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The Shalvi/Hyman Encyclopedia of Jewish Women

Features thousands of biographic and thematic essays on Jewish women around the world. Learn more

Modern Italy

by Luisa Levi D'Ancona Modena
Last updated June 23, 2021

Italian writer Clara Sereni is particularly interested in giving space and voice to marginal personae, and in "recovering the lost language of women."

Courtesy of Clara Sereni, Perugia, Italy

In Brief

Jewish women were crucial both to changes in post-emancipation Italian Jewish life and to the overall condition of women in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Italy. Pointing out at the differences with the Catholic majority and other Jewish European contexts, this article focuses on the changes in the role of Jewish women in modern Italy within the Jewish institutions and, crucially, their strong activism in shaping a secular civil society as teachers, politicians, philanthropists, writers, scientists, and artists. The article follows the profiles of several Italian and foreign Jewish women in Italy, through the shock of the 1938 Racial Laws, emigration, resistance, deportation, and reconstruction until today. 

Over the course of the period of Liberal Italy (1861-1922), the Fascist regime (1922-1945), and the Republic founded in 1946, Italian Jewry experienced cycles of tolerance, integration, rejection, and acceptance. Jewish women were crucial both to changes in post-emancipation Italian Jewish life and to the overall condition of women in modern Italy. Pointing out the differences with the Catholic majority and other Jewish European contexts, this article traces the history of the prescriptive discourse on Jewish women in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Italy, their role within Jewish institutions, and, crucially, their strong activism in shaping a secular civil society in Italy.  Jewish institutions did not recognize a role for women until after World War I. Therefore, in contrast to other Western European countries, Jewish women’s activism in Italy emerged first in the secular public sphere. This article describes this phenomenon and the many accomplishments of Jewish women in Italy as teachers, activists, philanthropists, politicians, writers, scientists, and artists: a constellation of figures, institutions, and phenomena that is only starting to be explored.

Jewish Women in Italy Prior to the Nineteenth Century

Throughout the long history of the Jewish presence in the Italian peninsula, Jewish women’s status as part of an at best “tolerated” minority weighed heavily on their lives. For centuries, most Italian Jews were restricted to working as small traders or pawn shop owners. Although women often participated in their husband’s activities, they were mostly confined to the home, a separation of spheres that only increased during the nineteenth century. Influenced also by Catholic discourse on women and its influence on the bourgeois concepts of separate spheres, Italian women struggled for their civic, political, and employment rights. However, compared to the Catholic majority, Jewish women enjoyed a relatively wider agency that may be attributed mostly to their higher literacy and to the importance of the dowry as a family investment strategy (Allegra, 1996; Gasperoni, 2015). 

Women poets such as Devorà Ascarelli in sixteenth-century Rome and Sara Copio Sullam in seventeenth-century Venice—both of whom wrote mainly in Italian—significantly contributed to the cultural vibrancy of Italian Jewry. However, these women were notable exceptions, as was the poet Rachel Luzzatto Morpurgo from Trieste, one of the first women poets to write in Hebrew in the early nineteenth century.

Jewish Women in the Public Sphere in the Nineteenth Century

For most Jewish women in Italy, changes occurred in the nineteenth century in parallel to their emancipation as Jews, as Italians, and as women. Political Jewish emancipation in Italy between 1848 and 1870 was preceded by social and economic integration. Formal Jewish emancipation was a long process that began with the French occupation of the peninsula (1796-1799), was re-granted with the Piedmont 1848 Statute, and progressively extended to other parts of the peninsula as they became part of an independent and united Italy, proclaimed in 1861, and culminated in 1870 with the end of the Papal temporal state in Rome. In the eyes of Italian liberals, and Italian Jews, the regeneration of Italy as a nation was tightly connected with the regeneration of its Jews.  

