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"I do it, because I have chosen so"
Women in the Italian resistance
The original article was written by Nadja
Bennewitz, a historian.
more informationin about partisans, female partisans, resistenza can be found in German at:
As a rule, it is exclusively understood as the armed struggle -- a view way which is less revolutionary but was rather attached to the civil self understanding born in the French Revolution, that the full citizen is only the one performing the service to the weapon and therefore can solely be a man. It is the old picture of the modern age for this the women are demoted to being a citizen of second class. Furthermore there are also other things contributing to exclude the women from fighting with the weapon: The heroism of the man is reduced by the presence of women in the fighting partisan troops because of the missing admiring opposite.
officially acknowledged as a partisan?
after a decree of August 21st, 1945 a partisan is someone who has carried weapons for at least three months in an official recognised partisan association and who has taken part in at least three fights or sabotage actions. Persons who were in prison or in a concentration camp only receive the title, if being held there for at least three months. Who has given essential and important help outside the partisan associations is awarded the title "benemerito" "the one who has made himself or herself commendable" in some regions of Italy. It is obvious that this is of course a very limited definition of resistance.
The forms of resistance of many individuals/groups is made invisible, in first line the one of women.
Of course there have been also female partisans who were also carrying weapons and fighting:
Women have shot, thrown bombs, chased hostile trucks into the air, planned and carried out attacks.
So the Communist Anna Cherchi has learned how to use weapons and finally, when the danger of getting captured increased, she learned shooting despite the initial reluctance so well, that she also felt pride about this. In complete calmness, Elsa Oliva, 22-years, chased a German car with transmitting station and soldiers sitting in it into the air .
According to statements of herself, she didn't carry the weapons to show off, but to aim and shoot with. Also the communist female partisan from Parma, Laura Polizzi, assumed name "Mirka", insisted to carry weapons: "And so I learnt how take a Beretta to pieces and to build together and how I have learned it ... The first gun which I have ever seen, was the one my uncle Gigi had in his hands and I have been allowed to hold it in my hands, Gigi has even invited me to do it (...) ".
But when she finally follows a partisan formation in the mountains, she has to watch her male companions being allowed to join the armed struggle, which remains refused to her: "After I have struggled away for a long time and enquired again and again whether I am not finally assigned to a troop department, to get a weapon in my hands, the companions were all allocated one after and the other and only I was left". Finally she has to leave the mountains again. Mainly the women from the Gap, the patriotic action groups, took part at armed actions and sabotage actions, these groups had been founded by the communist party.
( please look at the paragraph about the contribution of women in the Gap). Joyce Lussu also fought armed for a year in the resistance, on that she simply commented with the words: "This isn't a heroic deed anyway". But apparently it is: "Antifascism reached the highest step now: the armed resistance (resistenza)", it says unreflectedly in numberless history books, whereby the armed resistance once again is represented as the only glorious form of the resistenza.
Female partisans in leading positions
|According to official numbers there have been 512
female commanding officers and commissioners in the partisan
formations. One of them was Laura Polizzi from Parma. She got in
the mountains to the fighting troops only by a trick, though. Being
horrified, that a companion of the communist party is sent to the
mountains and she isn't. (" You yes and me not? Madonna "!) she has
her needed password given of him for admission to the partisan
formation and goes secretly up in the mountains. However, fighting
with weapons is forbidden to her. In spite of getting entrusted
with military tasks she is with political there. She becomes second
general commissioner of the communist brigade Garibaldi in the
region Reggio Emilia. There Celeste "Cele" Magnone became second
commissioner as well in the partisan group of "Sandro Magnone"
.Vittoria Rocca also became officer for the information service
Irene Usseglio, killed in action during the searching actions of the Germans in November '44, was officer of the information service "Campana" in the brigade. These women usually didn't live in the mountains. In the groups in the Turin hilly countryside, there was for example, only one single formation, the "Carlo Carli" of the Garibaldini, in which women were officially and regularly included and shared the life of the men . It is particularly the contribution of the historian Anna is bravo to have proved by her research, that and how Italian women participated in resistance to German garrison and fascism. She describes very poignantly how nowadays the resistance in Europe against the Nazi fascism is over all more assessed on how many have been killed in opposition action instead of how many could survive thanks to the resistance.
