Predicting the effect of Italy's long-awaited rape law reform on "the land of machismo."

AuthorEverhart, Amy Jo

    Alessandra Mussolini is the granddaughter of World War Two-era Fascist Italian leader Benito Mussolini.(1) She is also a prominent member of the Italian Parliament,(2) where she and her female parliamentary deputies recently played a role in reforming Italy's outdated and controversial rape law, a law written under the influence of Benito Mussolini himself in 1936. The old law declared rape a crime against public morality.(3) The new law,(4) passed in February 1996, reclassifies rape as a crime against the person. For Alessandra Mussolini and other Italian women, the reclassification, accompanied by other significant changes in the law, symbolizes the recognition of Italian women as equal to men and places rape on the same level as other violent crimes.

    But has enough really changed in Italy from the time of Grandfather Mussolini to the time of Granddaughter Mussolini to ensure the success of the new law? Has the relatively young Italian women's movement succeeded in erasing the image of the male Italian lover who stands on street corners and cajoles female passersby?(5) Has it erased the images of female anatomy spread across Italian newsstands?(6)

    Alessandra Mussolini and her modern Italian sisters no longer play the purely maternal role that her grandfather prescribed for Italian women. Benito Mussolini probably would not recognize the Italian woman of the 1990s, because she has undergone several transformations since his time, from her expansion into a dual role(7) to her eager participation in the women's movement that gathered and grew around such issues as rape reform. How would Mussolini react to this transformed woman and her achievements, including an overhaul of his rape law? More importantly, how are the men of modern Italy reacting?

    Some suggest a backlash.(8) "Murders of Italian Women Seen as Price for Liberation," screamed the headlines only a week after the new rape law was enacted in February.(9) "Italy stained with blood!"(10) Many feminists argue they have not gone too far in their struggle to change "a country used to Latin traditions of male dominance and pride."(11) They have simply brought the crimes out into the open.

    While the Italian women's movement has done much for the reform of the rape law, the rape reform movement has done much to shape the women's movement and the state of feminism in Italy as well. Italian women have rallied around a common cause, and that cause has urged the political participation of a group traditionally expected to remain silent and stay in the corner.

    This Note will analyze how successful the rape reform movement has been as an instrument for Italian women to establish and affirm their political equality in a country that has traditionally stifled their voices. Part II provides a historical analysis of the Italian woman and her role in the evolution of the rape law. Part III analyzes the current rape law. Part IV predicts the law's consequences, including an analysis of its effect on violence against women, its effect on Italian politics, and alternative approaches to reducing rape in Italy.


    From 1936 to 1996, Italy and its women(12) were governed by the same rape law. Although the law remained sold and inflexible for those sixty years, Italy's women were transformed during that time. When the law first took effect, Fascist leader Benito Mussolini controlled Italy, its laws, and its women. By 1996, Italian women were not only refusing to abide by the law, but they were playing a role in changing it, represented in Parliament by members of their own sex, although in numbers not nearly equal to those of men. That year, the conflict between an ancient law and a fluid people finally erupted, but the history leading to that point is rich and complex.

    1. The Evolution of the Italian Woman: From Pre-Mussolini to the Rape Reform Movement

      Italian women share a rich history--a history that began long before Benito Mussolini announced that women existed solely to give birth to and raise soldiers for his armies.(13) In its relatively short existence as a unified country, Italy and its political atmosphere have been molded by a people eager to take active roles in its creation. From the socialism of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to the fascism of the Mussolini era, from the resistance that followed to the recent movement of the new left, Italian women have challenged the paternalistic oppression embodied in such cultural regimes as the Catholic Church, and in such socioeconomic forces as depression and war.

