Women and Italian Fascism by Tobias Abse

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					                                                                             \•, i •....'. Reviews                         < ' '                                                                                     239


          1 Ellen Chase, Tenant Friends in Old Deptford, London, 1929,173.  , ., .                                                                                                                           ,
          2 John Law, pseud., (Margaret Harkness), Captain Lobe, London, 1891,3.

                                         Women and Italian Fascism
                                             by Tobias Abse
PERRY R. WILLSON, The Clockwork Factory: Women and Work in Fascist Italy,
Oxford, 1993, pp. viii + 291, £35.

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 The Clockwork Factory is a remarkable book, combining rigorous and thorough
empirical research, of both traditional archivial and more innovative types, with an
extremely intelligent discussion of a broad range of issues concerning women,
workers, industrialists, scientific management, Italian fascism and the Italian
Resistance. Although the book originated in a doctoral thesis, it covers a far wider
spectrum of topics than many avowedly general texts about the fascist period - with
their concentration on political history and male experience- and, perhaps because
of the author's academic starting point as a student of modern languages, engages
with a much wider range of Italian secondary literature than the majority of
Anglo-American works on related questions, which-sometimes surreptitiously trade
on the Anglophone reader's ignorance of native scholarship. At the risk of arousing
Willson's own ire, given her considerable admiration for Luisa Passerini, I would
argue'that she has made a more significant contribution to our understanding of the
experience of Italian industrial workers during the fascist regime than the much cited
text Fascism in Popular Memory (Cambridge, 1987). Willson's study of the Magneti
Marelli light engineering factory in Sesto San' Giovanni, Milan's most famous
industrial suburb, during the years between 1919 and 1945 is an outstanding example
of what can be achieved through theoretically informed micro-history, amply
demonstrating that a commitment to 'history from below' in no way excludes abroad
understanding of economic, social and political transformations on the national and
in this case - given the detailed treatment of Fordism and Taylorism - indeed
international level.1 Rarely can an historian have combined such a sensitive
employment of oral testimony with such technical skill in making maximum use of
statistical information processed through the latest computer technology, which has
enabled such breakthroughs in factory level studies in-the last decade as Willson
acknowledges in her discussion of the Marghera research project, which inspired
some aspects of her own study. Generally oral historians, even those of the calibre of
Ronald Fraser and Luisa Passerini, attracted as they are by the beguiling notion of
exploring the complexities of human subjectivity through painstaking face-to-face
interviews and the curious workings of memory revealed by them, have little interest
in detailed statistical analysis of humdrum data like company files on employees,
whilst cliometricians with their desperate, sometimes insatiable, hunger for objec-
tively verifiable facts usually produce arid prose that shies away from any vestige of
the subjective, of the life experience of the individual human being. Whilst some
.   . .    • , - - . .   , i -   ,   -   .   ,   /   .   .   i   ,   •   :   .   ,   ,   .   .   •   •   .   .   • .   •     . i -   ,   .   .   .   .   '   .   .   :   •   •   ,   -   ,   .   ,   ,   .   .   .
240                           History Workshop Journal

might argue that Maurizio Gribaudi's Mondo operaio e mito operaio: Spazi e percorsi
sociali a Torino nel primo novecento (Turin, 1987) is broadly comparable in its
combination of the methodologies of statistical demography and oral history, such
far-reaching claims are undermined by Gribaudi's deployment of the frequently
distorting prism of a variant of modernisation theory, with its barely concealed
anti-Marxist agenda, through which the experience of a younger generation of
workers growing up under fascism is interpreted; it is of course no accident that
Gribaudi's focus is entirely on the male working class for as Willson's book makes
only too clear young female workers, whose lives were dominated by factory,
housework and family commitments, had little or no opportunity to develop an
individualistic mentality centred around new leisure pursuits during the fascist years.
Willson's book is the first detailed full-length local monograph on the Italian working
class under fascism that gives due weight to women's experience of the factory; it is
also the first book in English on the experience of Italian women during the fascist

