Italy, Women in the Resistance during World War II (Home Front)

Role of women in the antifascist and anti-Nazi resistance in Italy during World War II. In 1943, the Italian Resistance came to life when the Fascist Grand Council removed Benito Mussolini from power in July. Women, who constituted 105,000 out of a total 250,000 Italian partisans, struggled against fascism by caring for Resistance fighters, assisting Jews, acting as messengers, and fighting. Approximately 4,600 women were arrested; 2,750 were deported to German concentration camps; and 623 died at the hands of Italian fascists or the Germans. After the war, 17 were awarded the gold medal of valor (De Grazia 1992; Slaughter 1997).

To understand the role of women in the Resistance, one must first understand the Resistance itself. In 1943, there were two competing governments in Italy, the monarchical government under the new premier, Marshal Pietro Badoglio, that had fled to southern Italy, and the German occupiers, who reimposed Mussolini in northern Italy in the puppet Italian Social Republic. As the Allies advanced north, political parties banned by Mussolini in the 1920s—the Communist Party, the Socialists, and the Christian Democrats—and the new Action Party began to form independent Resistance units, which were tied together by the National Committee for the Liberation of Northern Italy.

Italian leftists had fought against fascism during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). Within Italy, World War II, Mussolini’s alliance with Adolf Hitler, and the behavior of the Germans in Italy, especially after the deposition of Mussolini, created a "crisis of conscience" (Slaughter 1997) that affected women as well as men. In November 1943, the Women’s Defense Groups formed in Milan as a component of the National Committee for the Liberation of Northern Italy. Although much of women’s participation tended to be grassroots mobilization, women’s groups such as the Union of Italian Catholic Women, Union of Italian Women, Women’s Movement of Christian Democracy, and Center of Italian Women helped to institutionalize and to legitimize women’s political activity. The size of Italy’s Resistance movement and the massive involvement of women in it were unique in the Western European theater. Traditional roles of women in predominantly Catholic Italy as nurturers and the anchors of their families and communities ironically served as a catalyst for women’s involvement. Nevertheless, women, "unlike the men, for whom this was prescribed behavior" (Slaughter 1997, 70), had to make a very personal decision to take up the cause and to fight. They resisted not only fascism but social and religious stereotypes that had confined them to the private sphere. The complex role of women in the Resistance was at once a means of enacting their own citizenship while also remaining true to traditional family and religious values. Their roles as mothers, wives, and sisters undeniably affected their decisions to join their male counterparts in the fight for their country. By participating in the Resistance, they felt they were fulfilling their rightful place in society. Their participation was not so much for the state but for the family unit. Preserving community was something they had always done. Even the closeness of the big city blocks huddled around piazzas lent itself to the virtues of intuition, shrewdness, protectiveness, and other qualities of community ascribed to women in society (De Grazia, 1992).

By virtue of being female, Italian women performed crucial jobs in the Resistance. Former partisan Giovanna Zangrandi noted that while male partisans met secretly in participants’ homes, women were there in the kitchen. The women provided clothing, food, and medical supplies during the clandestine meetings. The most important role of women in the Resistance was communication and information. The ironic underestimation of women served as a natural disguise for collecting and moving munitions, supplies, and information essential to the cause. Given that they were underestimated by the establishment, women were natural choices to become staffette, or messengers. A seemingly pregnant woman would not be suspected of stuffing her clothes with pamphlets, Resistance newspapers, or even weapons. Male fascists did not hesitate to discuss politics and their plans in front of "uninterested" or "frivolous" women (Slaughter 1997). "The staffetta on her bicycle became the symbolic heroine [of the Resistance], fearlessly passing Nazi and Fascist checkpoints or eluding pursuit and capture" (Slaughter 1997, 53). Some 35,000 women participated as staffette.

Women who participated in the Resistance also served with the fighters, the partisans. The women partisans were guides, cooks, and clothes menders for mountain brigades. They also served as combatants and held formal rank. Most, however, were consigned to segregated quarters and were assigned functions ranging from "sabotage and single-strike activity to serving as auxiliaries for the Brigades, to recruiting, education and defending [their homes and neighborhoods]" (Slaughter 1997, 57).

Although some women participated in combat, they were primarily valued for and even relegated to gender-specific roles. Scholars analyzing the Resistance in Italy and other countries, such as Yugoslavia, note that there is a difference between "togetherness in combat" and "equality of roles." Gender differences held during the Resistance because "customary activities like food shopping and child care and feminine stereotypes of weakness and flirtation either hid or supported partisan activity" (Slaughter 1997, 53).

Italian resistance fighters who helped South African troops in Pistoia locate German snipers.

Italian resistance fighters who helped South African troops in Pistoia locate German snipers.

Women joined the original Women’s Defense Groups to help in the Resistance and organize for women’s emancipation, but emancipation took a backseat to the more urgent issue of war. The participation of women in the Italian Resistance during World War II affected female emancipation in Italy. Women were granted the right to vote after the war. In addition, the 1948 Italian constitution not only declared Italy to be a democratic republic "founded on work," it also guaranteed equal rights to all regardless of "sex, race, religion, political opinion, or personal and social conditions."

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