      1. Pre-Fascist Italy

        Although modern Italy was unified only as recently as 1870,(14) traces of ancient cultures have influenced its recent history. Italians remember and celebrate female deities worshipped in ancient times, such as the earth mother and Greek and Roman goddesses,(15) all of whom preceded the male god of Judeochristianity.(16) After the establishment of Christianity, the Madonna and female saints were worshipped and equated with God.(17) The Madonna and the female deities were early examples of a dual image reflecting the Italian woman of the first half of the twentieth century. They evoked power, but that power was derived from passion and sensuality, traits traditionally associated with women. Consequently, women in classical times did not achieve dominance as a consequence of the worship of these female deities.(18)

        During the nineteenth century, the Napoleonic Code(19) placed Italian women under men's guardianship, ordering women to be passed from fathers to husbands as property.(20) A woman's virginity was her dowry for marriage, and motherhood was her prescribed destination in life.(21) Women did not have the right to vote and would not secure it until 1945.(22) Nevertheless, the slow industrialization and economic depression that changed Italy in the latter part of the nineteenth century changed the lives of Italian women as well.(23) Many of them went to work in the textile and agrarian industries, bringing their babies with them.(24) Many of them rioted for food and demonstrated in the face of an 1891 papal announcement that enjoined women from working outside the home.(25)

        During World War One, women continued to assert their political presence by demonstrating against the war, and after the war they vocally opposed the returning soldiers' reoccupation of factories and fields.(26) It was against this backdrop that Benito Mussolini appeared, immersing Italy into the fascist era and sending its women "into the corner."(27)

      2. The Fascist Era: Women in the Corner

        As in pre-fascist times, it was motherhood that defined the separation between the sexes in fascist Italy.(28) Italians considered women a gift given by God for the sole purposes of sexual intercourse and reproduction.(29) They believed God had assigned the task of motherhood exclusively to women.(30) Men, on the contrary, were assigned responsibility for the family as a group.(31) Men were in charge of earning money to support the family. This created an image of male authority, which extended to authority over female sexuality.(32) Women were essentially servants, whose place, as one Italian woman recalled, "was in a corner."(33)

        Two influences, among others, combined to create these disparate definitions of men and women: Catholicism and Fascism.(34) Under the teachings of Catholicism, which even today heavily influence social morality in Italy, man is the image of God and woman is the auxiliary of man. A woman uses this auxiliary function to reproduce children.(35) Pope Pius X reaffirmed the subordination doctrine in 1909, defining a woman's duty as creating and nurturing her family.(36)

        The fascists in pre-World War Two Italy also supported the idea of women's traditional role.(37) Those fascists implemented a policy that restricted women to tasks of the home, dismissing women from professional and school employment,(38) work "thought to stimulate independent ideas in women and to discourage them from bearing children."(39) In restricting women's roles, the fascists hoped for the "reinvigoration and increase of the race."(40) To further this campaign, Mussolini set penal sanctions for abortion and the advocacy of birth control and imposed taxes for "unjustified celibacy" and childless marriages.(41) He declared that an ideal family consisted of twelve children, which would ensure an army large enough to fight successful battles in war.(42)

        Some authors have suggested that Italian women did not resist fascism.(43) Most women's groups of the time focused on spreading the Catholic faith and promoting familial activities.(44) Other authors, however, argue that women did resist, but in subtle ways. For instance, rather than doubling the population, Italian women responded to Mussolini's orders by allowing the birth rate to fall.(45) Sicilian women's groups were especially vocal, engaging in protests for food and work and often imprisoned for seditious behavior. They especially opposed the male resort to violence.(46) Whether or not resistance existed in the years before the war, it became full-blown during World War Two.

      3. World War Two: Resistance and a Dual Role

        Sometimes called "the first feminism," the Italian women's resistance to fascism in World War Two involved women of all classes.(47) This resistance occurred in both subtle and overt ways, from women's refusal to report to the Nazis to their acting as spies and soldiers.(48)

        A Milan women's group formed in 1943 to fight for the emancipation of both Italy and its women. The group's efforts grew into massive demonstrations against fascism and Nazi massacres. Many of the demonstrators, who included women from all facets of Italian society, were captured and raped, tortured, or killed.(49) Women from outside Milan also engaged in antifascism activities, from participating in sabotage to...

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