This article was first published in the Italian version of the Huffington Post on April 9, 2013.
By Ombretta Frau, associate professor of classics and Italian
Translated by Anne-Gabrielle Boucher '13
Time of Crisis? Let’s Nurture Ourselves with Literature
March 2011. I enter an elegant antiquarian bookshop in Turin. The bookseller kindly greets me and asks me if I'm looking for something in particular. I’m in Turin, the first Italian capital, to experience the first 150 years of united Italy. An Italy that, already before unification, had the vision to pass a law which provided (even if it was not always applied) the first three years of compulsory elementary education for boys and girls. An imperfect Italy, certainly, whose unity was cemented with blood, but where there was an optimistic atmosphere hard to discern in the faces of today’s Italians.
I ask the bookseller if he has a section dedicated to women writers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. He looks at me thoughtfully, reflects, and then: "But women in the nineteenth century didn’t write!" Yes, dear Mr. Bookseller, women wrote. And they read. And they published: essays, novels, short stories, poetry, and plays. And many of them right in post-unification Turin.
But who are they, you might ask yourself. They are the women who contributed to the history of Italian letters: the teachers, journalists, essayists, novelists, the founders and directors of magazines and newspapers. They are the “warriors” of equal rights that, a century before 1970s feminism, fought for many of those rights which the citizens of the third millennium take for granted: suffrage, divorce, the right to an education and a profession, decent working conditions, and freedom of thought and expression.
They fought for all these rights without making too much noise and without much hesitation, with a discreet and firm elegance. How? Even without the immediacy of Twitter and Facebook, these women used spaces such as “Letters to the Editor” or the “Penny Post” of magazines, essentially the email and tweets of today. The names? Many. Too many for the small space of a blog or even a book.
Apart from the few who managed to dismantle the high walls of masculine culture—Serao, Deledda, Aganoor—many women actively participated in the construction of the new Italy. I will recall to memory some, avoiding the well-known names (Aleramo, Kuliscioff) and running the same risk that Mara Antelling ran when, in 1903, she published a catalog of living women writers in the Almanacco Italiano Bemporad that aroused great controversy due to some inevitably missing names: Jolanda, Sofia Bisi Albini, Flavia Steno, Ida Baccini, Sfinge, Anna Franchi, Mantea, Emma Boghen Conigliani, Contessa Lara, Evelyn, Emma Perodi, and Anna Vertua Gentile.
For over 30 years a group of dedicated scholars in Italy, the United States, and the United Kingdom have dedicated their studies to the quiet rediscovery of these women through meetings, publications, and conferences. In these times of economic and political crisis, when mentioning female names for election to the Presidency of the Republic or even as Prime Minister is still, unfortunately, revolutionary, more and more often my students ask me what can be learned from studying literature from a century ago.
You learn how, with tenacity and enthusiasm, women overcame obstacles that were thought insurmountable. You learn how to profess the need for social changes of great significance even with modest means. That these means were less immediate than a Facebook page does not matter. They were pages, often drafted in houses and cottages of the remote Italian countryside and published in the headings of art and fashion used by Mara Antelling to carry out mini battles against laziness and against the unhealthy use of corsets. They were pages, such as in Catholic Jolanda’s works, hidden behind the conformist veil of books of manners to give her approval for divorce. There were pages of Marchesa Colombi’s short novel about the plight of the working conditions of mondine (rice field workers in Italy were traditionally women). Just three examples that tell us the importance of the social role assumed by the post-unification female intellectuals. Because literary studies also serve this social purpose. Let us not forget that.