What Happens to Women’s Rights When Democracy Rolls Back


From Nazi Germany to Mussolini’s Italy, fascist regimes shared a primary target: women.

“The fascists passed laws criminalizing abortion both for practicing doctors and for people providing information to women who seek it,” says Professor Anne Wingenter.

Women’s rights, even the goal of a woman, were reduced to one goal: to advance 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,” explains Professor Anne Wingenter.

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

Today, About: Does the attack on women’s rights in the past have anything to do with 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 as a whole?


Anne Wingenterprofessor of history and women’s studies at the John Felice Rome Center at Loyola University Chicago.

Erica Chenoweth, professor of the First Amendment at Harvard University. Author of Civil resistance: what everyone should know. (@EricaChenoweth)

Interview Highlights

On the foundation of Italian fascism

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

On the Italian fascist vision of women

Anne Wingenter: “Mussolini was known for his kind of pithy little quotes. And he has declared publicly that war is to man what motherhood 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 following the First World War in Italy. Someone who is, you know, basically that kind of patriarchal view. But one who is at the same time devoted to the state.

“So I think that’s an important distinction. You know, it’s there in the quotes you read, but it also needs to be emphasized. That it is not just an attempt to go back on the female sphere at home and limit it to that. But it’s kind of an attempt to nationalize motherhood, if you will. Thus, the woman is supposed to be somewhat submissive to the man, and her ideal place is at home to raise children. But these children are children for the state, not for the family, not for the church, but for the state.

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 look at it from top to bottom, the picture is very simple. We know exactly what the fascists wanted from women, and they never got tired of saying it. What is really complicated is trying to understand from the bottom up.

“In other words, how did women experience these policies? Because at the same time, they are 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 are mobilized to come to the gatherings. They have roles in public parades.

“They are brought to Rome to receive prizes if they have more children than anyone else in their province. So there is this kind of back and forth between this idea of ​​a traditional place where they should stay, but also this recognition, this place in the public sphere, and so women experience this in a really contradictory way.

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

Anne Wingenter: “There was, I would say, like a combination of punitive and pro-natalist policies. And then policies that were attempts at encouragement and laws that would tend to encourage higher birth rates. So, for example, birth control information, giving birth control information has become a criminal offence.

“Abortion, which was already illegal, but largely not very closely monitored, let’s say, was criminalized. Women facing up to five years of penal labor for consenting to abortion. There were controls So matrimonial loans to encourage early marriage.And these loans were kind of repaid as the children were born.There was a tax on celibacy.

“There were career preferences given to married men over single men. Men with children rather than men without children, men with several children rather than men with only a few children. The aforementioned prices for having large families, I think things of that nature. And then also quotas on the employment of women. Because it was believed that the employment of women and the advancement of women in work or in education were obstacles to fertility.

“And so there were attempts to limit the number of women in the workplace, to limit women’s access to high schools and university. Now there were a small number of women who were doing higher education at that time. But these laws made it much, much harder.

Are women’s rights in history relevant to the evolution of abortion laws, etc., in the modern context? Is it a canary in the coal mine for general democratic backsliding?

Anne Wingenter: “I think reproductive rights are an important sign of democratic backsliding. Because I think they are a way of narrowing down the definition of the people, in the whole notion of government by the people. …As long as we have had this kind of concept of democracy, of the people and by the people, a social contract between the people, there has been a contestation of who counts as the people. And in some ways, the last century or so has really been about trying to define the people. … For the different groups, trying to be admitted into the full personality.

“Fascism is a rejection of the notion of quality, of a broad definition of the people. And it comes at a time when people are pushing back the parameters of an existing definition, which included mostly men, often male owners only. There was a refusal to extend that definition to excluded groups. What we seem to be experiencing today is very much like an attempt to redefine that notion of people. And some people become totally empowered, some don’t.”

On lessons learned from Fascist Italy

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

“But I think the extent to which we are willing to tolerate the removal of a whole series of rights for people in the direction of a total ban on abortion or in the continuation of the fight against crime. We want sort of taking away rights because we see them as potentially preventing crime.We have to seriously ask ourselves how committed we are to democracy.

Related Reading

Foreign Affairs: “Revenge of the patriarchs— “The pantheon of autocratic rulers includes a slew of sexists, from Napoleon Bonaparte, who decriminalized the killing of unfaithful wives, to Benito Mussolini, who claimed that women ‘never created anything’.”


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