Italian Women in Uniform during World War I

Friday, January 5, 2018: 2:30 PM
Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, SC Johnson Center
Allison Scardino Belzer, Armstrong State University
No precedent existed for the surge in calls for women’s participation that crested over society in 1915 when Italy entered World War I. Confined for centuries to the shadows of the private sphere, women suddenly became essential to Italy’s burgeoning war effort and stepped into the light of the national stage. Newspapers, pamphlets, and speeches publicly called upon them to do their duty. The minister of war referred to them as “the Other Army” and pled for them to come to their country’s aid by joining civilian relief and welfare organizations, working in munitions industries, and, in a few cases, replacing male laborers. No longer outsiders, women became recognized as citizens, albeit ones lacking any new political rights. By the thousands, women responded to these appeals by putting on uniforms and making visible their patriotism. This paper explores why so many Italian women wore uniforms and how their wartime activities shaped their demand for full citizenship. The Italian military did not allow women to enroll, nor did it entertain the idea of mobilizing women. But some women hoped it would; for example Elma Vercelloni organized a conference dedicated to the idea, hoping an official mandate would legitimize women’s extradomestic lives. The articles and images in civilian assistance magazines and newspapers featured specific women’s contributions and issued general calls for participation. Stories about women’s work, for example in nursing and the transportation industry, reveal the ambivalence many Italians felt about women’s new place in the public eye. War poetry, propaganda posters, and war photographs offer another window into the phenomenon of women wearing uniforms. This paper will explain how women in uniform cut a new pattern for female participation in civic society.
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