Italy – Aspirations Of Italian Women

YOU are going to write something about the aspirations of Italian women, Signorina? But every Italian woman has one and the same aspiration husband and home.” This was the declaration made to me only a few days ago by a very intelligent young Italian lady who had taken the degree of letters from the University of Bologna and has now entered on a professional career in America. There was merriment in her eyes, but sincerity in her tone as we went on to discuss the position of women in Italy before and after the war. And her frankness like that of many other Italian women in Italy with whom I have talked helped me to shape these impressions. I call them “impressions” designedly, for on such a subject statistical evidence is naturally not available and daily contact and patient observation must combine for personal conclusions. I had a chance to talk with types of women as different as a peasant living in a straw-hut and the philanthropic daughter of the head of the Ministry. But even after all such exchange of ideas, I feel that my “impressions” are so personal that in the be-ginning I must emphasize that they are just my own.

When I keep hearing people repeat the truism, “the war has made such a difference in the position of women in Italy,” I wonder if they realize that these new steps towards freedom are only a return to the prestige and power which the matronae Romanae enjoyed in the Republic and the Empire. There are two illuminating and delightful essays by Frank Frost Abbott in his book “Society and Politics in Ancient Rome,” which assemble some of the striking facts about women in public affairs in the time of the Republic and in trades and professions during the early Empire. It is amusing to read how in 195 B. C., the women of Rome were tired of war-time regulations about expensive clothing and joy-rides in their chariots and to secure a repeal of the law passed after the battle of Cannae did some peaceable picketing around the forum, and assailed the doors of certain high officials opposed to them until their op-position was withdrawn. A nobler cause for the feminist movement came in 43 B. C., when before the menace of war with Brutus and Cassius after Caesar’s death, the Triumvirs demanded that the richest women evaluate their property and make large contributions to the state. It was then that the women, led by Hortensia, appeared in the forum before the Triumvirs’ Tribunal and declared that they would contribute to a war against a foreign enemy, but never to a civil war; and moreover that they should not be asked to pay taxes when they had no share in the government. We do not wonder when we hear of such concerted action of women, that individuals played a great part in politics through political marriages and brilliant salons, or that the hands of a Cornelia, a Clodia, a Julia, an Octavia, a Scribonia, a Servilia, a Fulvia could for a time shape the affairs of the world.

Moreover political prestige was supplemented or perhaps founded on the economic independence which many women achieved by the middle of the first century B. C. For the old strict control which the head of a house exercised over life and possessions of the family, the patria potestas, became virtually a dead letter so that a woman of wealth under the nominal control of husband or guardian held her own property and with it the prestige which possession of wealth gives.

With such new economic freedom of the Roman matronae, went along a beginning of aspiration for work, so that we find women attempting to practise medicine and law even when they had to disguise them-selves as men or be called “Men-women,” securing emotional satisfaction in orgiastic religious rites, expressing themselves occasionally in literature and on the stage, in the mimes, and even entering into the trades and controlling such a large business as that of the making of bricks.

Now through the vicissitudes of the ages it seems that women in Italy have not advanced tremendously beyond the freedom which they held in the late republic and early empire. As for property-owning, now after marriage the husband holds all his wife’s property under his own name so that before the law the Italian matrona is not economically independent. Moreover, to an observer during a winter in Rome, it did not seem that individual women were playing a part in politics by indirect influence. Of course recently a law has been passed extending the suffrage to women but it is necessary to have another decree before it can become operative, so that as yet the women have not exercised their right or been tested as citizens.

In the professions, there are some women doctors and more nurses, some lawyers and many in office work. Women are finding self-expression by acting in both comedy and tragedy and by singing in grand opera, and there are writers of such distinction as Grazia Deledda, Matilde Serao and Ada Negri. But the greatest opportunity for Italian women at present is in the field of education; and in this many are engaged, one even holding a professorship in Law in the University of Rome.

