Jewish women in the early Italian women’s movement

By Ruth Nattermann

This book is the first epoch-spanning study on Jewish participation in the Italian women’s movement, focussing in a transnational perspective on the experience of Italian-Jewish protagonists in Liberal Italy, during the First World War and the Fascist dictatorship until 1945. It is based on the analysis of ego-documents that have been accessed for the first time, contemporary journals and Jewish community archives, as well as records by the police and public authorities. The study examines the tensions within the process of emancipation between participation and exclusion. Developments of marginalisation, the persecution of Jewish rights, and the assault on Jewish lives during Fascism are analysed distinctly from the perspective of Jewish women.

The fact that the racial laws from 1938 did not represent the sudden end of an idyllic integration, but rather the climax of a long-term development, is demonstrated by a thorough analysis of Italian-Jewish protagonists and their relationships to the non-Jewish majority society. In spite of their significant influence on the transnational orientation of the Italian women’s movement, their emancipation as women and Jews remained incomplete.

Italian-Jewish feminists defined themselves primarily through secular Jewish family identities based on ideas of a community of origins, the continuity of ethical traditions, and communicative memory. A unifying element of the women in question, among them well-known intellectuals such as Amelia Rosselli, the Lombroso sisters, and Laura Orvieto, is their conscious and continuous involvement in extensive, often transnational Jewish family and friendship networks. The manifold cultural influences from the German-speaking, French, Spanish and Eastern European context as well as the far-reaching relations especially with Great Britain, the US and Palestine furthered transnational connections both within and outside the women’s movement. At the same time, they underline the characteristic European and global dimensions of Italian-Jewish history.

With the consolidation of the organised Italian women’s movement from the 1880s onwards, the tensions within the emancipation process of Jewish feminists intensified. Based in socially and culturally diverse cities such as Milan, Venice, Turin, Florence, and Rome, they often took on central roles as transregional as well as international networkers in the founding history of the organised Italian women’s movement within the overall context of the contemporary European peace movement, collaborating and creating connections particularly with Swiss, German, British, and French protagonists, institutions and discourses.

During the establishment of the most relevant secular women’s organisations at the beginning of the 20th century, the “National Council of Italian Women” in Rome, and in particular the “Unione Femminile Nazionale”, founded in industrialized and politically vibrant Milan, conflicts between Jewish and Catholic activists increased considerably. The situation escalated towards the beginning of the First World War when openly antisemitic prejudices such as the evocation of a universal „Jewish-Masonic conspiracy“, prevalent in antisemitic agitation across Europe, became part of the Catholic women’s movement discourse.

The First World War was at first interpreted by Italian-Jewish feminists primarily as the desired completion of the Risorgimento and a just „war of liberation“ for Italian independence and unity. However, the experience of the cruel reality of war and violence made many of them question their belief in a „democratic“ Italian intervention on the part of the Entente powers. The “Great War” represented a turning point for ideological developments, Jewish/non-Jewish relationships, as well as transformations of gender relations. Yet, Italian women who had fought for political participation, just as German, Austrian, and Polish activists as well as women from many other European countries had done, did not succeed in getting the vote after the end of the hostilities.

During the immediate post-war period, Italian-Jewish protagonists chose rather different ideological views. In principal, Jewish feminists continued to identify with socialist or liberalist ideas, while the organised Italian women’s movement in general made a significant move towards the right, and began to sympathise with Fascist positions. However, there were also several Jewish female activists who were attracted by the rising Fascist movement. The course for the fascistization of the national women’s movement was set in the crucial period between the end of the „Great War“ and the arrival of Fascism in 1922.

The Fascist dictatorship initially marginalized Jewish feminists: Political dissidents were socially excluded, while anti-fascist Jewish family and friendship networks became even closer. At the same time, Jewish cultural associations and Zionist groups began to engage in intense activity in Italy, motivated by the fourth emigration wave to Palestine, which caused numerous Jews from Eastern Europe to embark in Italian harbors. This process resulted in an increasing interest in Judaism and Zionist ideas among secular Jews as well. The first Jewish women’s association in Italy, the Associazione Donne Ebree d’Italia (ADEI), founded in 1927 in Milan, which spread across Italian cities in the following years, developed into a space of refuge and renewed religious as well as Zionist identities within the context of Fascist oppression.

By 1935, the fascistization of the national women’s movement was mostly concluded. On account of withdrawals or exclusions, there were hardly any Jewish members left in the respective organisations. With the racial laws set in November 1938 the last Jewish representatives were expelled from all remaining women’s associations. Many of them emigrated, mostly to France, Switzerland, Great Britain, the US, South America as well as Palestine. The ADEI, on the other hand, developed anti-Fascist tendencies that increased in the context of the Second World War and the extermination of Jews in Eastern Europe by Italy’s German ally. The Zionist orientation of the association and its close contacts to Palestine could no longer be hidden. Prejudices against Zionism promoted by Mussolini himself increased in Italy due to the war opponent Great Britain and the simultaneous radicalization of Fascist policy against the Jews. At the latest from 1941 on, the members of the ADEI were regarded by the Fascist authorities as politically dangerous “anti-fascist internationalists”.

The assault on Jewish lives began with the German occupation of Italy in September 1943 and the creation of the Repubblica Sociale Italiana. The experiences of Italian-Jewish feminists who saved their lives by escaping or hiding between 1943 and 1945, as well as the fates of those who were deported and murdered in extermination camps, form part of the Shoah in Italy. Their formerly extensive transnational networks were irrevocably destroyed by war and genocide. Although after 1945 most Jewish protagonists of the Italian women’s movement fell into oblivion, their accomplishments in terms of legal reforms, pedagogical innovation, and modern social work stayed alive. They became the cultural heritage of these pioneers who during their lifetimes had not been able to experience emancipation as women and Jews.

Ruth Nattermann, Jüdinnen in der frühen italienischen Frauenbewegung 1861-1945. Biografien, Diskurse und transnationale Vernetzungen (Jewish women in the early Italian women’s movement 1861-1945. Biographies, Discourses, and Transnational Networks), Bibliothek des Deutschen Historischen Instituts in Rom Bd. 140, Berlin/Boston (De Gruyter) 2020.

Ruth Nattermann is associate professor (Privatdozentin) at the Department of Contemporary European History at the Ludwig-Maximilians-University in Munich. She is currently a fellow at the German Historical Institute Rome with a project on transnational humanitarianism and refugee policy in the era of the World Wars. Her research focuses on 19th and 20th century European and transnational history, with a particular interest in women’s and gender history, comparative history of fascism, Italian-Jewish and German-Jewish history. She has been principal investigator of the international DFG-network of scholars “Gender – Nation – Emancipation”, which has resulted in the publication “Rethinking the Age of Emancipation. Comparative and Transnational Perspectives on Gender, Family, and Religion in Italy and Germany, 1800-1918”, ed. by Martin Baumeister, Philipp Lenhard and Ruth Nattermann, New York/Oxford (Berghahn Books) 2020.

Citation: Ruth Nattermann, Jewish women in the early Italian women’s movement, 1861-1945, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 18.12.2020,


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Max Weber Stiftung (2020, 18. Dezember). Jewish women in the early Italian women’s movement. TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research. Abgerufen am 18. Mai 2024, von

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