As a student who studied abroad in Florence, Italy, I have become fascinated in Italian culture. Living with an Italian host family and being around Italians, I have come to realize that the mother figure in every household is considered to be at the top of the familial hierarchy. The mother figure worked every day and came home to cook dinner every night. In addition, they cleaned the house, took care of the kids, and did the laundry for everyone. Italians are also known for defending their mothers when they have been criticized. To learn more about the Italian Feminist culture, I chose the book, The Crisis-Woman: Body Politics and the Modern Woman in Fascist Italy, by Natasha V. Chang.
During the time of World War I, Italy decided to join the Allies as method to create a sense of nation in order to promote nation cohesion by having Italians fight for their own country as well as benefits of new land that would come with winning the war. With the Allies’ victory, Italy was on the winning side, however, they did not receive any benefits that they were promised. With Italy being in an economic crisis and being on the verge of chaos, Mussolini came into power as the fascist party. The fascist party had their emphasis rooted in Italian nationalism and their desire to restore and expand Italian territories after the war.
At the same time, the idea of donna-crisi or crisis-woman emerged in Italy as a result of the aftermath of World War I. Chang’s primary argument is that the donna-crisi was an object of negativity, which portrayed the sterile and changing social roles of women that went against the ideals of the healthy and fertile fascist party. The Italian nation’s rate of industrialization and urbanization increased as a result of rapid growth of consumerism and mass culture that women began to occupy more visible positions in the public sphere and in the workplace (10). The notion was due to economic necessity rather than a desire to improve the condition of women in Italy.
Together, on the sociocultural front, the emergence of the modern woman came about, which was being supported by the strengthening market of Italian feminist campaigns. The modern woman was sought out to be a positive figure that raised concerns for issues such as suffrage, admission for women to higher education, wage equality, as well as support for mothers and pregnant women. Mussolini emphasized the idea of Italian nationalism and perceived women as child bearers who should be honored to be the reproducers of the nation. Therefore, the fascist party viewed the newly established notion of the modern woman as a threat to the nation.
The Italian modern woman took up activities that were traditionally considered to be male activities, such as smoking cigarettes in public, wearing pants, and driving a car at top speed. Fascist saw the Italian modern woman as a dangerous figure because they were cosmopolitan women depicted as extremely thin and consequently sterile body that were a deviant masculinization of the naturally curvy and fertile female body, which also portrayed non-domestic and non-maternal ideals. The modern women went against Fascists’ interest and were a threat to the regime because they caused a threat to the biological ability to bear health children and to her social inclination to do so. As a result, the term donna-crisi was coined by the Fascist party as a propaganda campaign against unhealthy, non-fascist images of the modern woman because they threaten the nation as a whole (13). Since thinness of the female body lead to sterility, if the idea of crisis-woman were left unaddressed, it would contribute to a rapidly declining birth rate and result in the weakening and the death of the Italian nation.
Since many characteristic of the modern woman challenged the traditional gender norms, Chang argues that she was represented negatively by the Fascist party because, ironically, I believe that this was due the concept that the modern women held such great power in determining the future of the Italian nation. The Fascist propaganda manufactured two female images, which included donna-crisi and donna-madre, when translated means mother-woman. The donna-madre was a national woman who was portrayed as robust and able to bear a child. Knowing how the culture functions in today’s society, I see that the idea behind donna-madre still exists in the Italian household. Italians view mothers in the household as important figures that maintain and keep the house together. The donna-crisi became a figure that represented a range of anxieties that included changing social roles of the urban woman to the decline of stable racial boundaries between the Italian nation and its colonies.
Chang explains that the construction of a crisis in Italy was parallel to the construction of the female body. The body was a crucial instrument of control that affected the future of the Italian nation. The Italian nation was a body that needed to be protected and defended which operated on the principle of building a cohesive nation by building the bodies of individuals, which was the power of childbearing through the bodies of women. As a result, I feel that the female body was seen as the center of great dangers as well as great potentials.
To support her argument, Chang explored Italian texts about the fashion industry of Italy in her book that depicted the representations of the modern woman. Chang investigated an Italian fashion magazine, Lidel, which published an article describing the liberated modern woman as being transformed (24). The modern woman is a new woman that is independent, physically active, and sensuously reveals her body by wearing clothing that exposed of her arms and legs. In the same article, it continues to mention a metamorphosis of the female body by writing about a woman who stained her clothes and later return looking “immacolata” or immaculate (26). It was revealed that the women just simply removed her dress and put it on backwards.
Chang explains that this body of text erases the traditional signs of sexual differences, the idea that the dress is cut the same in the front and in the back, which does not suggest a woman’s anatomical difference from a man. Additionally, luxury fashion trends became highly assessable for the lower class, which resulted in a rise of the new middle class that made it difficult to distinguish between the economic classes. In the Fascist party’s eye, the blurring of the lines between class differences was a danger to the nation. Chang used the basis of this notion to explore the fashion industry in order to explain that the sterility and distasteful masculine attributes of the crisis-woman, which caused anxiety and placed a fear of changing gender roles in the Fascist party.
Throughout the text, Chang explores the scientific discourse in terms of the crisis-woman. In her research, she found scientific studies that concerned the physical characteristics of a prolific woman in terms of distance between the shoulders and distance between the hips. The researcher of this study, Nicola Pende, reported his finding that the fertile maternal type of woman has hips that are broader than her shoulders where as less fertile non-maternal women has broader shoulder and narrower hips (46). Here, the physical structure of the less fertile non-maternal woman has similar anatomy associated with male bodies. Chang argues that the skeletal feature of the crisis-woman created political anxieties about the waning demographic power of the nation due to the notion behind less fertile women. As a result, it would lead to the decline of the Italian nation if females were unable to bear children. Overall, Chang claims throughout her book that the image of donna-crisi does not reflect or describe a crisis as simple as the social, economic, and historical realities of Italy, but rather the figure must be examined by the role that she plays in Fascist ideology.
A major strength in Chang’s arguments is that she used important context such as the fashion industry and scientific research in order to support her claims. Since Italy is known as an important fashion industry and that the term “made in Italy” has a positive connotation, using the fashion industry to support her claims helped her made her arguments more relevant. Additionally, using scientific findings also allowed her claims to be justified in a world that has many credentials. A major weakness in her argument is that it does not consider the idea of other culture that may come into play. The idea of the crisis-woman seemed very dominated by the racial preference of white individuals. Seeing that I had recently visited Italy, I know that there is a wide variety of different cultural background that exists. Without consideration of other cultural backgrounds, Chang does not examine other factors that may come into play for women of different backgrounds. Overall, the idea of crisis-woman is very interesting to me, especially seeing how the Italian culture is today in terms of the power that mother figures in the household has.
Natasha V. Chang is a visiting assistant professor in the Department of Comparative Literature and is the Dean of Brainerd Commons at Middlebury College. She teaches courses primarily in Italian language, literature, culture, and history. Her research interest includes twentieth-century Italian literature and culture with emphasis on gender studies.
Chang, Natasha V. The Crisis-Woman : Body Politics And The Modern Woman In Fascist Italy. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, Scholarly Publishing Division, 2014. eBook Academic Collection (EBSCOhost). Web. 19 Feb. 2016.