Aspiration is not, however, measured by attainment and in the after-war Italian world perhaps the greatest advance for women is in the forward look. Of course we must remember that in general the progressive women are in the city centers and that in the country districts, especially in the south, there is much general illiteracy, and the position of women is unaltered in attainment or vision. Yet as I visited a village of capanne or straw-huts near Monte Circeo and as I watched in different country regions the peasants working in the fields or gathering the olives or working on the vintage, I was impressed by their vigorous healthy bodies and by the way in which men and women shared their work, shoulder to shoulder, and still I hear across the meadows the soft responsive strains of the stornello, the song of peasant to peasant made out of their joint labors.

So in the little story I have told under the proverb, “Due cuori, una capanna,” I have tried to show the normal happiness of “the sun-burned wife of the industrious Apulian.” And for all classes of society in Italy I believe that the family is still the center of the woman’s life. At the other end of the social scale from life in the capanne, the young women of rank are passing through a transitional period now, for after the new freedom that they gained in war work, many as nurses, they find it difficult to tolerate arranged marriages, or marriages in which husbands may have the old conventional ideas of the woman’s sphere being limited by the home. They wish to go on with some of the lines of work in which they became interested and they wish to see a door of escape open by divorce from marriage which proves disastrous. But the difficulties of a love marriage for the highborn Italian girl are many : she must think of rank and parentage, of religion and convention. And she must realize that whatever the aspiration of thinking Italian women towards greater freedom in matrimony, the Church has planted its foot so firmly against divorce that there cannot now be experiments in the bonds of wedlock.

Some young women of the upper and middle classes are happily and tactfully solving their desires for both homes and for a more active life by continuing after marriage their social service work for the ex-soldiers, for the blind, for the children of dead soldiers or of the poor and for women who need to be taught industrial arts. All the handiwork under the patronage of great ladies from stencilled gowns to the lace-making of Burano has its fine place in economic reconstruction of women’s work. The work for the mutilati and the tubercular and the blind soldiers is a sacred national duty. But most important of all work for the future to which women can turn their hands is the work for the children.

I talked with a woman doctor, herself glowing with life and the mother of a family, who was the director of an open-air school for children just outside of Milan and saw her photographs of instruction in care of the silk-worm, of the raising of grain, of horticulture, of the care of animals. In Florence, I visited the Dispensary of San Domenico where under an Italian doctor, Italian and American women are working together for better health conditions in a rural district and are sending a visiting nurse out to the homes where there is need. In Rome, I talked with Mr. John Gray, treasurer of the Italian-American Committee for Assistance to Children and learned the details of their work in maintaining in country districts those Asili Infantili or Kindergarten Schools where little children are looked after and fed during the day while their parents are working in the fields. Only one who has visited the little towns in the Abruzzi Mountains or the Pomptine Marshes can appreciate the conditions in which the Italian babies have to live without such care. In Rome also Donna Enrichetta Chiaraviglio-Giolitti told me of the ideals and work of the Italian “Scuola pratica di assistenza all’ Infanzia” on the Via S. Gregorio al Celio. Founded in 1911 the school has maintained from the first the aims of diminishing infant mortality and raising health standards for children by actual care of destitute babies, by clinics for poor mothers and by instruction in the care of infants. At present the work of the Scuola includes a laboratory, a school for instruction in the care of children and in domestic economy, an asylum for children, clinics for mothers and children, visiting of homes. Two special features of interest are the courses for “little Mothers,” in which simple instruction in infant hygiene is given to the little girls from the upper classes of the elementary schools so that they can help their mothers at home more intelligently and the courses for visiting nurses and rural school-teachers. When I talked with Donna Chiaraviglio-Giolitti of the work of our Children’s Bureau in America, she said to me with tears in her eyes : “We know all that you have done in America for the children, and as yet we are only making a beginning here, but we hope to do much more as time goes on. We know the need.”

Working along the same lines is the unique School for Visiting Nurses on the Via Manin in Rome. These organizations I have mentioned are simply illustrations of the sort of work for children that has been started in Italy and a proof of the growing field here opening to women. So conscious indeed are the Italian women themselves of the importance of the children in a nation’s life that in the pages of “Il Giornale della Donna” I read a proposition that just as the government demands eighteen months’ military service of men, there should be a conscription of all women for education in care of children.