To do justice to the forms of resistance by women, another way of judging history must consequently be performed. Usually they did unarmed resistance which was predominantly independent of a party or an organisation, it was not laid out for a long duration and was not connected in between each other. To make the forms of actions and the loose, uncoordinated resistance visible, Anna Bravo has introduced the idea of the resistenza civile, the civilian resistance, to written history about the resistenza, referring to the French sociologist and psychologists Jacques Sèmelin. Such a resistenza civile was, referring to Sèmelin, the answer of the civilian societies to the stressed hegemony and the exploitation of human and material resources in all of Europe by the national socialism. This resistenza civile has understood itself, but not all exclusively, also as support of the armed resistance. The term "resistenza civile" shall rather stress in first line the autonomous targets of the resistance, independent of the armed fight. Hereby, the protection of victim of persecution is described, the attempt to keep certain facilities and social connections free of national socialist and fascist influences, in principle the defence of the circumstances and the social relationships. It is also an economic political fight against the occupying forces. The means to attain these aims were not weapons, but moral courage, adjustment and pretence, and ability in understanding and adapting in emergency situations, the ability in manipulating and deceiving relations to the damage of the opponent. To make it clear nevertheless: Nowhere was a closed population, who would have offered civilian opposition against the Nazi fascism, it is a behaviour not too generalised. Only a minority offered civilian resistance, like only a minority reached for the weapons.
the real volunteers?
One thing should remain in the field of vision when dealing with the resistance of the Italians:
The real volunteers of the resistenza actually were the women, although the almost exclusively male military arm of the Cln, the national liberation committee, was called "volunteer corps for liberty". But the men had to hide themselves after the armistice of September 8th, 1943, when about 4/5th of Italy was occupied by Nazi-Germany, and to finally join the resistance so to not be deported. There were also middle-class women for women from the nobility, anyway which was active and organized in the Roman Catholic resistance and even occasional. The women were not threatened by such compulsory measures. Consequently, if they decided for the resistance, they weren't forced to, but it was a free decision. Carla Badiali of the partisan brigade's "justice and liberty", (Giustizia e Libertá), fulfilled the task to fake documents, her profession was painter. When her husband complained because she needed some time for a certain stamp, she replied: "I don't do all this, unlike you and all your friends being forced to, but because I have chosen so. You didn't have a choice, I had."
The strikes as
the start of the resistance
The strikes in March 1943 in the factories were a method of resistance and started the resistenza against fascism. But also there, women were frequently made invisible by talking merely about "workers". Only if they really could not been clearly ignored any more, female workers appeared. So the armed forces tribunal of Turin had to state against the "workers", that, after all, out of the 21 captives taken at the strikes, 11 there and among 10 sentenced even 8 were women. These strikes were an obvious sign for the end of fascism which had forbidden strikes. Ines Barons, a teacher in Giaveno: "We have heard about the things because we have also been on strike here (...). in any case many were still very afraid to take the initiative, (...) but it was completely clear that you had never seen something like this before and it was a clear sign for the things changing ".
Finally, the things actually changed rather fast with the withdrawal Mussolinis on July 25th, 1943 and the signing of the armistice on September 8th the same year.
action of disguise in history
When the armistice agreement with the Anglo American Allies was signed on September 8th, 1943 by the Italian government, disorientation spread out in the Italian forces. Military orders failed to appear and many soldiers, war-wearily, understood this situation as an open request to return home. But the situation escalated to a big crisis. Italy was occupied by Nazi German within few days. Escaping Italian soldiers who were recognized as such, were taken captive and abducted to German military detention camps by German troops. Altogether, they were 730.000 Italian soldiers, with over 16000 not surviving. To avoid the capture, the soldiers needed civilian clothes they didn't have. Now, in the words of Anna Bravo, one of the "biggest actions of disguise in the Italian history" started. Chiara Serdi from a working class family tells about her mothers actions:
"When we heard about all soldiers having pushed off from the barrackses and they desperately looked for a possibility to get home again, because nobody wanted to fight any more, but could not go by train clothed as soldiers, (...) there my mother had in the meantime already asked all possible people for old clothes, (...) an got together a whole quantity, everything stored in our cellar. And rum spread fast, you know, and so there always these guys came along: 'Signora, look at me, don't you have something to wear for me '? ah, and my mother was terrible, she had such a spirit of initiative (...), and so she took them to the cellar, dressed them, brought them to the train station, kissed them (...), put them on the cattle waggons(...). They also left their uniforms with us, my mother has then burnt these in the courtyard at night, (...). Yes, it had become a real place for distribution, in the meantime everyone knew it, (...) ".
