Women and Italian Fascism: Lessons for the Contemporary World   

Reports of women joining far-right movements have vexed many feminist scholars across the world. Their presence in neo-fascist neo-Nazi movements raised many questions insofar as such movements tend to denigrate their basic rights. However, scholars agree that these are not new issues. There are studies that shed insights into how Italian women were cooped in the fascist programmes and how they were subjected to excruciating experiences.

Dr Anne Wingenter
Dr Anne Wingenter

Dr Anne Wingenter, Professor of History and Women’s Studies and Associate Dean of Academic Affairs at Loyola University, Chicago’s John Felice Rome Center, Italy, in a recent lecture on “Women and Italian fascism: What can the past teach us about the contemporary rise of militant nationalism?” organized by Vakkom Moulavi Memorial and Research Centre (VMMRC) spoke about the characteristics of Italian fascism that still have significance for understanding the contemporary far-right movements.

According to Dr Wingenter, fascism was never “a coherent ideology,” though complex and dangerous it was for the people who experienced its power and hegemony. She said fascism appeared to be different things to different people at different times and in different countries, and its very character depended on the particular circumstances and who the interlocutors were. She said that fascist narratives which gather momentum in different countries today can be countered by understanding the mechanisms with which the people of that category used to acquire power and maintain it through narratives. “Then we need to construct our counternarratives, our metaphors with an explicit vision,“ she added.

Dr Wingenter pointed out that in Italy, fascism emerged as a response to a longer-term ‘crisis of masculinity.’ It was a movement seeking the revolutionary acquisition of power by exploiting tensions and political weaknesses caused by the first world war and the Bolshevik revolution. Its immanent character was that of a paramilitary organization which, while unleashing violent attacks on political opponents, appealed to “embattled traditional elites.”

Even as the war-time categories/rhetoric were carried over, fascists also kept advancing ‘claims of victimization.’ Thus the ‘historic mission’ made out was to ‘restore glory’ which was also expounded as an ‘existential crisis.’ In the process, violence was seen as a necessary condition to target minorities. The idea of a ‘strongman’ was also at the core of fascist ideology. It was in this framework that the fascist ‘gender politics’ was articulated.

For Mussolini, “War is to man as maternity is to women,” Dr Wingenter noted. She said: “In his delegation of the Fascist Women’s Organization in October 1927, the advice was, “Go back home and tell the women that I need births, many births.” Mussolini saw women as “angels or demons, born to take care of the household, bear children, and make cuckolds.”

Dr Wingenter warned that “palingenetic nationalism today finds new expressions and forms in the far-right, resurgent ethnic-nationalisms with simultaneous appeals to religion and calls for violence.” Today, all such movements seek rejection of democratic institutions, while the ‘claims of victimization (even while in power) and ‘evocation of existential crisis’ continue to echo the slogans that featured in Italy under fascism. In response to a question, she said that “the national identity construction in the post-Soviet period was influenced at that time—not exclusively, but influenced by many far-right groups.  There was an affinity between certain kinds of nationalism and far-right groups—such groups also exist in Western Europe as well as in other parts of the former Soviet Union. The role of women in such societies was similar to the situation mentioned before (in Italy) where women were seen as symbols of purity, symbols of ethnic future of a particular nationalism as well as symbols of particular victimhood waiting for them if the country does not maintain its pure groups,” she said. Dr Wingenter pointed out that “people embrace fascism for different reasons” and we cannot apply the Italian situation anywhere else, as specific situations demand the different forms of fascism. She also noted that in the European case, the far-right movements are presenting themselves as saviours of women and this can come with or without, the side of racism, in Islamophobia.”

Dr A.K. Ramakrishnan, Professor of International Relations and Gender Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi chaired the session. Dr Michel Tharakan, Chairman, Kerala Council for Historical Research, Dr K. Ravi Raman State Planning Board Member, Dr V. Mathew Kurian, Joint Director, KN Raj Centre, Dr Abdel Latif, Cultural Advisor, Tawasul Europe Centre for Research and Dialogue, Rome, Dr K.M. Seethi, Sameer Muneer, and others spoke. Dr Shahina Javad welcomed.

Dr Wingenter’s most recent publications include “Benito Mussolini in Italian High School Textbooks” in a Springer volume, “Finding Subjectivities in Fascist Italy, in a Routledge volume; and the forthcoming paper on “Politics of Grief: War Widows and Mothers in Interwar Italy.”  Dr Wingenter is currently working on a project that looks at the city of Rome in the transition between “Hot” and Cold War.


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