by Lisa Settari
Image credits: ArteCarlaColombo
Like virtually every other aspect of our lives, the ways in which we commemorate and celebrate important occasions has changed with the pandemic. However – and luckily – for the second year in a row, Italians have found alternative and safe ways to honour Liberation Day on 25 April. This year’s Liberation Day marks the 76th anniversary of the end of fascism in Italy and the German occupation in a part of the country. From 1922 until 1945, Benito Mussolini’s fascist regime dictated Italy’s politics and society and was of course an antisemitic, racist, sexist, homophobic, ableist and warmongering ideology that imposed unutterable terror and misery on the Italian people, and especially minorities. When the regime definitely began to collapse in April 1945, it was in part due to an active Resistance movement, in which ordinary people from all sorts of backgrounds were engaged as partisans, or “partigiani” in Italian. While they were driven by the same overall goal – the end of fascism and World War Two – members of the Resistance movement differed in their socio-economic status, profession and political or religious beliefs. Organised in often locally concentrated groups, they opposed fascist and German forces, notably through guerrilla warfare and sabotage operations. Once the war was over, former partisans and supporters of the Resistance played a crucial role in the rebuilding of an Italian state, and in the creation of a new constitution, which was strongly influenced by their values, such as democracy, human rights, dignity, liberty and equality.
The Italian Resistance has thus been elevated to a kind of founding myth of the Italian republic – however, this heritage is not unequivocally embraced by everyone in Italy’s colourful political world. For instance, far-right populist politician and former Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, has repeatedly snubbed the occasion of Liberation Day. Still, millions of people commemorated the day in 2021. They may have watched the official ceremony on a screen, or prime minister Mario Draghi’s speech, remembered a family member who was active in the Resistance or a victim of fascism, or they may have simply sung “Bella Ciao”. The song has been the unofficial anthem of 25 April for decades, before it became known to a much wider public thanks to various dance remixes in recent years, or the series “Casa de Papel”(Money Heist).
While the memory of Liberation Day and the Resistance movement is alive and well in Italy, the crucial role women played in the latter is often overlooked. Women were active members of the Resistance movement and made essential contributions to the struggle for liberation, as some historians have shown. (ANPI 2016). Importantly, their role was not limited to supporting male partisans, through nursing or nurturing. While many women did engage in those sorts of activities, and in doing so, saved the lives of other partisans, thousands more were directly involved in fighting and sabotage. According to ANPI, the National Association of Italian Partisans, around 35,000 women fought in partisan units, and 1,070 died in combat, while 4,653 were arrested and tortured because of their activism, more than 2,750 were deported to Germany, and 2,812 were executed, shot or hung, as a result (ANPI 2016). As former partisan Carlo Smuraglia records, female partisans did not simply “support” men – instead, they were active in every layer of the movement, and thereby made themselves indispensable (Menapace 2014). Historians Bravo and Bruzzone highlight that those women deserve to be celebrated because they could easily have used their gender as an excuse to stay out of the message Resistance business – but they chose not to (ANPI 2016).
One partisan category which was largely dominated by women were the so-called “staffette”, which means relay runners. Staffette were mostly young women, who assured the links between different partisan units, or partisans and civil society, including their loved ones at home. Faithful to their name, staffette were essentially moving about all the time, bringing food, medicine, messages, weapons and explosives, clandestine press, false documents or civilian clothes to partisans in hiding, often in the mountains or forests. They also checked nearby towns for fascist or German troops. Due to common social stereotypes, young women were considered less suspicious, so they often managed to pass controls with double bottom bags and baskets stuffed with forbidden items without being found out. At the same time, however, staffette exposed themselves to huge risk – they were most often unarmed and not instructed in self-defence or fighting methods, and thus extremely vulnerable. Where did those girls and young women find the courage to take such risks? Lidia Menapace, a former staffetta active in the Piedmont region of northern Italy, who passed away in December 2020 due to COVID-19, wrote an honest and personal book about those years in her life, during which she juggled her literature studies and the struggle for liberation. Her answer to this question is nothing short of heroic: “You need to have the courage not to be frightened, and to help make the place where we live as humane as possible” (Menapace 2014). In her book, Menapace repeatedly suggests that she felt like she had no choice – actively resisting the fascist regime was simply the only acceptable thing to do. Even if that meant risking her own life – like when she helped a young Jewish man to escape from prison and escorted him to the Swiss border: “[…] in April 1944 I had to escort a young man to Luino, and I first had to get him out of a prison in Novara. He was Jewish and had been arrested on the tram in Milan, by chance really, and was then for whatever reason taken to prison in Novara. […] I already had experience with this procedure: with the help of doctors who had connections to the Resistance movement, I had him transferred from prison to hospital, and he got a certificate stating that he could not go back to prison because of his health condition. Then I waited for the right time for the escape. His mother informed relatives in Switzerland about the handover in Luino. […] I arrived at the hospital just before the end of the curfew, on my bike and with another bike in my right hand. The guy came out of the door, and we headed towards Luino. We had quite a bit of pedalling ahead of us” (Menapace 2014). Other women involved in the Resistance have also written books detailing their experiences. In her book “The White Bread”, former partisan Nora Brambilla Pesce shares her experiences with the “Women’s Defence Groups for Assistance to Freedom Fighters”, an institution close to the Communist Party, which provided a space for women to assert themselves as political actors and visionaries.
