|VOLUME 20||THE UNIVERSITY OF WISCONSIN-MILWAUKEE | GRADUATE SCHOOL||NUMBER 1|
during Fascism belie submissive stereotypes and reveal
important contributors to literature and culture
Popular images of Italian women formed during Fascism persist to this day. There's Sophia Loren, the fiery femme fatale, and her alter ego, the self-sacrificing Italian mama who's always cooking at the stove. Examples of these stereotypes can be found in dozens of Hollywood movies, but how accurate are they? Robin Pickering-Iazzi, associate professor of Italian and comparative literature at UWM, has taken an in-depth look at the second image-obedient wife and mother-and has reached some surprising conclusions.
In three books and numerous articles, Pickering-Iazzi has forever debunked the notion that Fascism ruled women completely. As one observer noted wryly, "Pickering-Iazzi (demonstrates) that Fascism failed in making docile wombs out of them." About her upcoming book, Politics of the Visible, a reviewer wrote, "Pickering-Iazzi's reading of women's texts significantly challenges the ways in which literary and cultural history have been written."
By highlighting never-before translated writings of Italian women authors, Pickering-Iazzi thus fills in a missing gap of Italian history. The writings collected in such volumes as Unspeakable Women: Selected Short Stories Written by Italian Women During Fascism and Mothers of Invention: Women, Italian Fascism and Culture offer a fresh perspective on the identities of Italian women during the 1920s and 1930s. The most famous of these writers undoubtedly is Grazia Deledda, who received the 1926 Nobel Prize for Literature. But the collections also present a diverse array of accomplished Italian writers such as Ada Negri, Carola Prosperi and Gianna Manzini - names that may not be familiar to American readers, but whose bylines were widely recognized in Italy during their day.
While Pickering-Iazzi's work introduces American readers to these wonderfully expressive writers, her achievement is all the more remarkable considering that similar anthologies do not exist even in Italy.
"This tells us a couple of things," remarks Pickering-Iazzi, 43, settling into a comfortable office chair during an interview. "It reveals a lot about how marginalized Italian women's literature of vthis period has been. And, to Italians, Fascism was a painful time in history that many would rather forget.
"Because women's contributions to literature were largely overlooked until the 1970s, there was an assumption that during Fascism women were obedient, submissive mothers, as opposed to producers of culture. But women weren't all seduced by Mussolini, who tried to increase the population by making women believe that becoming mothers was part of their national duty."
Mussolini's vision didn't appeal to writers such as Ada Negri. An early social activist who gave voice to the Italian women's workers movement, Negri's prose and poetry struck a chord with male and female workers. She was born in a town near industrialized Milan, in northern Italy, and she often wrote about her feelings of isolation and restriction regarding the limited roles available to women. "The fact that she became an author was very inspiring to other Italian women," Pickering-Iazzi says.
Similar themes emerge in the writings of another Italian author, Grazia Deledda, who was born in Sardinia, an island in rural southern Italy. The short story "Grace" was inspired by an event in the author's life. It develops such themes as self-doubt, authority, social injustice and vindication.
Literary critics have effusive praise for Pickering-Iazzi's work. One comments that Pickering-Iazzi has made an "outstanding contribution to the fields of history, Italian studies and women's studies." Professor Gabrielle Verdier, chairperson of the UWM French, Italian and Comparative Literature department, agrees with this assessment, though she is quick to add that Pickering-Iazzi's work "is extremely relevant to discussions of politics as well, especially in the area of right-wing groups."
Pickering-Iazzi shares some insight about her own goals for this extended exploration into Italian women's writings. "I want to offer a variety in the sense of showcasing women who were well-known, widely reviewed and who received literary awards, balanced by women who were relatively obscure. Since part of the project has been aimed at models of femininity reflected in Fascist thought, I want to show some ways women thought about these things, so we don't assume that Fascist ideology necessarily represented the thoughts of women."
Beginning with Unspeakable Women, (1993, The Feminist Press at the City University of New York), Pickering-Iazzi focuses on short stories that offer alternative visions in women's attitudes toward work, motherhood and aging. (The last category is particularly interesting in the context of Fascism, a very youth-oriented political movement.)
Pickering-Iazzi gathered her stories from the cultural pages of some of Italy's most widely read national newspapers. In the process, she sifted through hundreds of stories before selecting the 16 that appear in the book. It is noteworthy that these stories were intended for a mass readership, especially among working-class readers who may not have been able to afford books.
The fact that these stories were widely circulated during Fascism illustrates what Pickering-Iazzi calls a "complex and contradictory situation." How could the Fascist government, which attempted to exert such rigid control over the lives of Italians - certainly including the Italian press - allow such "subversive" writings to be published?
