# Women in the Italian resistance

“I do it, because I have chosen so”

Women in the Italian resistance

 

The original article was written by Nadja Bennewitz, a historian.
The original homepage in German can be found at:

http://www.frauen.resistenza.de/frau.htm

http://www.frauen.resistenza.de/

INDEX:

Official numbers
According to the official numbers, 70 000 Italian women were organised in the women defense groups. 35.000 (of 232.841 fighting persons) were fighting as partisans. 4.600 were arrested, tortured and sentenced, 2.750 were deported to Germany, 623 were shot or killed whilst fighting. 512 women were placed in official functions, as commissioners and commanders; 16 got a gold medal after the war ended, 17 a silver medal to honour them.

“How could it happen, that this army was forgotten after the war?” (Rossana Rossanda) or:
“The contribution of women”;
Two concepts are often used to represent the actions of the female partisans: one of “contribution” and one of “participation”. To contribute or to take part is not equivalent with acting for or being part of a whole, on the contrary, expressing rather, that female partisans just weren’t in principle part of it, but only at times. they are accessories.
And that’s not the only thing: Depending on who was carrying out something, an action was valuable or merely supportive. If a woman cooked, cared for injured persons or signalled the Germans coming, it is said, that she helped. A man in an official formation, who took on the same work, was called cook, nurse, informer and he was a partisan.
Nevertheless the mentioning of this support and the indication that without it the resistance wouldn’t have been possible, won’t be missing in any representation about the armed struggle which is represented as being per se equivalent with the resistenza. But perhaps it actually was like the women were only contributing and participating, that they have not initiated anything themselves? But the judgement of this depends in the first line on how “resistenza” is defined.

How is resistenza defined?
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.

Who was 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.

Fighting female partisans
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.

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 there.
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.

An ambivalent relationship: Women and weapons.
But at long last weapons stayed irrelevant in the fights of women. On the contrary, usually they tried to get these loose as fast as possible again. If one looks at the social judgement of fighting female partisans, this aversion is not astonishing: The female partisan with weapon was watched mistrustfully, at long last, the use of weapon was allowed to only some few exceptions. The best female partisan was the one who supported the movement “maternally”, who washed, ironed, sewed.
After the end of the war fighting female partisans were also eyed by her own gender rather suspiciously. A little bit, they were the female deserter of the house: Did they have nothing else to do? The ban already mentioned, that the women were not allowed to participate at the marches after the liberation, aimed at the women not being slandered “tarts”, because what else was “a woman who walks on the street”, then? The public appearance of women and her political orientation were tested and judged on her moral integrity in every case, which was not done the other way round with men. By the resistenza and the liberation, the political scales had been changed and renewed, but the sexual morals remained attached to old traditions. There was always an intention, sometimes open, definite equation of the political attitude with the sexual availability and reversed, which was imputed on the women. So the inhabitants of a little village said, after the (natural) death of a former female partisan was announced : “Former tart could be written there”. Thus referring to the pun between Partigiana and Puttana (tart =). Whom does it consequently surprise, that many fighting female partisans haven’t applied for an official appreciation of her opposition fight after the liberation?

Resistenza civile
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 Sémelin. Such a resistenza civile was, referring to Sémelin, 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.

Female resistance!
Numerous forms of resistance, which didn’t immediately serve to support the armed struggle, and are performed by women, can be determined under this premise. They have been on strike against the war, sabotaged the war production, performed civilian disobedience, they have helped and protected victims of persecution, Jews, partisans, militants, who operated secretly and foreign prisoner of war, although death penalty stood for helping escaped persons. They have protected soldiers from the deportation and forced labour in Germany. They have taken up the initiatives, to maintain a minimum worth living, they have tried to prevent the exploitation of raw materials and other resources, they preserved materials, businesses and facilities for the life after the war. For the most part it were female workers and farmers who were close to the communist resistance and therefore, what Cesares Pavone described as a class war within the resistenza, might also be applied on them.
But there were also middle-class women who were active and organized in the Roman Catholic resistance and even occasionally women of the nobility.

Who are 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 LibertÃ¡), 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.

The biggest 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 SalÃ³ (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.

