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Modern Italy

by Luisa Levi D'Ancona

The history of Italian Jews in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is essentially a story of social integration and embourgeoisement, with the exception of the years of Fascism, the racial laws (1938) and World War II. In Italy, each pre-unification state had a particular relation to its Jewish population, reflecting the strong regional differences that in many ways were maintained even after political unification in 1860. Even if the different realities of Italian Jewry were shaped by the history and the socio-cultural context in which they lived, some elements—such as the high degree of literacy among Jewish women and men—distinguished the Italian Jewish population in general. This literacy, which characterised nearly all Italian communities, with the exception of Rome, remained an advantage over the gentile population long after the barriers of the ghetto were pulled down. In 1901, 97.6 percent of Jewish girls between the ages of six and fourteen could read and write, compared to 56.6 percent of the non-Jewish Italian population and 92.5 percent of Jewish women could read and write, compared to 57 percent of the Italian population (Sabatello 117).

The first emancipation occurred between 1796 and 1799 under the French occupation, while the second emancipation started in Piedmont in 1848 and finished in 1870 with the end of the Papal temporal state in Rome. With the opening of the ghettos and the granting of civil rights, Italian Jews integrated into society and enlarged their occupational sphere to play an important role in the modernization of the state. Political Jewish emancipation in Italy between 1848 and 1870 was preceded by social and economic integration. Italian Jewish women experienced the tension between integration and tradition, 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. Because of the Catholic discourse on women and its influence on the bourgeois concepts of separate spheres, Italian women struggled for their civic, political and employment rights.

This context also influenced the opportunities and openings for Jewish women. Only at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, did some Jewish women enter the world of employment, and only in the second half of the twentieth century did they have their political rights recognized within and outside the community. To better understand this process, one must consider the Italian-Jewish discourse on family and women in the nineteenth and at the beginning of the twentieth century. This discourse passed through different phases which approximately coincided with the appearance of a series of Italian-Jewish journals: the Educatore Israelita (Vercelli 1853–1874), the Vessillo Israelitico (Casale Monferrato 1874–1922), the Corriere Israelitico (Trieste 1862–1915) and the Settimana Israelitica (Florence 1910–1914). Articles in the Educatore Israelita (EI), the organ of conservative but emancipated Piedmontese Jews, tried to find a balance between tradition and the exigencies of “progress” by demonstrating the originality and modernity of Jewish tradition and religion 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 the 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. But in the last decades of the nineteenth century the 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, the quality of the articles declined and articles condemned all forms of women’s emancipation, identifying all activities that take 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 Jewish-Italian press was as conservative as the Vessillo. The Corriere Israelitico of Trieste, geographically in the Habsburg Empire but with a Jewish community strongly committed to Italy, which was one of the finest cases of Jewish social and economic integration, 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 which would provide a religious education for both boys and girls. The particular situation in terms of openings for women’s education in Habsburg Trieste and Gorizia was evidenced already during the nineteenth century, by the works of Jewish women writers and poets such as the Hebrew poet Rachel Morpurgo, cousin of Samuel David Luzzatto (1800–1865), the writer Carolina Luzzatto (1837–1919) and the travel-writer Flora Randegger-Friedenberg. Even the conservative attitude of the Vessillo at the time was contradictory, especially concerning women’s education. In fact the Vessillo proudly reported all the university honors obtained by Jewish women, as in the case of Ernestina Paper, the first “signorina” to obtain a university degree in Italy, graduating from the faculty of medicine in Florence in 1877.

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.

During the nineteenth century, women’s involvement in Jewish philanthropy had changed in parallel with the expansion and decline of other Jewish institutions. Some institutions had been inherited from the ghetto era, others were founded to face the new challenges of emancipation. Between 1848 and 1860, schools for Jewish women were founded in many Italian cities. Influenced also by the contemporary debates among liberal Catholics on women’s responsibility in the education of the poor, wealthy Jewish women were asked to intervene as benefactors. Their space for manoeuvre was however always limited by men’s control of policy-decisions. From the middle of the 1860s the role of women in Jewish philanthropy decreased. Jewish-Italian prescriptive literature and the institutions it represented were reluctant to recognise a space for women outside the domestic sphere. Wealthy women were asked to contribute to Jewish philanthropy, but mainly as honorific patrons and financial donors.

