History 104: Western Civilization since 1648
Lecture: The 1920s and 1930s

Women and fascism click here for audio

For twoman in uniform smoking cigarettehe first few years of the communist Soviet Union, women may have managed to get limited equality. But in fascist states, like Italy (from 1922) and Germany (from 1933), opportunities were like men's opportunities: subverted to the "needs" of the states. Ultimately, this was also the case in Stalin's Soviet Union, which had communist principles but operated like a fascist state.

I will be discussing fascism in the next lecture, and you'll be reading about it. But for now, it should suffice to present fascism as an extreme form of nationalism. In Italy, fascist government was a response to poor international treatment at the Versailles Peace Conference, post-war depression, and the desire for an Italian empire. In Germany, it was held off for awhile by the false prosperity of the 1920s, but emerged with the Nazi (National Socialist) party. In both cases, fascist government was a nationalistic alternative to socialism or communism, the fear of which emerged in response to the establishment of the Communist International in Moscow in 1919.

Soviet medal
Soviet Motherhood Medal, given to women having six children (1944)

Fascist states glorified motherhood, but not in just the sense of domesticity. Motherhood was elevated to a state responsibility. One reason was to increase the population. In his speech in 1927, Mussolini said:

It is therefore necessary to take great care of the future of the race, starting with measures to look after the health of mothers and infants. This is the purpose of the National Organization for the Protection of Mothers and Children.
Throughout the country there exist 5,700 branches for which there still is not enough money. Hence the tax on bachelors and perhaps in the future there will be a tax on childless marriages. . . .
I tell you that the most fundamental, essential element in the political, and therefore economic, and moral, influence of a nation lies in its demographic strength.
Let us be quite clear: what are 40 million Italians compared to 90 million Germans and 200 million Slavs? What are 40 million Italians compared to 40 million Frenchmen, plus 90 million inhabitants of their colonies, or 46 million Englishmen plus 450 million people who live in their colonies?
Gentlemen!
Italy, if she is to count for anything in the world, must have a population of not less than 60 million inhabitants by the middle of this century.

Cross of Honour of the German Mother
Cross of Honour of the German Mother (for 8 children)

This is a tricky area for feminist history. Does it mean that women were confined to domestic tasks? Or does it mean that motherhood finally got the public respect and support it has always deserved, but which it is denied in most systems?

Fascist organizations could provide opportunities for women; many young Nazis were women. Motherhood, like in the ancient days of Sparta, was seen as a job requiring great strength and endurance. In Nazi youth camps, women's bodies were strengthened (like men's) in vigorous exercise. But fascist governments were clearly patriarchal in nature, despite the fact that Italy allowed women to vote.

Some women resisted fascist domination of their lives. One pamphlet, circulated by a women's committee associated with the German socialist party in 1932, said:

The Nazis demand the death sentence for abortion.
They want to turn you into compliant birth-machines.
You are to be servants and maids for men.
Your human dignity is to be trampled underfoot.
Your families will be driven to
desperation from ever greater hunger
The Nazis are the deadly enemies of liberation
and equal rights of women.
You must refuse to deal with them!
Whatever party or world-view you favor -
come and join together in anti-fascist action...
Form united committees for the joint battle against
hunger, fascism, and war!

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