The “woman defense groups” (Gdd)
Actually, the actions in September ’43 after the armistice agreement were not organized. Only a few weeks later, at the end of November the same year, there was a national union of active women formed, the Gdd, the “women’s groups for national defence”, which significantly bore the con-title: “for the support of the freedom fighters”. Why did these groups get called “for the support”? Why didn’t the women call themselves “volunteers for freedom” either? Already at wartimes some have asked themselves these questions. Well, at first sight, concerning the supporting and helping function of the Gdd, they were hardly different from the fascist ausiliarie, the “helpers” already mentioned. These woman defence groups had nevertheless a completely different political background, another effect and of course a different aim, especially concerning the emancipation of women. Like Penelope Veronesi, a female partisan from Bologna, expressed: “There, for the first time, I have heard something about the emancipation of women”.

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.
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. MimÃ­ 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 resistenza
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).

Relays
The tasks which most frequently women were engaged with, was the service as a relay, this means transporting news, war relevant and strategic information and weapons. This work couldn’t be done by men because they were searched by the German:
Either they reported voluntarily for the fascist troops of the Repubblica Sociale di SalÃ³ (RSI) as soldiers or they were deported to Germany into labour camps. Men could let themselves hardly be seen in public in the age fit for military service.
To the disguise, the relayes usually continued to work in her present profession.
Reginalda Santacroce was a teacher in Forno/Coazze, east of Turin, and since the beginning of the resistance since September 1943, had been working as a relay in the mountains of the Piemont, together with the sisters Assunta and Marcella Versino. During the brutal searching actions of the Germans in late spring 1944 in the mountain regions, east of Turin she is therefore taken captive and tormented by the Nazis.
Relays were usually permanently moving on foot, by bicycle, by bus or by train.
Their work was extremely dangerous, because they were in permanent danger to be immediately shot when discovered without the possibilities of defending themselves.
Maria De Vitis, whose husband Sergio was a commanding officer of the brigade “Sandro Magnone” and was killed near Tunis at a military action, reports about her work as a relay: “We entered the resistenza for various reasons (…). All of us (…) joined as relays:
We have transported news, money, weapons, whatever was needed. We have risked much because there were the barrier posts, but for us, it was nevertheless easier to get through as women than it was for the guys.” Relays in the mountain regions had to calculate with additional everyday difficulties:
If fascists were taken captive or killed by the men, they usually got stripped out completely, including also the shoes. However, these were often too big for the Staffettes. So they had to stuff newspaper into the footwear and got sore feet. Rossana Rossanda worked since the winter of ‘ 44 as a Staffette in the region of Milan. Since the town got heavily bombed in 1942, she was put up in the region as being bombed out, from where she went as a student girl by train to the university of Milan. Because this natural “come and go” situation in the city simplified the contact with the partisan troops in the region.
Also it was not unusual to transport things of all sorts in public trains in wartimes. So she managed to take dressing material, weapons, drugs, and leaflets to the partisan formations. She collected the things needed in houses unknown to her in Milan.
Almost every time she was sent to another street corner.
At her arrival in Como she was always expected by a bellissimo ragazzo named Pino Binda, “now a handsome old man”. Difficulties resulted from missed appointments, or if the meeting point was not found, or if you could not get loose of what you carried with you.
When one day, the train in which she transported suitcase with books, in which the material for the partisans was hidden, was stopped by German and Italian fascists and everyone had to get out with their luggage, she slid her suitcase under the seats as far as possible.
Neither she was reported of the fellow travellers, nor did the soldiers discover the piece of luggage when searching the train. These fright moments are well characteristic for working as a relay. Laura, was still a girl, when she transported a machine-gun wrapped up in cloth in the tram.
She escaped a search because she was first greeting one of the persons there as being a fascist whom she knew, therefore she was classified as being unsuspicious.

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.

How did it continue?
There were many more forms of resistance of women. One of them, which could still be mentioned, was the one particularly used by women of lower class, female workers, who had a try not to bear any babies or who risked an illegal abortion in emergency situations. They didn’t want to give birth to any children for the fascist state. This birth strike and this form of birth control may be regarded as a form of resistance considering the promotional measures for birth strongly propagated by Mussolini. For a long time the topic abortion wasn’t finished yet (not only) for the Italians after the war either, because such had to be carried out still illegally and under greatest risk of health damages. When a former partisan told his wife, also a partisan: ” Now think about the wartime, how much you had to endure then. ” she was outragedly indignant: “You and your little war … it isn’t the war, clearly, it was terrible and I had to endure much, but don’t you think that I had to go through a lot also with the abortions ?”

The original article was written by Nadja Bennewitz, a historian.
The original homepage in German can be found at:

http://www.frauen.resistenza.de/frau.htm

http://www.frauen.resistenza.de/

http//:www.partigiani.de

http://www.resistenza.de

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