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period to give due weight to the experience of working class women, since Victoria
De Grazia's major study How Fascism Ruled Women: Italy 1922-1945 (Berkeley and
Los Angeles, 1992) is heavily weighted towards the experience of educated middle
class women. The vast abyss between the Americanisation of women's leisure, the
changes in female fashion and the increasing female participation rate in higher
education discussed in meticulous detail by De Grazia and the harsh quotidian reality
of the life of Sesto factory girls in the fascist period is most poignantly exemplified by
the intensely vivid recall one of Willson's female informants had of the one day of
freedom she and her female friends achieved in their entire youth when they
managed to escape to the cinema by pretending to their families to be setting off for
work on a day when they were temporarily laid off (p. 210).
    It would be misleading to argue that the Magneti Marelli factory was in some
sense a microcosm of Italian industry as a whole and Willson never seeks to do this -
if anything she is perhaps a little too cautious about generalising. The Magneti
Marelli is interesting precisely because of its atypicality. It had a roughly even
balance between female and male workers in a sector - engineering - that had
traditionally been a male preserve. This enables Willson to explore trie important
role of gender in the allocation of various types of work - some tasks were considered
too skilled and others too heavy or too dirty for women - and the relationship
between female and male workers within one factor - albeit a partially segregated
one with an almost exclusively female winding shop - in a way which would have
been impossible if she had studied the almost exclusively female textile mills where
the bulk of female factory workers were concentrated in this period. Similarly the
management's rather thoroughgoing adaptation of Fordist, Taylorist and even
neo-Taylorist ideas to Italian realities at a time when in most Italian factories
'scientific management' was merely a euphemism for wage-cutting, speed-up and the
adoption of the Bedaux system, makes it easier to discuss the nature of the
relationship between changes in the organisation of work and in the labour force on
the one hand and a political environment in which the working class had no access to
either political democracy or free trade unions on the other. The experience of
Magneti Marelli should serve to indicate that, contrary to the dogmatic line devised
by Togliatti and repeated by many subsequent writers, there was no necessary
linkage between Italian fascism and backward or archaic sections of the economy -
the leading figures in thisfirm- Benni, the Quintavalle brothers - were all dedicated
fascists until 1938, and in some cases remained so until the end. As Willson points out
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'it is evident that Magneti was run by men who were closely implicated in the Fascist
regime, and they in turn benefitted from it both in the sense of winning government
orders for their products and of enjoying a union-free atmosphere which gave them
great room for manoeuvre with the work force' (p. 33). Willson demonstrates, with a
battery of statistics, that, contrary to the traditional stereotypes about male
industrial labour forces being far more stable than female ones, the female workers
at Magneti Marelli tended to stay with the firm for far longer than their male
counterparts and, after analysing a variety of factors including both the availability
of, and wage rates in, other work in the area, ascribes this phenomenon primarily to
the nursery facilities offered by the Magneti Marelli management, indicating the
contradictory relationship between fascist ideology concerning the role of women as
mothers and housewives and the overriding imperatives of industrial capitalism.
Willson's discussion of male and female participation in the Resistance in the Sesto
area in general and in the Magneti Marelli works in particular is one of the most

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interesting sections of the book and certainly does not confirm the impression
created, intentionally or otherwise, by De Grazia's concentration on the Civitella
massacre that the Resistance was a negative experience for Italian women; indeed
Willson unhesitatingly asserts that for women 'this period was one where the
protective shell of family and factory could no longer totally separate them from the
public sphere' (p. 242), a development she regards as very positive indeed.
Considerations of space preclude detailed discussion of Willson's findings about
linkages between fascism, re-armament and women's employment or the role of
rural-urban migration in Sesto; suffice it to say that this work confronts all the
relevant debates about working class history in this period with great clarity. To
conclude, The Clockwork Factory, which adopts gender as a primary category of
analysis without in any way endorsing the fashionable post-modern retreat from
class, is one of the most important books on the social history of Fascist Italy to
appear for at least a decade.