"Newspapers were censored in general during this period, and perhaps this area could have been an oversight," Pickering-Iazzi responds after a moment of contemplation. "Fascist leaders were quite specific about issuing orders to the press about which events should or shouldn't be covered. But in general, the Fascist regime was much more lax about cultural matters. Culture and literary matters were not seen as a threat to the regime unless they clearly criticized some aspect of political life. There's no evidence of (consistency) in regards to censorship."
Just as the women's stories contain multiple meanings, so do Pickering-Iazzi's catchy book titles. The "unspeakable women" in her first book are those who've given voice to attitudes "unexpressed in Fascist discourse." Similarly, she says, "I was trying to get at the idea that these women were unspeakable in the sense that they were going against what women should be." Yet another meaning can be found in that "it refers to the limitations of language in a totalitarian regime."
The second book, Mothers of Invention (1995, University of Minnesota Press), hints at the "invention" of the prototypical Italian mother by Fascist men. The title also honors the inventiveness of the women who looked beyond socially dictated gender roles and had successful careers in the visual arts, literature, and journalism.
Her new book, Politics of the Visible (to be published in July by University of Minnesota Press), allows Pickering-Iazzi to more fully explore her own opinions of politics and culture. "I was seeking an especially broad topic focusing on women as producers of culture during Fascism," she says. Indeed, in the book Pickering-Iazzi covers a wide territory that includes not only short stories but romance novels (very popular during the Fascist period), autobiographies, neorealist novels, poetry, and avant-garde writings.
As one would expect, much of Pickering-Iazzi's research material has been gathered in Italy. She has traveled extensively throughout Italy, and spent three years in Rome in the late 1970s. Her husband is Italian, and the couple has a teen-age son. "The thing I love most about Italy is the variety," she says, warming to the subject. "You can be in the middle of Rome and drive 10 miles in any direction to find a completely different atmosphere. You become immediately aware of these differences; you can see, hear and even smell them, if you happen to pass a restaurant. Italy is a very lively place, with lots of (animated) political discussion at the dinner table."
Over the years, Pickering-Iazzi has received substantial support from a number of organizations. She expresses deep appreciation to the UWM Graduate School (research awards in 1988 and 1993), the UWM Center for Twentieth Century Studies (fellowships in 1989 and 1995), her department at UWM and the Italian government (research award in 1995). "The support I've received has been absolutely critical to my research and writing, because at UWM we carry a significant teaching load as well," she says. "You need the unfragmented time of a sabbatical or released time to get away from the office and to concentrate fully on one project. You might be able to do the research a bit at a time, but you also need 'thinking time' to develop the innovative ideas that will engage readers."
Her ideas about Italian literature were first formed as an undergraduate student in Comparative Literature at the University of Washington. Pickering-Iazzi took a course in the Italian short story and she "was hooked." Her first trip to Italy came in the year before she began work on her master's degree. Then as now, her first stop on any visit is a bookstore. "I need to see what new titles have come out," she says. "When I'm not in Italy I recruit my husband's family to send me things."
In her 12 years at UWM, Pickering-Iazzi has constantly infused new ideas into the classroom. In her current undergraduate course in advanced Italian, for example, students are reading and analyzing an Italian mystery novel. Students tackle a variety of writing assignments based on the material, including character analyses, mock "newspaper" reports of the crime, and essays on the book's historical background. "During the semester we spend considerable time speculating about who the culprit might be," Pickering-Iazzi says, smiling.
She's also teaching a graduate seminar in Modern Studies that focuses on Fascism, critical theory and culture. This allows students majoring in other subjects to benefit from Pickering-Iazzi's teaching. "Attracting students from a variety of areas promotes the collaboration so essential to education at UWM," comments Professor Verdier. "Robin's work serves to enrich the academic offerings at UWM."
Such access is especially important for students in such areas as business and art history. "We've had interest in a business Italian class that would appeal to local companies that do a substantial amount of business in Italy," Pickering-Iazzi says. For other students, the classes "allow them to get in touch with their ethnic heritage."
Pickering-Iazzi received a faculty development grant to create two courses in Italian that were scheduled to be offered this summer. The new courses feature an intensive "immersion" approach that will condense a whole semester's course work into a few weeks. One benefit of such an approach, says Verdier, is that it duplicates the experience "a student would have visiting a foreign country, where they are hearing the language all the time." She believes the approach appeals to non-traditional students who aren't on campus "four or five days a week for a whole year, as required in more traditional academic settings."
Pickering-Iazzi is certain there are more books in her future, as well. She is delighted to note that since Unspeakable Women was published, many other scholars have been working on Fascism and feminism. "This gives readers an opportunity to balance the ideas I put forth in my books with the perspectives others bring to the subject," she says. It also critically recognizes the popularity of the neo-Fascist movement among some in modern Italy. "The neo-Fascist movement is still strong today, so these ideas are still being circulated. In some ways, it's a discussion that has only begun."