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What happens to women's rights when democracy backslides

Demonstration of Petrograd workers on Women's Day on February 23, 1917, which became the first day of the February Revolution.. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
Demonstration of Petrograd workers on Women's Day on February 23, 1917, which became the first day of the February Revolution.. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

From Nazi Germany to Mussolini’s Italy, fascist regimes shared an early target: Women.

“The fascists passed laws criminalizing abortion both for doctors performing, for people providing information for women seeking,” professor Anne Wingenter says.

Women’s rights, even a woman’s purpose, were narrowed to one goal: Advancing the greatness of the state.

“For the fascists, the main role of women was to be the mothers of many children, ideally the mothers of many future soldiers,” professor Anne Wingenter says.

“In the Italian case, for example, there is an attempt to promote traditional patriarchal values, motherhood, especially prolific motherhood.”

Today, On Point: Does the attack on women’s rights in the past have any relevance to the rapid spread of anti-abortion laws in the United States today?

And are women’s rights an early indicator of the health of a democracy overall?


Anne Wingenter, professor of history and women’s studies at Loyola University Chicago’s John Felice Rome Center.

Erica Chenoweth, professor of the First Amendment at Harvard University. Author of Civil Resistance: What Everyone Needs to Know. (@EricaChenoweth)

Interview Highlights

On the founding of Italian fascism

Anne Wingenter: “There’s a kind of growing consensus among historians that the Industrial Revolution causes a kind of crisis in masculinity that is exacerbated by the World War I. And certainly Italian fascism, which is the area that I study most, is in many ways a reaction to the experience of the World War I. And that kind of disorder and its immediate aftermath. And … Italian fascism, the first fascism, is founded in 1919, so just really months after the end of World War I.”

On the Italian fascist view of women

Anne Wingenter: “Mussolini was known for his kind of pithy little quotes. And he is on record as saying, War is to man, as maternity is to woman. The ideal woman in fascist Italy was the wife and mother of many children. Because there is a kind of demographic panic in the wake of the World War I in Italy. One who is, you know, essentially this kind of patriarchal vision. But one who is at the same time dedicated to the state.

“So I think that’s an important distinction. You know, that’s there in the quotes that you read, but also needs to be emphasized. That this is not just an attempt to turn back the clock to the women’s sphere at home and kind of limited to that. But it is an attempt to kind of nationalize motherhood, if you will. So the woman is supposed to be sort of subservient to man, and her ideal place is in the home raising children. But those children are children for the state, not for the family, not for the church, but for the state.”

On fascism as a ‘contradictory experience’ for women

Anne Wingenter: “The thing about fascism is that it’s a really contradictory experience for women. … If you’re looking at it from the top down, the picture is very simple. We know exactly what the fascists wanted from women, and they never tired of saying it. What’s really complicated is trying to understand from the bottom up.

“That is, how did women experience those policies? Because at the same time, they’re being told, Go home and have children, so that we can build the army of the future, or expand colonially or for whatever reason. But at the same time, they’re being mobilized to come to rallies. They have roles in public parades.

“They’re brought to Rome to receive prizes if they have more children than anyone else in their province. So there is this kind of push pull between this idea of a traditional place that they have to stay, but also this recognition, this place in the public sphere. And so women experience that in really contradictory ways.”

On examples of the redefinition of womanhood in Mussolini’s Italy

Anne Wingenter: “There were, I would say, like a combination of punitive, pro-natalist policies. And then policies that were attempts to encourage and laws that would tend to encourage raising of the birthrate. So, for example, information about birth control, giving information about birth control became a criminal offense.

“Abortion, which had already been illegal, but largely, not very closely monitored, let’s say was criminalized. With women facing up to five years of penal labor for consenting to abortion. There were child checks. So marriage loans to encourage early marriage. And those loans would be sort of progressively paid off with the birth of children. There was a tax on bachelorhood.

“There were job preferences given to married men over single men. Men with children over men without children, men with multiple children over men with only a few children. The aforementioned prizes for having large families, I think things of that nature. And then also quotas placed on women’s employment. Because it was believed that women’s employment and women’s advancement in the workplace or in education were barriers to fertility.

“And so there were attempts to kind of limit the number of women in the workplace, limit women’s access to high schools and to university. Now, there were small numbers of women achieving higher education at that time anyway. But these laws made it much, much more difficult.”

Are women’s rights in history relevant towards changes in laws around abortion, etc., in the modern context? Is it a canary in the coal mine for overall democratic backsliding?

Anne Wingenter: “I think that reproductive rights are an important sign for democratic backsliding. Because I think they are a way in which the definition of the people, in the whole notion of rule by the people, gets narrowed. … As long as we’ve had this kind of concept of democracy, of and by the people, a social contract among the people, there’s been contestation of who gets to count as the people. And in some ways, the last century or more has really been about trying to define the people. … For the various groups, trying to be admitted into full personhood.

“Fascism is a rejection of the notion of a quality, of an expansive definition of the people. And it comes at a time where people are pushing the parameters of an existing definition, one that basically included males, often male property owners only. It was pushback against expanding that definition to excluded groups. What we seem to be experiencing today to me looks a lot like an attempt to define down that notion of the people again. And some people get to be fully autonomous, and some don’t.”

On lessons learned from fascist Italy

Anne Wingenter: “I think that historically, again … the drawing of historical parallels is always a tricky situation. And, you know, we historians really, we were not really equipped or trained as people who can predict the future, certainly.

“But I do think that the degree to which we’re willing to tolerate the removal of a whole series of rights for people in the sense of a full ban on abortion, or in the pursuit of anti-crime. We want to kind of remove rights because we see them as potentially preventative of crime. We have to really seriously question to what degree we’re committed to democracy.”

Related Reading

Foreign Affairs: “Revenge of the Patriarchs” — “The pantheon of autocratic leaders includes a great many sexists, from Napoléon Bonaparte, who decriminalized the murder of unfaithful wives, to Benito Mussolini, who claimed that women ‘never created anything.'”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.