The gender-biased conservatism of Jewish communal institutions resulted in an increasing distancing of Italian-Jewish women from forms of the Jewish public sphere. In the long run this had the effect of enclosing most Jewish women in the family; nevertheless a visible minority was pushed into secular philanthropy and debates on women’s emancipation This phenomenon has recently been studied by Miniati, who argues that Italian-Jewish women were more ready than the majority of Catholic women to support women’s rights. Without a platform to develop their new ideas and roles in Jewish institutions, from the late 1880s Italian-Jewish women expressed them outside the Jewish community. Italian Jewish women collaborated as journalists in the women’s press, as was the case with Emma Conigliani, who wrote between 1895 and 1897 in Vita Femminile, advocating the emancipation of women, the right to vote, the abolition of marital authorization, and juridical equality between man and woman. Many other Jewish women, including Paolina Schiff, Rosa Errera and Isa Boghen-Cavalieri, contributed to the journal; while Bice Cammeo, Margherita Sarfatti and Zoe Campagnano collaborated with the Florentine La Rassegna Femminile. Other Jewish Italian women, such as Laura Cantoni Orvieto (1876–1953) and Amelia Rosselli (1870–1954), also published in the review Il Marzocco, founded in 1896 in Florence, an important center of Italian intellectual life. These writers then developed their own careers, the former as a writer of children’s books, the latter as a playwright, and collaborated with a number of philanthropic institutions for children and cultural institutions for women in Milan and Florence. Jewish women were particularly active in pedagogy, as in the case of Adele della Vida (1822–1915) and Elena Raffalovich (1842–1918) in Venice, and in professional education for women in the case of the Errera sisters (Emilia 1844–1902; Rosa 1866–1946; Anna 1870–1940). Another Jewish woman, Aurelia Josz (1869–1944), was the founder of the first women’s school for agriculture in Niguarda near Milan in 1902. Italian-Jewish women were also involved in other secular Milanese institutions, such as the Società Umanitaria, the Università popolare and the Clinica del Lavoro. Others joined the secular National Council of Italian Women (Consiglio Nazionale delle Donne Italiane, henceforth CNDI), founded under Anglo-American influence and in collaboration with the Women’s International Council. The CNDI aimed at a gradual cultural elevation of women, rather than openly fighting for women’s rights. By 1901 it included forty associations, mainly of a charitable nature. The Jewish women who joined the CNDI did so as individuals, for no association of Jewish women existed in Italy. Jewish women were also relatively highly represented in the National Women’s Union (Unione Femminile Nazionale), associated with the Socialist party. The Union aimed at “rendering [women] naturally and intellectually capable of accomplishing their mission of love and social regeneration” through charitable work, instruction and the welfare of children and mothers” (Unione Femminile Nazionale, Programma e Statuto. Milan: 1906, 3). The Jewish contribution to the Unione and to the Asilo Mariuccina, founded in 1902 for the prevention of prostitution and the rehabilitation of prostitutes, was substantial and is evident in the activities of personalities such as Costanza Rignano Sullam (1871–1945) of Milan and Bice Cammeo (1875–1961) of Florence. Other Jewish women, such as Paolina Schiff (1841–1926), founder in 1881 of the Lega per la promozione degli interessi femminini (The League to Promote Female Interests), and Bianca Arbib (1872–1958) and Nina Sierra, were active in the debate that preceded the adoption by Parliament in July 1910 of the law on the Cassa nazionale della Maternità. By developing and encouraging the involvement of women in activities of assistance, nurture and service and by emphasising the value of women’s competence and making it an instrument in the service of the public good, a political value was attributed to women’s social work. Involvement of Jewish women in politics was important not only as a social activity but also in terms of political ideas and parties, as the case of Anna Kuliscioff (1857–1925) demonstrates. Of Ukrainian-Jewish origin, Anna finished her studies in medicine in Italy and became a leading figure of Italian socialism. Her role as theoretician of “scientific Marxism” in Italy in the 1880s and 1890s was particularly significant for the influence she exercised on intellectuals such as the Jewish doctor and anthropologist Cesare Lombroso and his daughters (Paola 1871–1953; Gina 1872–1944), and on Filippo Turati, one of the historical leaders of Italian socialism. From the 1880s and in particular from the 1890s she concentrated on publications and lectures on the emancipation of woman, perceiving the woman question as an aspect of the social question.

The involvement of Jewish women in secular philanthropy can be explained at various levels. First, secular philanthropy and organisations for women’s emancipation gave them the possibility of fulfilling new social roles which did not exist for them in Jewish institutions. Secondly, by cooperating with non-Jews in promoting the amelioration and regeneration of Italian society at large, secular philanthropy was understood as an important element of their social integration. As argued by Miniati, Jewish women’s involvement in secular philanthropy was also the counterpart of the political contribution of Jewish men to the formation of the Italian state. In this sense, it could be understood as a particular version of the “parallel nationalisation” process of Italian Jews and an important aspect of the modernization of Italian Jewry. A further important phase of national integration was World War I, which affected women in two ways: in their participation both in the war effort alongside non-Jewish women of the same class and in the initiatives of the Jewish community. Philanthropic activities comprised various types of aid for refugees, health assistance to soldiers, and operation of institutions for war invalids, as in the case of Fanny Finzi-Ottolenghi in Milan and Matilde Forti Orvieto and Alice D’Ancona Orvieto in Florence. Mobilization was a fundamental experience in developing their self-consciousness and their economic and political capabilities. This phenomenon was addressed by Virgina Treves-Tedeschi in her book Le donne che lavorano (Milan: 1916), which argued that the road to women’s emancipation ran through work.