This way, thousands of soldiers were newly clothed, fed, hidden, cared for and brought on the way to their home town. At long last this was the basis for the armed resistance later by being saved from deportation. Bravo describes this procedure also as a "mass maternage" as a specifically female form of the resistenza. She further explains, that merely therefore so many forms of women's resistance can be explained with the topos of motherliness, because this is the only form officially granted to women whereby they are considered stronger than men. This broad solidarity took place completely independently of any structures and political guidelines.To represent these broad solidarity and support as bare pietas of women, as happening quite often, is however, completely insufficient as an explanation for their commitment. To act like this, meant to have basically questioned and rejected the legality of the fascist regime. This procedure must therefore be quite judged as being a political one. This becomes also very clear when comparing with the women who made themselves at the same time voluntarily available for the fascist forces of the republic of Saló (RSI). These are the so-called ausiliarie, the fascist "helpers". Well, a decision on September 8th, 1943 could have also turned out quite different. But the memory of these deeds remain rudimentary in the history. If there weren't women who remembered these actions and told in the form of "oralhistory", we would hardly know anything about it. Whereas the Cln, the national liberation committee, had possibilities in writing, such actions weren't fixed in writing. On the contrary every trace was destroyed by burning the clothes of the soldiers in the courtyard. The fighting partisan knows that he makes history, he resisted. Women usually think, they would only contribute a little bit to the resistance.
What were the tasks
of the women organised in the Gddd?
In the constitutive action programme of November 1943 they were called to encourage and support "the best sons of Italy who move against the enemy with the weapon in the fist" independently of their political views, faith and their social origins. They should found woman defence groups in the districts, factories, offices, schools and villages to persuade other women for the antifascist fight. They should resist the Germans, and expel the fascists from the community, punish them with contempt. Furthermore, the Gddd had also quite practical tasks: Here, money, food and clothes for the ones deported to Germany and other prisoners should have been collected. The women were also called to sabotage, to be on strike and to slow down the production in the factories, to get together for mass demonstrations and proceed forcibly against fascist spies. Further demands of the program consisted in rising the food rations, in accommodations for people being bombed out, in demands for heating, clothes and shoes and for pay increase. Also woman specific demands were included into the programme. The activists demanded the right to work and same pay as the men, sufficient pregnancy holidays, further professional training, the possibility to be able to accept every employment, (in fascism only 10% of the clerks were allowed to be female), being allowed to teach all lesson in schools, ( in fascism it was forbidden for women to hold lessons in the subjects philosophy, history, literature, Latin and Greek). They demanded the participation in social life and in trade unions, in the co-ops and in the local and national elections.
The wives of leading partisans often took on the task of calling for and conducting a women liberation group. Mimí Teppati worked narrowly together with her husband who was involved in founding the national liberation committee (Cln) in Piemont and held there a leading position for the Partito d'Azione, the democratic action party. She founded a Gddd in Giaveno, east of Turin, and produced there clothes for the partisans and knitted jumpers. What seems rather counter-productive under today's premises, was accepted as being absolutely life-supporting for the fighting partisans by the contemporary women. An anonymous communist female partisan published a long article in the periodical "Quelli del col Bione" in October 1944 with the headline "Women can and want to fight" and signed it with "a Garibaldina" (the Garibaldini were the partisan units of the communist party): "With disguise I hear some remarks, which are really not at all pleasant, of many Garibaldini about the participation of the woman in the struggle for liberty. Some of you take our work for useless and don't realise that you offend hereby those who struggle away and help you to be on your side. A woman can not fight, cannot even hold a weapon in her hand! Are such remarks justified? Aren't many things which are necessary for the fight, tasks of women? Many, many women help you by producing jackets, trousers and coats for you, and wash and iron weekly for you (!) And that's for many of you the most normal thing in the world, isn't it? My dear Garibaldini, maybe you might demand these things, when you have a wife who does the housework for you. If somebody does it for you now, so not only because of bare sympathy, but because women have a patriotic sense like you, to do everything possible, to do something useful and to give the liberty back to the people. However, apart from these tasks, which are easier, there are also some which are very much more difficult, which are risky, for which you need to be calm and have knowledge and for which the women risk their life just the same as if they would take part in a war action. "
That's how it actually was. Because the conveyance of news, the transport of weapons and the finances to obtain for the partisan movement also lay in the field of responsibility of the woman liberation groups and were taken on by the Staffettes. Mimí Teppati, Albina Lussiana, Livia Ostostero and Nella Scaletta were active as bearer of messages: " how many times, how often were we high up on the mountain and have brought things ... : We were always moving... " Ostostero reported. This meant, that many of the tasks which the national liberation committee (Cln) held, were taken on by the woman defence groups, like passing on information, to maintain the connections with other Cln, to co-ordinate the guerrilla and the supply of partisan groups by obtaining finances. However, they had no seat in the leading positions of the Cln. Also, the communist partisan Laura Polizzi was founder of numerous women defence groups, so in Parma, Piacenza and in Reggio Emilia, where she worked in the department "agitation and propaganda" for the recruitment of women. The armed resistance of women wasn't excluded by the Gddd. Zelina Rossi from the Gddd Reggio Emilia described how she wanted to welcome newly joined women in the Gddd: "Every woman must send her husbands in the fight and, if she has the courage, she shall also take part in it." It can only be discovered out of side remarks, what the daily tasks of the "rivoluzionarie di professione", the "full time revolutionaries" who were organised in the Gddd, and who did not do regular work any more, were. So Laura Polizzi printed and multiplied propaganda material, Franca Pieroni Bortolotti typed documents from Lenin for the training of the comrades and Carla Badiali faked documents for illegalised resistance fighters.
