Power of the Word II
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XI. Women's Voices in Italy

by Luisa Passerini and Annamaria Tagliavini

In the 1970s, Italy had a broad women's movement, which, in the second half of the decade and the beginning of the 1980s, developed various forms of specifically cultural activity, including publishing houses, bookshops, and documentation centers. These were, at the same time, a sign of vitality and a new direction in political work, different from the previous engagement in consciousness-raising and discussion/action on social issues like abortion.

This new cultural engagement of the women's movement was somewhat double-edged, because it took place at a time of reduction and change in the traditional strength of the movement. Nonetheless, these feminist cultural organizations incorporated strong political values more or less explicitly. This was the case partly because Italy had not developed institutional spaces for women's studies like those in the United States. (The first Italian chair in women's history was not created until autumn 1998, at the University of Bologna. Women's cultural activities, therefore, continued to take place in an autonomous way. In addition, activities like documentation and publication were openly associated by some of the new cultural organizations with political engagement on an international scale. For instance, support to women's centers in developing countries or in conflict areas became a major goal for the Centro di Documentazione di Bologna and other non-governmental organizations.

By the end of the 1990s, some of these organizations had survived and even prospered, while conditions of the market had caused others to be either eliminated or obliged to restructure. One of the first independent, feminist publishing houses, La Tartaruga, founded by Laura Lepetit in Milan, in 1975, was recently incorporated into a well-established "general" publishing group. On the other hand, the Astrea Series, directed by Roberta Mazzanti at the Giunti publishing house, has successfully concentrated on women writers. Founded in 1986, it is still vital and active, with a catalogue of more than fifty titles, ranging from Rigoberta Menchó to Assia Djebar.

According to a survey published in 1997, there are now sixty-one women's documentation and research centers, libraries, archives, and bookshops, located in almost in every region of Italy, as well as Legendaria and Leggere Donna, two important periodicals devoted to reviewing women's books, both at the national and international level. All work to enhance women's culture through specific activities such as organizing meetings with women writers (including those from different cultures and experiences), presenting books, and building up international networks. They also produce various materials: booklets, catalogues, and "gray literature," which, while they do not circulate in the regular publishing market, are evidence of the voluminous amount of women's culture.

It is, however, true that the situation of women writers is characterized by strong contradictions. The general condition of women in Italy has gone through dramatic changes over the last forty years, particularly in the fields of work, education, and consumption. Political representation, however, is still very low. There are six women ministers out of a total of twenty-six in the present government, but the percentage of women in both chambers of Parliament is still only about around 10 percent. At the same time, certain formal indications of women's emancipation often come joined with post-feminist or anti-feminist attitudes; think, for example, of the phenomena of women managers, or women on the right. A new, crucial phenomenon in the Italian context is the presence of significant numbers of immigrant and refugee women. They are most vulnerable to censorship because they speak different languages and represent experiences and cultures that are often marginalized.

The situation of women writers embodies these contradictions. On the one hand, in spite of the general crisis of books and bookshops, there is an eager market for writings by women and on women. On the other hand, such writings are often still considered second-class productions, not to be confused with the category of "general literature." While works by great women writers like Elsa Morante or Anna Maria Ortese are listed as belonging to this category, those of women writers who are less well known often end up in categories like "women's autobiographies." The organization of publishing and marketing is based on such categorization, so that being included in one or the other has important consequences, affecting whether a book will sell more or less copies and reach or fail to reach a certain public, whether it will receive reviews, and in which newspaper.

The result is an implicit, informal system of censorship of women's writing, ruled by the laws of the market, but also working through networks of allegiance existing in publishing houses, institutions, academies, and especially within the press. It should be noted that, even though the personnel in all these places is largely female, at least at the middle and lower levels, with the relevant exceptions of a few general managers, the forms of solidarity between women are strongly limited by the organizational and ideological setting. The situation is complicated by the fact that, while some Italian women writers are very successful commercially, this may have something to do with the conservative nature of their work, which confirms existing gender relationships. But this is not true of everyone. In short, the relationship of gender and informal censorship in Italy is sufficiently complex to benefit from further analysis.

Luisa Passerini is an historian, memoirist, specialist in oral history, and feminist activist. She is a Professor at the University of Turin and is currently teaching at the European University in Florence. She has written on the Italian resistance, the generation of 1968, and the idea of Europe.

Annamaria Tagliavini is an activist and Director of the library at the Centro di Documentazione delle Donne in Bologna, a major Italian feminist organization.