The war had highlighted the issue of the role of women in society, their right to work and to vote. In fact only in 1922 were women for the first time admitted as elected representatives in the Jewish community, and only in Trieste. Already before the war, Triestine Jewish and non-Jewish women had enjoyed relatively more rights than the rest of Italian women. It is not surprising that Triestine women represented Italy at the World Congress of Jewish Women in Vienna in 1923. However, Italian Jewish women had to still wait until 1927, when the ADEI (Associazione Donne Ebree d’Italia) was created as an autonomous association of Jewish women. Its aims included development of institutions of assistance for women and children in Palestine, collaboration in preparation for departure for Palestine, the defense of Jewish culture in Italy, and assistance for the Jews of Tripoli and refugees from Germany and Eastern Europe. For political reasons and for fear of raising suspicions of dual loyalty in Fascist Italy, the association stayed independent of WIZO (Women’s International Zionist Organization). From 1933 to 1939 the ADEI continued its support for projects and collaborated with other institutions such as the Delegazione Assistenza Emigranti for the refugees from Eastern Europe and Germany. An analysis of the census of “Italians of Jewish race” of 1938 indicates that at the time of the promulgation of the racial laws there were 46,848 Jews in Italy, of whom twenty percent (9,370) were of foreign origin. Jews therefore represented only one one-thousandth of the Italian population and were concentrated in particular in North Italy and Rome, where they never reached two percent of the city’s population. From the 1920s and during the 1930s, Italian Jews started to emigrate to Palestine. While the first aliyot were predominantly male, already in the 1930s the balance between Italian women and men in Israel reflected the family character of their migration. However, most Italian Jews continued their life in Italy and were shocked by the anti-Jewish laws of 1938. Jewish women and men were profoundly affected psychologically and in practice by the laws that banned them from school, university, public employment and many other sectors of life. Uncomprehending and incredulous as to why they were no longer considered citizens, the majority of Italian Jews continued to live in Italy, while a minority started to leave for the United States and Israel. On September 3, 1943, the Italian government concluded secret negotiations with the Allies to take Italy out of the war and on September 8, 1943, announced an armistice with the Allies. As a result, the Germans occupied Rome on September 10. The situation for Italian Jews became extremely dangerous and all activities of assistance institutions and emigration became illegal. Jews had to escape into hiding to save themselves from deportation and death by the Germans and by Italian 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 of them never came back. Women, as in the case of Silvia Della Seta and Matilde Finzi of Rome and Matilde Cassin in Florence, also participated in the Resistenza. Most of the autobiographical and memoirist literature expressly addressing the traumas and events of the war began to appear in the late 1960s and still continues to this day. The peak of Jewish autobiographies has occurred in the last fifteen years, by authors most of whom were born between 1900 and 1930.

The trauma of the war and of the racial laws weighed on all Jewish Italian families, while they struggled to return to normal life. Having understood the political significance of women in Jewish communal life, and parallel to the granting of the right to vote and be elected in Italy in 1946, the Union of Jewish Italian 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 Tullia Zevi was president of the Union of Italian Jewish communities, alongside her many other Jewish and non-Jewish political and representative appointments. Since World War II, Italian Jewish women have excelled in many fields: from medical research as in the case of Rita Levi Montalcini, winner of the Nobel Prize for medicine in 1986, to literature, as in the case of successful and diverse writers such as Clara Sereni, Natalia Ginzburg and Elsa Morante, with their ambivalent relation to their Jewish identity; from an avant-garde poet such as Amelia Rosselli (1930–1996), to painters such as Paola Levi Montalcini, Antonietta Raphael and Giorgina Lattes; from journalists such as Fiamma Nirenstein to career politicians such as Levi Giorgina Arian (b. 1910), a Communist member of Parliament in Turin’s fourth and fifth legislatures.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, Italian Jewish women can take full advantage of university education, they have opportunities in most sectors of employment and they are represented at various levels of Italian institutional and educational Jewry. At the same time and in new ways, they are still struggling to face the contemporary challenges of the tension between tradition and modernity.


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Loved the shared stuff, Keep it up! 

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

How to cite this page

D'Ancona, Luisa Levi. "Modern Italy." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 27 February 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on June 18, 2021) <>.


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