Not only such educational work has developed apace since the war, but there has been a great increase in the numbers of women demanding the best possible education and flocking to the Universities. Italy may well be proud of the fact that her Universities have never been closed to women and that through all her history, she has thus recognized the intellectual equality of women, while in a democracy like America, we have the peculiar anomaly that the political status of woman as a citizen has been established before her right to the same educational opportunities as men has been demonstrated by the opening to her of all higher institutions of learning. In Italy in elementary education there are separate schools for girls and boys but after this there are mixed schools for secondary and advanced education. A notable exception to this has been the special college to prepare women for teaching, the “Istituto Superiore di Magistero Femminile.” For this a preparation of ten years is necessary (four in the elementary school, three in the complementare, three in the nor-male) and the course in the Magistero demands four years more. The diploma of these institutions gives the right to teach in the scuole elementari, complementari and normali, but preference even here is given to those women who hold the laurea (or doctor’s degree) from the Universities and the graduates of these Istituti may not teach in the ginnasi or the licei and it is recognized that the work of the Magistero is not so advanced as that of the Universities. For these reasons a number of the women with whom I talked think that these special institutions for the separate education of women will not be continued much longer since women more and more prefer to attend the universities. Other women and some men told me that the conservatism of many Italian parents will still prefer to have separate education for their adolescent daughters.

For preparation for the Universities two kinds of training are possible according to the courses to be pursued. To enter the faculties of Law, Philosophy, Belles-Lettres and Medicine in the Universities a candidate must attend a ginnasio for five years, a liceo for three, and have an education which includes the study of Greek and Latin; to enter the Faculty of Sciences in the Universities and the schools of engineering, a candidate may go to ginnasio and liceo (with the classical training) or to a scuola tecnica for three years and an istituto tecnico for four years and omitting the Classics devote more time to modern languages. There is also a well organized commercial course with two secondary schools with terms of three and four years and an advanced course corresponding to university work, and there are industrial schools and schools of agriculture.

It is natural to find more women in the Universities taking the literary course than any other, but some are studying engineering, medicine, and law, and many are working in chemistry, especially in applied chemistry.

It is interesting to learn that in the University of Rome there are several women acting as assistants in physics and chemistry and one woman professor who teaches philosophy of law. Italian women taught in the Universities in the Rinascimento and continue to do so to-day.

The greatest lack in the education of Italian women today, seems to be in physical education. Italian men receive physical training in their period of required military service, but in the system of education there is virtually no account taken of the health side. The majority of Italian schools have no garden even, and there are no study-halls, only recitation rooms, so that space for exercise is lacking. In Rome there were last year three trained nurses working in the schools and the School for Visiting Nurses on the Via Manin, started during the war by the American Red Cross, is planned to promote just such work. Certain industries in Milan and Turin have gymnasiums for women employees and crèches for children, but Rome has done nothing yet along this line, in which a tremendous field of pioneer work lies open to Italian women.

Personally, I am inclined to think that along these lines of work for children and in education lie the greatest satisfactions at present for the aspirations of Italian women. The suffrage is too new and untried an asset to make the political world as yet a great opportunity. In the field of literature, writing is so poorly recompensed and the reading public for Italian books so limited, that rarely can any Italian man or woman make a living by the pen. In the socalled learned professions as in every country the numbers of women are still bound to be comparatively small. But in the field of the care of children and the education of the young, Italian women have a great tradition and a great future. America has out-distanced Italy in child hygiene and physical education for women. Italy anticipated America in her national recognition of the fact that “woman having received from her Creator the same intellectual constitution as man, has the same right as man to intellectual culture and development.” It is beautifully fitting that in the pioneer American college for women, founded by Matthew Vassar, who wrote these words, a great stained-glass window in the library opposite the entrance door should depict the conferring of the Doctorate by the University of Padua in the seventeenth century upon a distinguished young Venetian woman. As the rays of the setting sun slant through this noble memorial to the Lady Elena Lucrezia Cornaro-Piscopia, may the gay, young American girls passing below from book-shelves to reading-tables lift their eyes to a thought of the beauty of learning and the honor due it, and may they across seas share with the women of Italy one of their immemorial aspirations.