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​The success of alliances

· Women in the Constituent Assembly ·

“Before leaving the hotel I carefully dress myself in blue. I brush my long, copper-blond hair, luminous and fine, and leave it loose. I look at myself in the mirror. My mouth is a bit sulky but I shall smile. My eyes have a strong and determined expression, they reflect the idea and the desire to succeed. All things considered, I am quite satisfied with the way I look. But now I am frightened, really frightened. I have the impression that not a single word will manage to escape from my throat, as tightly closed as a fist. ‘The Hon. Bianca Bianchi has asked to take the floor: she is authorized to do so [...]’. I step down from the bench like a sleep-walker: the eyes of all are on me, their murmurs surround me. I walk up to the podium. As soon as there is a hush I begin to speak with calm and wisdom [...]. When I finish the President stands up, approaches me, shakes my hand and congratulates me: the Assembly rises with prolonged applause. My party colleagues welcome me smiling, with the damp eyes of a dead fish”. The address by the Socialist Bianca Bianchi on 22 July 1946 was one of the first speeches made by a woman to the Constituent Assembly and it was a triumph, although the press the following day proved more impressed by her hair than by her words.

1946, women vote for the first time

The drafting of the project for the Italian Constitution had just been entrusted to a committee composed of 75 members. Among them were five women: Maria Federici, a Christian Democrat, Lina Merlin, a Socialist, Teresa Noce and Nilde Iotti, Communists, the apolitical Ottavia Penna first and the Christian Democrat Angela Gotelli later.

In its turn the committee decided to divide itself into three subcommittees, entrusting to each one of these the elaboration of a specific section of the future text. Iotti was a member of the first subcommittee, which was to deal with the fundamental principles and the declaration of rights. Federici, Merlin and Noce were called to be part of the third, whose task was to regulate economic relations, while no woman was part of the second subcommittee whose task was the organization of the State. Women were also absent from the editorial committee, to which the definitive drafting of the Constitution was entrusted.

The subcommittees transmitted the project for the Constitution to the Assembly at the end of January 1947, thus initiating the discussion in the Chamber. Despite the frequency of even highly heated ideological clashes (which were repeated in the Chamber), the subcommittees’ work was very constructive. In particular, divergences of opinion were overcome, starting very often from positions in stark contrast.

The first clause in article 3 which states: “All citizens have equal social dignity and are equal before the law without distinction of sex, race, language, religion, political opinion or personal and social conditions”, was fundamental for Italian women. Its genesis was emblematic. Since the formulation of the first subcommittee contained no reference to sexual distinctions, Lina Merlin suggested adding “of sex”, in response to which some of her colleagues noted that the words “all citizens” already implied both men and women, hence her amendment was superfluous. “Honourable colleagues”, Merlin said, “many of you are distinguished jurists and I am not, but I am acquainted with history. In 1789 human rights and the rights of the citizen were proclaimed in France as well as in the Constitutions of other countries conforming to that proclamation which, however, in practice was merely theoretical, for only men in trousers were considered to be citizens and not women, although today’s fashion permits women to wear trousers too. I insist on my amendment, also in view of the legislative developments that will ensue from it”. The amendment was accepted.

More generally, given the small number of women Deputies, the result that they managed to achieve was incredible. “The presence of women in the Constituent Assembly”, said Maria Federici, “proved effective and crucial, particularly for issues concerning women […]. In addition to the recognition of individual rights as a guarantee of legal freedoms, women aimed to acquire those rights which had always been denied them: the right to equality, the right to express an effective social presence, the right of access to specific positions until then exclusively reserved to men, the right to see their work protected from all exploitation”.

When we call the work of these women members invaluable, we refer to something very concrete. Indeed, in time the Constitution was to prove crucial for the abrogation, albeit very slow and difficult, of so much of that civil and penal legislation with a 19th-century, Fascist and misogynous hallmark which, in daily life and in courts of law, reduced Italian women to second-class citizens. For example, thanks to articles 3 and 29, only in 1968 was the Constitutional Court to reject any distinction between the sexes in the punishment of adultery.

What resulted was a tacit alliance, a strong transversal bond which, over and above political differences, closely united the women Deputies. Although “we were not yet used to having exchanges of ideas among ourselves”, Iotti said, “it nevertheless happened that we managed almost instinctively to find common ground leading moreover to valuable, if not very visible, work in our parliamentary groups to succeed in drafting the fundamental articles of the Constitution which concerned equality in the face of the law, in work and in the family”. Undoubtedly strengthened by their small number, a solidarity of sex brought them instinctively closer. “As we looked around us and met women Christian Democrat, Socialist, Monarchist and Communist colleagues in the Chamber and also across the Atlantic”, the Christian Democrat Filomena Delli Castelli said, “we smiled at each other, ready to recognize the responsibilities and expectations which the electors expected of the women elected to be Deputies […]. The group of women at the Constituent Assembly closed ranks when problems intrinsically related to work, the family and school were being discussed and needed to be solved”.

The strong transversality which united the women Deputies has an explanation: in fact they felt that rather than being representatives of the female or male electors – regardless of whether they were Communists, Christian Democrats or Socialists – they represented women, the “new affairs of women”. The mandate “entrusted to them by a mainly female electorate had clearly indicated the direction towards which the women elected had to move: the attainment of women’s rights, the rights of women workers and the rights of the family”, Maria Federici was to say years later.

Women of the Constituent Assembly in a poster for the feast of 8 March 2018

Moreover they were perceived by their male colleagues precisely as women’s representatives. The ambivalence of this situation is obvious: on the one hand it is certain that in a paternalistic fashion the male Deputies left the more typically female subjects to the commitment of the women Deputies, yet on the other hand it is equally certain that the latter would have felt somewhat affronted if this work had not been left to them. Federici noted further: “The Constituent Assembly welcomed women into its ranks with sympathy and a hint of condescension; it left to them the honour and burden of supporting the so-called ‘female issues’ but it did not know that it had women in its midst who, although they started from different ideological and political positions, had decided to fight for women’s rights”. So it was that when the women Deputies took the floor, both in the committees and in the plenary sessions, they spoke of assistance, of families, of education, of women workers and of women in public offices and in the judiciary.

In short, the alliance born (in spite of or against their parties) between Christian Democrat, Communist and Socialist women in the Constituent Assembly led to the elaboration and approval of articles which in subsequent decades enabled the dismantling of a legislation which strongly discriminated against women. However, it was precisely then that the problem of Italian democracy came into being: the idea, still rooted in the political class today but also in many sectors of the new feminist movements, that women represent only women.

Yet women’s political passion had already been expressed on the important subjects which concerned humanity’s future: when in the Assembly it was a question of voting on article 11 of the Constitution concerning the repudiation of war, the Deputies went down into the centre of the Chamber and joined hands in a chain.

Giulia Galeotti




St. Peter’s Square

Jan. 21, 2020