verbal.

There seem nonetheless to be homologies between the development of the social movements in the 1970s and that of the women’s movement, which is hardly surprising given that their history was a shared one. The shifts in discourse discussed above had parallels within the extra-parliamentary Left; for example, the newspaper Lotta Continua made its letters page into a forum for individual testimonies in 1976-7. The questions of subjectivity and difference were widely debated. However, this development was part of a crisis for the Left, whereas for feminism it also represented an evolution of a current of thought and activity which went back to the origins of the movement.

This difference between the feminist movement and other movements had important consequences for the future. All the social movements went into decline after 1978, and collective mobilization in the 1980s never reached the levels of the previous decade. However, the women’s movement did not so much collapse as change its forms; ‘Women renounced political organization in order to survive. The history of the 1980s, marked by the abandonment of political confrontation with the institutions and by the search for new politics, has its background in the dispersion of feminism into a thousand little streams at the end of the 1970s’. Some continuity existed in the survival of collectives and consciousness-raising, but this now represented one type of feminism rather than a form of organization common to the movement as a whole.

Indeed the movement ceased to be a public force, with organizations that demanded to be recognized by parties and institutions. Instead it constituted an ‘area’ with its latent, submerged structures. Informal networks replaced national organizations and even the historic Unione delle Donne Italiane, established under PCI auspices after the war, dissolved itself on the grounds that its national and centralized structures were incompatible with the local realities of the movement. The 1980s saw the redefinition and recycling of skills, contacts and resources developed through the movement in the previous decade on the part of the first and second generation feminists. New professions emerged, especially in the service sector connected with health, and in the media. Feminists began to supply goods and services for a market they had helped to create. Above all, energies were channelled into professional activities and pragmatically making small changes rather than into mobilizing around demands for changes in state provision or legislation. Otherwise activists tended to take their feminist politics into other movements which developed in the 1980s, such as the ecology and peace movements.

Measured in narrow political terms, the women’s movement of the 1970s can be judged a failure and the turn away from traditional political concerns in the following decade can be interpreted as a consequence of this. By 1988 still only 7 per cent of the deputies in Italy were women, while the history of the implementation of the abortion law showed the power of sabotage on the part of vested interests in the medical profession. It is also arguable that it was a failure for which the movement was in some measure responsible; like other movements after 1968, its anti- parliamentarism was counter-productive when it came to proposing and enforcing legislative changes. However, the movement only concentrated on challenging the political system for the brief period of the mobilization over abortion. Its impact can best be seen not in relation to the political system but with reference to its effects on ‘cultural codes and its capacity to produce "other” meanings for society as a whole’.

If it is at all possible to speak of 1968 as opening the door on a cultural revolution in Italy, then feminism perhaps has the best claim to be the most influential agent of that change. However, the changes brought about by feminism have often been called ‘molecular’ because of the difficulty of identifying them with single events or actions. It is precisely its uncodified and everyday features which have made feminism important, as can be seen in relation to the question of language. While it is extremely unlikely that sexism in language can be effectively legislated against, for a number of reasons to do with the nature of language as a system as well as the Fascist associations of puristic prescriptivism, the new awareness of the linguistic dimensions of sexual inequalities points to the way in which feminism has questioned the most taken-for-granted assumptions. How exactly changes can be brought about in the use of language is difficult to say, yet, as Giulio Lepschy writes, the struggle to abolish unjust distinctions between men and women also has implications for how language is used: ‘It is possible to argue that, once the legal possibility exists for women to occupy a certain function, the lack of a term appropriate to indicate that function with reference to women is one of the cultural elements which, however marginally, may hamper them in their progress. Such developments might seem insignificant when compared with the aspirations of the movement. In fact, in so far as feminism shared the illusion of 1970s that social transformation could be immediate and total, it fell victim to the spiral of disillusionment and despair that affected other movements. However, it is the penetration of feminist ideas into every area of society and their effects on everyday lives which suggests that this movement, more than any other has represented an anticipation of future changes in society and the promise for a renewal of oppositional politics.