Heavily involved with the Risorgimento (the movement for the unification and independence of Italy), Italian Jews identified with the liberal regime and were committed to “the making of the new Italy” (Ferrara, 2017). Jewish women actively participated in the Risorgimento: Sara Levi Nathan collaborated with Mazzini and Garibaldi, and her houses in London, Milan, and Lugano were crucial meeting places for patriots. Other Jewish women, such as the sisters Elena and Letizia Pesaro Maurogonato and the playwright Amelia Pincherle Rosselli, thought of themselves as young patriots and wrote in their diaries (the former) and memoirs (the latter) of the patriotic enthusiasm in their families in Venice and elsewhere. Others expressed their patriotism in their salons, raising funds or encouraging their children to enlist as volunteers. Others continued their centuries-old tradition of ritual embroidery, with such new contents of political engagement as adding a fringe with the colors of the Italian flag to an older Torah ark curtain (Parokhet).  

However, Jewish women, excluded from the formal political arena, experienced tensions between maintaining Jewish traditions and promoting integration into the non-Jewish society around them, between the expectations of their families and the Jewish community, on the one hand, and the active interaction with the changing world of Italian women, on the other (Miniati, 2003/2008). Jewish institutions and the Jewish press in Italy were reluctant to recognize an independent role for women in leadership positions for longer than elsewhere. For example, whereas by the end of the nineteenth century Jewish women in the United States, United Kingdom, and to a certain extent Germany could form their own organizations, in Italy this did not occur until 1927. The reluctance of Jewish Italian institutions to recognize a role for Jewish women was one of the factors that pushed most of them to be active in a non-Jewish public sphere. 

Articles in the Educatore Israelita (Vercelli 1853–1874), the organ of emancipated Piedmontese Jews, tried to find a balance between tradition and the exigencies of “progress” by demonstrating the confluence of modernity and Jewish tradition where women were concerned. An editorial in 1858 advocated the “modernity” of “our laws [which] are a continual protest against those who claim women’s inferiority from Genesis” (Ravenna 294). In Italian Jewish prescriptive literature, the family was a principal locus of Jewish identity; motherhood was in tension between maintaining tradition and educating the future generations of male citizens. The Educatore Israelita also praised the ceremony of the ‘’profession of faith for girls’’ which took place for the first time in Verona in 1845. In an 1863 article, Calabi attests that the ceremony was celebrated at A seven-day festival to commemorate the Exodus from Egypt (eight days outside Israel) beginning on the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Nissan. Also called the "Festival of Mazzot"; the "Festival of Spring"; Pesah.Passover for twelve-year-old girls who had passed two exams on A biblical or rabbinic commandment; also, a good deed.mitzvot. In the synagogue the girls, “in front of the Aron hakodesh, dressed in white and veiled,” recited the Shema, followed by a prayer in Hebrew and Italian, in front of an audience of both women and men.  By 1863 this celebration was performed also in Florence. The tradition of groups of girls celebrating the Bat Mizvah together, usually on Lit. "weeks." A one-day festival (two days outside Israel) held on the 6th day of the Hebrew month of Sivan (50 days, or 7 complete weeks, from the first day of Passover) to commemorate the Giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai; Pentecost; "Festival of the First Fruits"; "Festival of the Giving of the Torah"; Azeret (solemn assembly).Shavuot, continues in Italian Jewish communities to this day. This opening of a Jewish religious public space to girls—and the exams required to do so—occurred relatively early in comparison to other countries, where it expanded mostly in connection with Reform Judaism, a movement which did not develop in Italy. 

In the last decades of the nineteenth century, Italian prescriptive discourse became increasingly conservative, openly opposing wider cultural and public roles for women. With the transformation of the Educatore into the Vessillo Israelitico (Casale Monferrato 1874–1922), the quality of the articles declined and articles condemned all forms of women’s emancipation, identifying all activities that took a woman away from her family as frivolous and immoral and arguing that the only remedy against assimilation was the isolation of the family. The family was a refuge where women were responsible for strengthening religious sentiment. In the face of the decline in religious practice, the Vessillo—and the sectors of the community which it represented—blamed “modern” women in the family and their failure to discharge their responsibilities, which they neglected in favor of fashion, ambition, and imitation. No space outside the family, no voice in communal institutions, or any role other than ensuring the integrity of religious observance was invoked for Jewish women. Even the articles written by an increasing number of female authors conveyed the same rigid ideology and refused to address the new challenges of the changing society in alternative ways, as was clear, for example, over the issue of women’s work, disparagingly called “eagerness for employment” (R. L. 1904). 