The woman press in
The historian Daniella Gagliani questioned whether the resistenza hasn't been a feminist fight either because of the frequent treatise of woman specific issues in particular. She therefore mentions numerous articles in the women press of the Gddd. So the press organ of the women defence groups "Noi Donne" ("women ourselves") describes the task of the organisation very self-confidently and calls apart for the liberation of Italy, in general also for the liberation of women in particular:
"The women don't only fight for the Italian people in this fight against the Germans and the fascists but they also fight a fight for their own right. By fighting for the independence of Italy we also fight for the liberty of us women, (...) There are our woman liberation groups which are at the front of this fight and the fight for women ". (NoiDonne, Bologna, Sept. 1944).
Altogether, the press of the women involved in the resistenza was astonishingly broad. Apart from "Noi donne", the magazine already quoted, which had different issues in different towns, there was "La voce delle donne" ("the voices of the women") of the Gddd Bologna and La "Compagna" ("the female comrade"), the woman newspaper of the socialist party. Beyond this, women also published in the "general press", so in "Quelli del col Bione" already quoted and in the "Sentinella Partigianana", in which the Communist Ada Gobetti in the no. 4 of April 1945 wrote under the heading: "A female bandit tells ...": "I am a woman. A small woman, who has revolutionised her private life, (...) whose characteristics were the needle and the broom. I have changed it into a ... life as a female bandit. Partisans! I am not alone. There are thousands and thousands of women (...) with my faith, my enthusiasm, with my courage, with my hunger for deeds. We also organise ourselves. We also live for your ideal." Nevertheless there remained doubts about the benefit, which women could gain from the struggle for liberation led together with men against fascism and the German garrison. Franca Pieroni Bortolotti said in a lecture, which she held on the occasion of the Republics 30th anniversary in May 1977 at a congress in Bologna about women and resistance in Emilia Romagna: "Well, an aversion and indignation have arisen on this winter evening in December 1943 in myself when I had to type " What to do?" of Lenin -at that time a very rare text- on the typewriter, and when I wanted to read it, I have told myself that there wasn't any time for it, and that I had to copy the text and only because of the partisans needing it for their political education in the mountains ".
It was only possible to further stay in the
present profession to the disguise as long as remaining
undiscovered. Laura Polizzi had to leave her home town Parma
because she was "burned": A teammate had denounced her for 5 .000
lire. She went undergound and creched temporarily at comrades,
finally got faked papers and left the town. She was only allowed to
return in disguise: She wore faked glasses and had her hair colour
dyed to blond. Isabella de Gennaro worked as a female doctor in the
hospital Molinette in Turin. From there she as a Staffette passed
the news of the Cln of the region around Turin on and gave aid to
injured persons of the partisan groups. She worked narrowly
together with Ines Barone, teacher in Giaveno and also working as a
Staffette. Once a week Barone went from Giaveno, far in the
mountains and took a suitcase full of weapons there. The partisan
groups met in her house for meetings.
She didn't take part at these herself, but cooked for the guys instead.
The women didn't always make it to be home again before darkness. They had to look for a place to sleep then on the way. Ines Barone said: "The Germans also used dogs. After I had been at the commanding officer of the Campana (a partisan formation) with the female doctor De Gennaro, we stayed in a stable, when a German patrol came. We were enormously lucky that they opened every door but not the one behind which we kept ourselves hidden ".
The importance of the work of Staffettes is not put in question nowadays but treated nevertheless very marginally. Even when it is mentioned without naming names a "Staffette" has brought this or that, it contributes to invisibility. Only if a Staffette failed, because for example a strategically important news got there too late and an attack turned into a failure for this reason, the importance of this message service is recognized- but only in negative regard.
The women seldom lived in the partisan groups. However, there always were exceptions.
Nina Tallarico lived with her two brothers in the mountains with the partisans.
She was a student of medicine and carried out the nursing at the partisans.
The original article was
written by Nadja Bennewitz, a historian.
The original homepage in German can be found at:
more information about partisans, female partisans, resistenza can be found in German at:
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Link to a summary of the article in German: grossRaumzeitUng