Between Tradition and Profession: Italian Midwives during the Fascist Period



It was midsummer in 1928, and Maria L. was talking to a friend on the telephone of a small hotel in central Rome where she worked as a chambermaid. She was 31 years old and afraid that she might be pregnant. She urgently needed to find a midwife prepared to help her because she was determined to terminate the pregnancy. Her friend Rosa S. gave her a name and an address, but begged her to keep quiet about it because ‘they are being very tough. It was Mussolini who made things tougher, and that’s the problem. If they find out about it we’ll really be in trouble!’ By sheer chance the Carabinieri intercepted the phone call and began to lie in wait outside the house where Elisa, the midwife in question, lived. However, despite ‘a great deal of investigative work, public opinion closed ranks behind a dense veil of silence’.1 Some weeks later, when they came to her house to arrest her, a young ‘primipara’ (woman having her first baby) was lying in her bed while the midwife herself was seated at the kitchen table teaching her next-door neighbour to read. Elisa was condemned to confino (internal exile) despite the absence of any real evidence to prove that she had actually performed abortions.2


Birth Control Private Sphere Interwar Period Demographic Policy Fascist Regime 
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  1. 2.
    Confino, designed to ‘isolate the classes harmful to society and the state system’, was, according to the Testo Unico di Pubblica Sicurezza of 1926, formally an administrative sanction. As such it did not require the full procedure of prosecution and defence during the trial process. This made it easier to secure a quick prosecution than if the full legal process was followed. During the Fascist period many midwives were condemned to confino for being abortionists. On the magistracy’s attitude towards abortionists see Denise Detragiache, ‘Un aspect de la politique demographique de 1’Italie fasciste: la repression de l’avortement’, Mélanges de 1’Ecole francaise de Rome, 92 (1980), pp. 691–735; Guido Neppi Modona, ‘La magistratura e il fascismo’, in Guido Quazza (ed.), Fascismo e societd italiana (Turin: Einaudi, 1973).Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    For example, on 30 July 1920, the French Parliament passed a draconian law that forbade the advertising, sale or distribution of contraceptives. This law also prohibited incitement to abortion by public discussion, advertisement or distribution or sale of substances or objects to perform it; every reference to birth control in public was made illegal. The main goal of this law was to set out the different punishments that would be meted out to those who procured, helped to procure or performed abortions. The law was quite lenient towards the pregnant women seeking abortions whilst those who actually performed them were severely punished. (See Jean Elisabeth Pedersen, ‘Regulating abortion and birth control: gender, medicine and republican politics in France. 1870–1920’, French Historical Studies, 19, 3 (1996), pp. 673–98.)Google Scholar
  3. 4.
    Alisa Del Re, ‘Politiche demografiche e controllo sociale in Francia, Italia, Germania negli anni 30’, in Del Re (ed.), Stato e rapporti sociali di sesso (Milan: Franco Angeli, 1989).Google Scholar
  4. 5.
    On the failure of the French law of 1920 and of the subsequent one of 1923, see Jean-Yves Le Naour and Catherine Valenti, Histoire de lavortement. XIXe–XXe siecle (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 2003).Google Scholar
  5. 6.
    See, for example, Eva Abraham-van der Mark (ed.), Successful Home Birth and Midwifery: The Dutch Model (Westport, CT, and London: Bergin & Garvey, 1993); Hilary Marland, ‘Questions of competence: the midwifery debate in theNetherlands in the early twentieth century’, Medical History, 39 (1995), pp. 317–37; Nicky Leap and Billie Hunter, The Midwifes Tale: An Oral History from Handywoman to Professional Midwife (London: Scarlet Press, 1993); Hilary Marland and Anne Marie Rafferty (eds), Midwives, Society and Childbirth: Debates and Controversies in the Modern Period (London: Routledge, 1997); Tania McIntosh, ‘Profession, skill or domestic duty? Midwifery in Sheffield 1881–1936’, Social History ofMedicine, 11 (1998), pp. 403–20; Tania McIntosh, “‘An abortionist city”: maternal mortality, abortion and birth control in Sheffield 1920–1940’, Medical History, 44 (2000), pp. 75–96; Andrés Horacio Reggiani, ‘Procreating France: the politics of demography, 1919–1945’, French Historical Studies, 19, 3(1996), pp. 725–54; Phyllis StockMorton, ‘Control and limitation of midwives in Modern France: the example of Marseilles’, Journal of Womens History, 8, 1(1996), pp. 60–94.Google Scholar
  6. 7.