Not all of the Jewish-Italian press was as conservative as the Vessillo. The Corriere Israelitico (Trieste 1862–1915) of Trieste, geographically in the Habsburg Empire but with a Jewish community strongly committed to Italy, was one of the finest cases of Jewish social and economic integration. It complained about the lack of religious interest in the family but avoided using the woman as a scapegoat for this situation. Instead it proposed the creation of schools that would provide a religious education for both boys and girls. 

Only at the beginning of the twentieth century did articles in the Jewish press start to address the question of a role for women in Jewish charity and in a public Jewish space as a way to enable women “to safeguard religious sentiment” (Levi 1905). Articles in La Settimana Israelitica, influenced by the role Jewish women played in secular philanthropy and by the development of the Zionist cultural movement of Pro-Cultura in Florence, pressed for a wider role for Jewish women in the community and recognized other areas of women’s activity beyond the family. In 1914, editorials in La Settimana Israelitica were still debating women’s involvement in Jewish institutions, comparing the situation of Italian-Jewish women to the respect and self-confidence enjoyed by German and English Jewish women. The majority of articles in the Jewish press and the communal voices and leadership it represented were, however, still reluctant to formulate a new role for women in the public Jewish sphere until after World War I. 

Although a number of all-women Jewish confraternities dealing with mutual and charitable aid existed in the eighteenth century (Francesconi, 2012), Jewish women’s agency within Jewish structures declined during the nineteenth century. Within the Jewish communities, teaching remained the only sanctioned public role for Jewish women. During the nineteenth century, schools for Jewish women were founded in Livorno, Padua, and elsewhere, mostly focused on vocational training for their communities’ poor.  By 1901, 92.5 per cent of Jewish women could read and write, compared to 57 per cent of the entire Italian population (Sabatello, 1993). The Livorno school’s model and some of its teachers were exported to Libya and other locations in North Africa and the Levant to which Italian Jews had emigrated. A Jewish woman teacher from Trieste, Flora Randegger, tried twice to open a girls’ school in Jerusalem in the 1860s and wrote about it in the Jewish press. Carolina Nunes Vais introduced education for girls in Libya, importing teachers and methods from her native Leghorn (Simon, 2017). However, women’s agency as teachers and philanthropists was always limited by male control and policy decisions. The communities refused to recognize a leadership role for women within their institutions. The only exception was Zionist organizations, in which from the early twentieth century on Jewish women could serve as delegates in local branches. Also because of this, Zionism had a particular appeal for Italian women, although in practice men continued to lead the movement and send male delegates to international congresses.

Jewish Women in Secular Civil Society

While the Jewish community was reluctant to consider women as effective agents in Jewish life, Jewish women were accepted in newly created secular institutions and shaped secular civil society through political activism, philanthropy, academia, and writing (Levi D’Ancona, 2010). An early embodiment of Italian Jewish women’s secular political and social activism was the afore-mentioned Sara Levi Nathan (1819-1882) (Isastia 2010). A mother of twelve and one of the closest supporters of Italian patriot Giuseppe Mazzini, Nathan was a crucial link between radicals and Italian patriots in the United Kingdom and Italy. Upon her return to Italy, she became a pioneer in secular women’s education in Rome and women’s welfare in general in Italy. Her secular philanthropic activism was continued by her sons and daughters, including her son Ernesto, the liberal Mayor of Rome between 1907 and 1913. 

