Women in fascist society were to be ‘submissive women and strong mothers’. At school and in fascist youth organisations this role was highly emphasised to young girls. For Mussolini, the ideal woman would be a peasant, living in the countryside, happy to raise her large family according to traditional values – much like his own wife, Rachele.
After the reconciliation between the church and the fascist regime, the aims and policies of Mussolini towards the family were strongly reinforced by Catholic teachings on issues such as motherhood, birth control and abortion. In 1930 Pope Pius XI issued a papal encyclical, Casti Conubi, to re-state the importance of parental authority and discipline in the home.
Fascist propaganda liked to denounce the slim, sophisticated modern woman, and idealised the rounded, maternal, submissive wife and mother, but many Italian women wanted to look like fashion models and films stars they saw at the cinema in magazines. Usually from America, this fuelled part of the fascist denouncement of the United States. Many Italian women were unwilling to accept their appointed position in society in the fascist regime.
Mussolini’s main motivation behind his attitude towards women was to ensure the increased production of babies. In his Italy, he pictured a vast Italian Empire, with a vast populace. The boys would grow up into fascist warriors and the girls would grow up to be fascist mothers.
To try and ensure that this happened, Mussolini introduced the ‘Battle for Births’ which was a similar initiative to the likes of his other ‘economic battles’ except this one was more social, although still heavily economical as well.
The ‘Battle’ was launched in 1925; the ONMI (National Organisation for Maternity and Infants) was set up to give advice to pre-natal mothers and help abandoned children. Seeming well intentioned, this organisation was set up primarily for the prevention of birth control and abortions, and in 1926 the laws against abortion were strengthened. Later that year a tax was introduced on unmarried men. It was not until 1927 that Mussolini officially announced his aims of his battle to increase the birth rate.
To encourage women to accept the ‘battle for births’, Mussolini offered financial inducements. Marriage loans were made available, and wives who gave birth to four children did not have to repay the loan. This is very similar to a policy implemented in Nazi Germany. Families which managed to produced ten children or more did not have to pay income tax, and being a father would be more useful on your CV than qualifications in Mussolini’s Italy, were you applying for the civil service. Large amounts of state funding were allocated to maternity care, and laws against divorce were tightened. Contraceptives and birth control were not prohibited but they were deeply discouraged by both the Fascist regime and the Catholic Church.
Despite comparisons between the policies towards women in Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, the results were enormously different. In Nazi Germany the rate o births did increase, but in Italy there seems to have been no real progress to the target. The policy was, for the most part, a failure – although it did help cement the relationship between the regime and the Catholic Church.
That said, the population did continue to increase, but this is probably because of advancements in medicine and the resulting fall in infant mortality rates. In fact, the birth rate actually went down, and the rate of marriages did not increase, and the average age at which women got married went up. The regime attempted in 1936 to address these short comings, but this proved equally ineffective.
As well as trying to turn women into mothers to increase the future population, Mussolini’s motivation behind this policy was also influenced by his ideological dislike of women being employed. Being a Fascist, and taking conservatism to an extreme, he seems to have had the ridiculous view that women were less capable than men, and accordingly should not be in employment. This is very similar to Hitler’s fascism, and both regimes made constant attempts to reduce women’s employment. Given the economic situation, it was very difficult to stop women working since many families needed two working parents to afford to pay for food for the family.
The regime was most effective in keeping women out of ‘white-collar jobs’ or the professions; women who had a university education could rarely find jobs which matched their talents and qualifications. The main reasons for this attitude towards women were the prejudices of the majority of fascist supports, who were mostly lower-class men who had sexist opinions of women and their ability to do the same jobs as men.
That said, the profession of teaching was still heavily populated by women, but they were not allowed to teach the ‘higher-level’ subjects such as history, classics and philosophy, and rarely would’ve been able to find work at a secondary school.
In 1933, the state introduced a quota system which limited the proportion of women in the public sector to 10%. In 1938 this was extended to the private sector, but employers found this incredibly difficult to comply with, so exceptions were made in 1939.
Outside of the professions and white collar jobs, the Fascist regime had little impact on working-class women. In 1921 women made up about 44% of the agricultural workforce and about 35% of the industrial workforce. During the fascist era numbers did drop, but not by any significant amount until 1931, and this was likely largely influenced by the Great Depression. This shows the marginal impact that the fascist regime had, although it was definitely a detriment to women’s employment and women’s rights in general.