As historian Anna Bravo writes, the Resistance movement was a historical first opportunity for women’s democratic politicisation. However, women’s participation in the Resistance Movement did not go unopposed (ANPI 2016). What is especially disappointing is the fact that some of this opposition came from within the Resistance movement. While many male partisans were driven by high ideals and wanted to radically change Italian society, the movement as a whole was highly male-dominated and reflected patriarchal structures which were then, and continue to be, part of Italian society to this day. Not for the first time in history, female participation seems to have been taken for granted while it was needed, yet soon afterwards, many of the male protagonists of the liberation struggle were happy to dismiss their contribution. “One question concerning the Resistance, which has not been solved in its historiography”, Menapace wrote, “is the one on the acknowledgement of the role of women.” Contemporary observers reported how male partisans tried to exclude their female fellows from marching with them during the victory parades across the country after liberation. As Beppe Fenoglio recalls, in the lead-up to the big day, some male partisans tried to make the women stay out of the display of victory – but they “told them to f*** themselves and took to the cities”. He also rights that some bystanders cried out “Poor Italy!” as they saw uniformed female partisans parading with their rifles. (Fenoglio 2015). Similarly, Lidia Menapace recalled that “It is known that when the big rally was organised in Milan after we had been liberated, Boldrini and Parri [male partisan leaders] and many others didn’t allow women to take part in it. Togliatti [idem] said that it was better for women not to be part of the rally because ‘the people wouldn’t have understood’, a phrase which is frequently used to stop women from doing things. What precisely it was that was supposedly so difficult to understand, I don’t know. […] I’m convinced that the leaders of the Resistance simply didn’t want to share their power and representation with the women and claimed it all for themselves. Under such conditions, we weren’t off to a good start.”
Seven decades later, various historians and ANPI honour the memory of these women and their efforts explicitly. Indeed, ANPI represents a refreshing example of a nationwide, well-respected organisation that displays a genuine willingness to challenge sexism and gender-based discrimination in a country that desperately needs that. On its website, the organisation has collected more than 3,000 biographical entries of partisans, both men and women. ANPI also recently appointed its first female president, Carla Nespolo in 2017.
So far, the antifascist liberation struggle, female suffrage in 1946, and the 1948 constitution establishing the legal equality of men and women have all failed to break the long-dating patriarchal structures in Italian society. The struggle for gender equality, and the visibility of women’s contributions to just causes and their moral courage, is ongoing. By remembering the sacrifices and efforts of women of the past and present, and by spreading the word, we can all help strive for equality. Ideally, of course, every single day, but especially on 25 April. Buona Liberazione!
- ANPI. 2016. Le donne nella Resistenza. Associazione Nazionale Partigiani d’Italia. Available at: https://www.anpi.it/storia/196/le-donne-nella-resistenza [Accessed 10 April 2021].
- ANPI. 2016. Gruppi di difesa della donna – GDD. Associazione Nazionale Partigiani d’Italia. Available at: https://www.anpi.it/storia/198/gruppi-di-difesa-della-donna-gdd [Accessed 10 April 2021].
- ANPI. 2016. Staffette. Associazione Nazionale Partigiani d’Italia. Available at: https://www.anpi.it/storia/199/staffette [Accessed 10 April 2021].
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Lisa Settari is a Politics graduate from the University of Edinburgh, currently works as a language teacher in France and will finally dedicate her full attention to gender studies as a postgraduate student this autumn. She grew up in northern Italy and first tried on the feminist lens as an undergraduate student. She has not taken it off since, and manifests her convictions in articles, podcasts, daily debates, marches and the like.