From the 1870s on, a relatively high number of Jewish pedagogues and philanthropists, both male and female, promoted women’s or co-educational education (Levi D’Ancona, 2020). The Venetian Adele della Vida (1822–1915) and Russian-born Elena Raffalovich (1842–1918) first introduced co-ed secular primary education in Venice in the 1870s (Salah, 2015). In 1902 Aurelia Josz (1869–1944) created the first Italian agricultural school for women in Niguarda, near Milan, where hundreds of women were trained (D’Annunzio 2016). The philanthropist Alice Hallgarten Franchetti promoted women’s education, work, and welfare in early twentieth-century Rome and in rural Umbria; the textile laboratory she founded in 1908 still exists. Hallgarten Franchetti was also crucial in her early support of Maria Montessori and her innovative methods, both in Italy and in the United States (Buseghin, 2013). 

Other foreign-born Jewish women worked for women’s emancipation in academia, the professions, and civil society (Levi D’Ancona, forthcoming).  Russian-born Ernestina Puritz Paper was the first woman to graduate and practice medicine in Italy, in 1877. As a professional and an activist, she focused on women's rights, education, and work and in 1911 founded a school for hygiene for poor mothers and young girls in search of a profession, which she represented at the International Council of Women's Congress in Rome in 1914. Russian-born Anna Kuliscioff, the first woman to graduate in medicine in Naples, played a fundamental role in Italian feminism and socialism. German-born Paulina Schiff (1841-1926), a writer and an academic, was an important activist for international peace and women’s rights. Russian and Eastern European Jewish women continued to study in Italy (mainly medicine, many in Pisa) throughout the nineteenth century and after 1933 where joined by several German Jewish students who found in Italy a temporary refuge. Most were active as scientists and feminists (Peretti, 2010).

From the 1870s, Italian-born Jewish women also started to be active as activists, writers, and as scientists, mostly as medical doctors. Among the first journalists and activists were Erminia Fua Fusinato (1834-1876), a patriot, writer, and, beginning in 1873, director of the first public secular high school in Rome , which was very successful among the growing secular bourgeois families of the capital (Leuzzi, 2008); the journalist Virginia Olper Monis (1856-1919), one of the first supporters of divorce in Venice; the writer Paola Lombroso Carrara (1871-1954) and the medical doctor Gina Lombroso Ferrero (1872-1944), daughters of the positivist anthropologist Cesare Lombroso, both active in children and women’s welfare; and their friend, the afore-mentioned Amelia Pincherle Rosselli (1870-1954), a successful playwright, writer, and promoter of ‘’practical feminism’’ through women’s work and welfare. When she lost her eldest son as a soldier in World War I and in 1937 her others two sons were assassinated by fascists, Amelia became the symbol of Italian mothers’ sacrifice in the antifascist struggle. Laura Orvieto (1876-1954), wife of an important editor in Florence, moved in the same networks and combined a career as a children’s books writer, philanthropist, and activist. Orvieto’s books on classic mythology for children are still best sellers in Italy. 

These and other Jewish women were active in founding and funding the first secular women’s organizations in Italy, most notably the Unione Femminile in Milano in 1898 and the Consiglio Nazionale Donne Italiane (National Council of Italian Women) in Rome. Tireless activists such as Bice Cammeo and philanthropist Costanza (Nina) Rignano Sullam were devoted feminists before, during, and after World War I.  The latter focused her activism in promoting women’s work: courses, schools, employment agency for domestic service and assistance. Nina spoke on women’s work in national and international conferences.

World War I and Its Aftermath

As was the case for most middle-class Italian women in Italy, several Italian Jewish women served as military nurses during World War I and at the end of the war aided Jewish and non-Jewish refugees and war invalids. Others were mobilized on the ‘’home front,’’ such as Sisa Carmi Belimbau (1849-1947). Having started as inspector of the Jewish schools in Livorno, she was appointed to reorganize a vocational school for women in Pisa and was active in women’s work aid organizations. During World War I, she organized the production of military clothing, providing work for hundreds of women. For her activity she was awarded medals from the Red Cross and the city of Pisa.

