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The story: Elisa Salerno

A woman born too soon

02 January 2021

“I'll meet you on the corner of 36th and 24th”. Every time I hear a similar expression on American TV shows, I wonder if Manhattan’s streets are not dedicated to illustrious historical figures simply because it is more convenient to use numbers, or because in those parts they have a different idea of historical memory. In Italy, the toponymy of cities is a type of geographical, botanical, and above all, historical archive of our knowledge. However, as a quick Google search shows, this is only half the story. The lack of female toponymy in our cities shows an enormous disproportion between men and women’s’ names and confirms that our historical memory is truncated.  The many women who have collaborated in building the cultural, political and religious fabric of Italy are almost invisible. Though some are beginning to be part of the local memory, they are so with obliged marginality.

In the peripheries of history

For example, less than twenty years ago, a street in the most remote suburbs in Elisa Salerno’s hometown, Vicenza, was dedicated to her. What is more, the road goes round and round and doubles back on itself; it does not go anywhere. Then, just two years ago, thanks to pressure from Presenza Donna, the association that upholds her memory, a plaque was placed on the house where she used to live. This said, but who is Elisa Salerno and why should she deserve a street named after her, or a plaque where she used to live?

Now, here we arrive at the point. Elisa Salerno’s street does not lead anywhere and is on the outskirts because she has been kept on the outskirts of history, just like many other women, and no one at school has ever told us anything about her or others like her.

In the exergue of Anna Maria Zanetti’s beautiful essay on her, she quotes the words with which Salerno defined herself; “I was born early, I was born too early”. Elisa Salerno is one of many women who were born too early for they started historical processes that were so revolutionary that they needed a long time to develop and to become common heritage.

Catholic and feminist. Today, if it is still difficult to explain that this is not an oxymoron, imagine what scandal this combination must have caused at the beginning of the 20th century. This was when Elisa Salerno (1873-1957) did what women know how to do with wisdom, i.e. weave together personal history and political circumstances, intellectual convictions and religious choices without fear of paying the price of an unjust ban. She understood that no one was willing to recognize women’s right to speak and, therefore, it was necessary to take the floor. That is why she founded, directed and edited a newspaper that was able to give the word to women, especially working women.

Education and work

In fact, Elisa Salerno was well aware that, at a time when the world of work was in great turmoil due to the collision between industrialization and social justice, nascent socialism was able to intercept and take charge of the tragedies and aspirations of male and female workers. However, in the Catholic Church the openings by some in this sense were viewed with irritation and harshly sanctioned. At that time, Salerno was already calling for “equal pay for equal work”, and had understood the injustice and social danger of the wage gap, which is something that economists, politicians, trade unionists and even Pope Francis are talking about today. Above all, she understood that education and work were the two fundamental steps on the road to women’s emancipation; yet it was too early.

It was also too early to grasp the blend of anti-feminism and the geopolitical vision dominated by war. In 1941, when the whole world was at war, she tried to write to Pius XII, with the visionary courage to grasp the heart of the problem. From him, as from the other Pontiffs to whom she had turned, she received no reply and only when the war was considered a pandemic, did the awareness of the close link between the barbarity of war and female marginalization emerge with force. Salerno wrote that war would no longer afflict the earth thanks to the “moral, intellectual and Christian action of women” which must be elevated “so that they may occupy their place of responsibility, in all domestic and social, political and diplomatic, city and national, international and foreign functions”. Her request not to consider women “as mere extras, electing a woman here, a woman there, but in adequate numbers, and with weighty powers, validly, on the decisions, on the laws that govern peoples”, forced to invoke the pink quotas or to see women’s skills recognized only by decree must make women reflect today.   

 “Caught up in the urge to be a ‘theologian’"

Regrettably, however, Elisa Salerno was born too early, compounded by her living through the dismal season of Modernism and the resistance to any push for reform of the Church on the part of Catholic public opinion, and above all that of the hierarchies. Today, perhaps, in the light of so many controversies that accompany the current ecclesial era, we can better understand how difficult it is to ask the Church to respond to the urgency of a need for renewal. In order not to confuse tradition with the status quo, one must be willing to believe that the full truth is not behind us, but in front of us. Only the courage to let oneself be guided by the Spirit when chapters of history fold into each other is the guarantee of moving towards the full truth.

Elisa Salerno understood that one of these histories ‘folds’ where it was necessary to delve was the millenary injustice perpetrated against women. This exploration could be conducted as a believer, because “all the prejudices [...] scattered throughout the world against women are substantially [...] affirmed in the books [written] by men of the Church”. History has proven her right, but the Church still has not acknowledged likewise. Why is this?

There are certainly numerous reasons to explain this resistance. However, one in particular seems worthy of attention. Salerno claimed she had gotten to the root of the problem of millenary discrimination against women and to do this she studied the sacred texts, scholastic philosophy and Catholic doctrine in depth. An ante litteram theologian, who wanted to speak with full knowledge of the facts. She was not afraid of opposing men of the Church who were considered unassailable; for example, Monsignor Martini, whose translation of the Bible, which became canonical, was a blatant demonstration of anti-feminism; or her bishop, whose catechisms, according to her, distorted the Holy Scriptures. Elisa Salerno conducted a vibrant operation, dictated certainly by her argument, but also by a precise study of the Scripture and an equally robust ecclesial awareness at a time when the exile of the Bible had become increasingly deep and painful for Catholics.

She was opposed and mocked, considered a “poor little head, taken by the eagerness to be a ‘theologian’ [...]”. Above all, however, she ran into ecclesiastical censorship and was denied communion. A painful wound, but she never denied her convictions. Perhaps, one can understand why believing feminists hope that nostalgia for “the holy women of yore” will finally lead to recognition of their prophetic power and innovative courage. However, they, too, may have been born too soon.

By Marinella Perroni
Biblical scholar, Pontifical Athenaeum S. Anselmo

A book

Anna Maria Zanetti, Elisa Salerno, Femminista e cattolica[Elisa Salerno, Feminist and Catholic], in Ead. e Luccia Danesin, Indomite. Giornaliste, scrittrici, teologhe, patriote nel Veneto dal Seicento al Novecento [Women Journalists, Writers, Theologians, Patriots in the Veneto from the Seventeenth to the Twentieth Century], Marsilio, Venice 2012, 95-107.