Modern Italian feminism established itself in the early 1970s, expanding with remarkable strength and radicalism from its middle-class base to become a popular mobilization with an extensive network of activists throughout the organized labour movement. By the end of the decade, however, feminism was in decline; and the beginning of the 1980s saw it virtually disappear as a movement. It lost its visibility in political struggles and grew ever more fragmented and out of touch, as feminist activists increasingly committed their energies to private projects and experiences, whether of an individual or communal nature. Thus it was that the ‘new’ feminist movement, following the example of other ‘new social movements’ of the 1970s, evolved into just another form of lifestyle politics. At this time many attempted to account for the decline of these movements that had once aroused such optimism and political expectation, and in particular to question whether they had in fact disappeared or merely entered a period of inactivity.

Midway through the next decade, however, the picture changed again: the years 1983–84 witnessed an unexpected renewal of interest in feminist politics. Three developments were of particular significance: the revival of ‘cultural feminism’; the emergence of a new space for women in political parties and institutions; the beginning of a new cycle of trade-union feminism.

My account of these developments is set within a broad historical survey of the Italian women’s movement, the changing attitude of state policy, and the role of the labour movement. I briefly examine the nineteenth-century tradition, followed by the era of the First World War and the period of Fascism. I then outline the main developments between the Second World War and the 1960s, and provide a more detailed assessment of the 1970s, looking at the formation, growth and decline of the ‘new’ feminist movement. This narrative is primarily descriptive and somewhat tentative, since a more analytical account would require a greater fund of data about the movement than is presently available. My interpretation emphasizes the continuing importance of political and intellectual traditions in both the shaping of women’s demands and their mobilization, despite certain structural constraints that Italy shares with other industrialized countries. Two currents emerge as being particularly relevant in this regard: the close association between feminism and the Left, and the interrelation of difference and equality.

Despite some disagreements and tensions, feminism and socialism have never been in conflict in Italy, as they were in other industrializing countries at the end of the nineteenth century. This may be attributed to the social basis of Italian feminism: in most phases of its history, the movement has included women from different social backgrounds, both intellectuals and working-class activists. In this pattern we can also see the reproduction of a wider pattern of close contact between the Italian labour movement and other social movements, and of openness in the labour movement toward issues of cultural and political opposition originating outside the sphere of production. As regards the interrelation of difference and equality, in some capitalist countries the issues of women’s equality and women’s difference have been in apparent conflict since the end of the nine-teenth century, when the fact of women’s difference formed the basis of merely protective policies. In Italy by contrast, the dilemma of pursuing equal rights or protection, which tended to divide the socialist and feminist movements, failed to generate strong conflict; in fact, in a later phase the two currents would often intermix, with neither dominant. This absence of division was a notable feature in the immediate postwar years, and then again in the 1970s when the politics of difference were ascendant. Indeed, it remains a distinctive feature of contemporary Italian feminism, where the principles of both equality and difference have once again been strongly asserted. Whether this is ultimately a matter of intellectual and political confusion in the Italian experience, or a source of strength and vitality, is a question that I shall consider in analysing the ambiguous functioning of ‘difference’ as, on the one hand, a possible basis for neo-conservative protective policies, and, on the other, as the foundation for a more ambitious challenge to the sexual division of labour.

Feminist ideas and initiatives developed in Italy, as they did in other countries, during the last decades of the nineteenth century. Whereas elsewhere the relation between feminism and socialism tended to be controversial, with feminist currents within and outside the labour movement often in open conflict, in Italy no marked division existed, a pattern that has persisted to this day. The early unions were highly politicized, counting among their members many from the least privileged strata of the working class as well as a number of intellectuals—a fact especially relevant to the position of women and, in the longer term, to the relationship between feminism and socialism.

Industrialization in Italy occurred considerably later than in many European countries: in 1901, out of a labour force of 15.9 million (and a total population of 32.4 million) only 23 per cent worked in industry, with 62 per cent in agricultural labour.footnote1 Peculiar to Italy was the absence of intermediate strata between the small number of highly skilled workers, organized in ‘leagues’ with a long craft tradition, and the mass of young unskilled workers, for whom employment was more contingent. The industrialization process rapidly overwhelmed the old skilled sector and craft unionism was wiped out. The new broad-based trade unions which emerged tended to engage in struggles for general goals, and to represent the lower strata of workers. Since women workers, in Italy as elsewhere, were part of the new, unstable and low-ranking industrial proletariat, they benefited from this orientation of the unions’ policies. Most remarkable in this regard was the powerful agricultural union, at the turn of the century the largest labour organization in the country. Not only were women agricultural workers a significant factor in the orchestration of mass, rank-and-file mobilizations; they also held full-time posts in the union leadership. Argentina Altobelli, for several years the national president of the agricultural workers’ union, was one such case. Like many of the women union leaders at this time, Altobelli did not come from the rank and file, but was an intellectual—the Italian unions’ openness to outside intellectuals being an active encouragement to women to seek such positions.

In fact the general openness of Italian unions to outside intellectuals was a specific and unintended way in which women’s leadership positions were favoured. The recruitment of intellectuals in the labour movement always stood out as a distinctive broad movement always stood out as a distinctive broad characteristic of the Italian model. Michels himself considered it a key to understanding the political and ‘moral’ character of Italian socialism, as compared with the German and other European cases. The structural weakness of the Italian industrial working class and the importance of agriculture provided a setting for the development of a socialism with a much more heterogeneous class composition than was found elsewhere in Europe; this setting discouraged the emergence of a sectionalist trade unionism, favouring a more general, universalistic unionism instead. It alsofavoured the role of intellectuals as organizers, and their presence reinforced the ‘moral’, political character of the labour movement.footnote2