Wartime mobilization was fundamental in developing Jewish and non-Jewish women’s self-consciousness. (Natterman, 2019). In the 1920s, growing numbers of Italian Jewish women built careers in academia, as scientists, and as artists. Alda Levi (1890-1950), for example, was one of the first women to work in the administration of fine arts, first in Naples and then in Milan, where she initiated archeological research and heritage protection for the Lombardy region (Mortara, 2012). Already in the 1910s, Annie Nathan and other Jewish women painters were pupils of the vanguard painter Giacomo Balla (Melasecchi, 2014). In the 1920s, Jewish women were on both sides of artistic debates: on the one hand the anti-academic Lithuanian-born painter and sculptor Antonietta Raphaël Mafai (1895-1975) and the Venetian Gabriella Oreffice (1893-1984), part of the Ca’ Pesaro group, and on the other Margherita Sarfatti (1880-1961), promoter of the Novecento Italiano group, advocating a ‘’return to order to a modern classicism’’ (Ferrari, 2018). Sarfatti was a journalist, art critic, and patron of the arts at the center of the regime’s political and artistic scene, very close to Mussolini in the 1920s and early 1930s (Liffran, 2009). 

Jewish women were also successful in the professions, mostly as scientists and medical doctors (Simili, 2010). Several Italian Jewish women enrolled in medical studies in the 1930s, such as Luciana Nissim, Luisa Levi, and Rita Levi Montalcini, destined to become important scientists after World War II. As the situation in Germany worsened in the mid-1930s, increasing numbers of Jewish refugees came to Italy to continue their studies and/or on their way to Palestine or the United States (Voigt, 1993). A number of Italian Jewish organizations assisted the refugees in need of help, most prominently the DELASEM (Delegazione per l’ Assistenza Emigranti Ebrei) and the ADEI (Associazione Donne Ebree d’Italia). The latter had been founded in 1927 in Milan with the double aim of cultivating Jewish culture and assisting Jews locally and in Palestine and Libya. Its first president, Berta Bernstein Cammeo, and most of its promoters had previously been active in non-Jewish women organizations. Because of the rising nationalism of the Fascist regime, the ADEI resisted an official affiliation with international WIZO (ADEI, 1970). In the 1930s a number of Italian Jews began to emigrate to Palestine, but most continued to live in Italy and were shocked by the racial laws of 1938. 

The Racial Laws and the Holocaust

Italian Jews were profoundly affected psychologically and practically by the laws that banned them from school, university, public employment, and many other sectors of life. Foreign Jews residing in Italy were interned in camps, the largest being Ferramonti di Tarsia in southern Italy. Emigration to Palestine and the United States grew, as Jewish women and men searched for refuge and work (Guarnieri, 2019). The majority of Italian Jews, however, remained in Italy, where, although restricted, a sort of normal life continued until September 1943, when the armistice between the Italian government of Badoglio and the Allies left most of the peninsula under German occupation. The situation became extremely dangerous, and all aid and emigration became illegal. Jews had to escape into hiding to save themselves from deportation and death by the Germans and by Italian fascist police and soldiers. Between 7,950 and 8,150 Jews were deported or killed in Italy. Jewish women as well as men were deported, and most never returned. 

A number of Jewish women actively participated in the antifascist Resistenza, such as Matilde Bassani Finzi in Ferrara and Rome, Rita Rosani from Trieste, and Vanda Maestro from Torino. In Florence, 20-year-old Matilde Cassin was active in helping foreign and Italian Jews through the Delegazione Assistenza emigranti ebrei (Delasem), an Italian Jewish organization that assisted foreign and Italian Jews during World War II. When Matilde fled with her family to Switzerland, she taught in the Jewish school in Weggis, Lucerne, founded by Italian Jewish philanthropists. In the first months after the war, until her own immigration to Palestine, she continued to assist Jewish displaced children in the Selvino Hakshara (training program), run by soldiers of the Jewish Brigade and Zionist shlichim (emissaries) (Megged, 2002). Although exceptional, her role in assisting first Jewish refugees in Florence, then Italian Jews in Italy and Switzerland, and Jewish refugees immediately after the war, encapsulates the challenges and active role a number of Italian Jews, men and women, held during World War II.

After the war, thousands of Jewish Displaced Persons passed through Italy in what has been termed the Bricha (flight) or Aliya Beth, the illegal immigration to British Mandate Palestine. One woman had a crucial role in organizing, purchasing ships, and directing operations: Ada Ascarelli Sereni (1905-1997), who recounted her experiences in her book Clandestini del mare in 1994. Indeed, Italian Jewish women were among the first voices to recount their experience in the Holocaust as deportees or exiles. A few published immediately after the war (Silvia Lombroso, Si può stampare, 1945; Giuliana Fiorentino Tedeschi, Questo povero corpo, 1946; Liana Millu, Il fumo di Birkenau 1947). Others focused their memoirs mostly on their husbands’ experience in exile, such as Vera Modigliani in 1946 and Laura Capon Fermi in 1954 (Lucamante, 2014).

Reconstruction and the Republic

The trauma of the war weighed on all Jewish Italian families while they struggled to return to normal life. Jewish women became more active than previously; the ADEI resumed its activities as soon as cities were freed by the Allies. Cultural and charitable activities were re-organized and Italian Jewish women began to demand greater leadership roles within their communities. 

Since World War II, Italian Jewish women have excelled in many fields. Upon her return from Bolivia, Giorgina Arian Levi became active in the communist party, was active in Torino municipal politics, and was one of the first female MPs in Italy, while also being an active member of the Torino Jewish community. Rita Montagnana (1895-1979), active in the communist party since the 1920s, particularly focused on women’s emancipation after her twenty-year exile in the Soviet Union  and Paris; she returned to Italy in May 1944, co-founded the feminist association Unione Donne in Italia (UDI), and continued her political activity. In 1947, Russian-born international socialist activist Angelika Balabanoff returned to Italy, where she resumed an important role in Italian politics and in promoting the presence of women in the public sphere. The Jewish stylists Roberta di Camerino (alias Giuliana Coen) and Gigliola Curiel have excelled in the high-fashion industry, one of the pillars of Italian post war economy (Calò, 2019). Other Italian Jewish women, such as Clara Sereni, Natalia Ginzburg, and Elsa Morante, became successful writers, whereas Luciana Nissim Momigliano, a Holocaust survivor from Torino, had a thriving career as medical doctor, important psychoanalyst, and writer, and Luisa Levi (1898-1983) combined a successful career as a child neuropsychiatrist with political activism in the Socialist Party and Unione Donne in Italia. After World War II, other Jewish women chose to not return to Italy and became internationally known scientists and academics, such as Rita Levi-Montalcini, winner of the Nobel Prize for medicine in 1986; art historian Mirella Levi D’Ancona; chemist Giuliana Cavaglieri Tesoro; and psychologist Renata Calabresi. These Jewish Italian women all had successful careers in the United States (Guarnieri, 2019), whereas others such as medical doctor Lucia Servadio Bedarida escaped and remained in Tangiers, Morocco.

Parallel to the granting of the right to vote and be elected in Italy in 1946, the Union of Italian Jewish Communities in May 1947 approved the eligibility of women. Since then, women have been elected as representatives and presidents of the various local Jewish communities. From 1983 to 1998, the journalist Tullia Calabi Zevi (1919-2011) served as first woman president of the Union of Italian Jewish communities. 

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, Italian Jewish women enjoy equal opportunities in most sectors of employment, and some are among the country’s most successful businesswomen and philanthropists. A Jewish woman, Liliana Segre, has become the face and symbol of the ongoing challenge of Holocaust memory in Italy. Indeed, in 2020 Jewish women are over-represented as leaders of Italian Jewry. In 2020 the presidency of the Jewish community of Rome, the Union of Jewish Communities, and Italian Keren Hayesod are all led by women.

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Levi D'Ancona Modena, Luisa. "Modern Italy." Shalvi/Hyman Encyclopedia of Jewish Women. 23 June 2021. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on June 29, 2022) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/italy-modern>.