    See, for example, Ada Lonni, ‘Il mestiere di ostetrica al confine tra lecito e illecito’, Società e storia, 25 (1984), pp. 563–90; Claudia Pancino, Il bambino e lacqua sporca: storia dellassistenza al parto dalle marnmane alle ostetriche (Milan: Franco Angeli, 1984); Nadia Maria Filippini, ‘Levatrici e ostetricanti a Venezia fra sette e ottocento’, Quaderni storici, 1 (1985), pp. 149–80; Margherita Pelaja, Matrimonio e sessualità a Roma nellOttocento (Rome-Bari: Laterza, 1994); Claudio Schiavoni, ‘L’attività delle ostetriche di Roma e dello Stato pontificio tra la Restaurazione e 1’Unificazione’, Rivista storica del Lazio, 13–14 (2000/1), pp. 47–72.Google Scholar
  7. 8.
    See Liliana Lanzardo, Per una storia delle ostetriche condotte, Rivista di storia contemporanea, 1 (1985); Liliana Lanzardo, II mestiere prezioso. Racconti di ostetriche (Turin: Forma, 1985); Nancy Triolo, ‘Fascist Unionization and the Professionalization of Midwives in Italy: A Sicilian case study’, Medical Anthropology Quarterly, 8 (1994), pp. 259–81; Triolo, ‘Famiglia, aborto e ostetriche in Sicilia 1920–1940’, in Giovanna Fiume (ed.), Madri: storia di un ruolo sociale (Venice: Marsilio, 1995).Google Scholar
  8. 9.
    Alessandra Gissi, “‘Avvalendosi del suo mestiere”. Fra tradizione e professione, le levatrici durante il regime fascista’, PhD thesis, University of Naples L’Orientale, 2002.Google Scholar
  9. 10.
    Among others, Marius Jan van Lieburg and Hilary Marland have noted that: ‘There is also an obvious necessity, again despite the difficulties of sources, for learning more about midwives’ day-to-day lives and work’: see van Lieburg and Marland, ‘Midwife Regulation, Education and Practice in the Netherlands during the Nineteenth Century’, Medical History, 33 (1989), p. 316.Google Scholar
  10. 11.
    ‘II Duce visita 1’Istituto Benito Mussolini’, La federazione medica, 9 (1931), p. 26, cited in Anna Morelli, ‘La “missione” del medico negli anni ‘30’, in Gabriele Turi (ed.), Libere professioni e fascismo (Milan: Franco Angeli, 1994), p. 139.Google Scholar
  11. 12.
    Cornelio Di Marzio, ‘L’albo delle levatrici’, Le professioni e le arti, 4 (1935), p. 22, cited in ibid., p. 149. Di Marzio was head of the Confederazione Fascista dei Professionisti e Artisti and editor of the periodical, Le professioni e le arti. Google Scholar
  12. 13.
    Alessandro Pavolini, in Larte ostetrica, 8 (1936), p. 245. Pavolini was a ‘Fascist of the first hour’ who led the PNF in Florence for five years from 1929. He went on to hold many leading political positions including membership of the National Directorate of the Fascist Party from 1932. In the late 1930s, he became head of the Confederazione Fascista dei Professionisti e Artisti and, eventually, Minister of Popular Culture.Google Scholar
  13. 15.
    Alfieri proposed three paths to take in order to change the situation: ‘1) Legislative provisions which prescribe employment restrictions for expectant and nursing mothers and severe penal sanctions against criminal abortion. 2) Economic provisions in favour of expectant mothers lacking means of subsistence. 3) Hygienic and health assistance as well as moral protection for all needy mothers.’ See Emilio Alfieri, ‘La protezione della maternita di fronte al problema demografico’, Maternitd e infanzia, 3 (1930), p. 281.Google Scholar
  14. 16.
    The infant mortality rate (for babies who died in the first six days of life) increased from 16,761 during 1926 to 17,880 during 1928. See Cesare Micheli, ‘Per una migliore assistenza ostetrica’, La clinica ostetrica (1933), p. 112.Google Scholar
  15. 17.
    Cesare Micheli, ‘Per l’alta moralita della levatrice’, Lucina, 6 (1936), p. 12.Google Scholar
  16. 18.
    See G.S., ‘L’aborto procurato nel nuovo codice penale Italiano’, Lucina, 1 (1934); Antonio Visco, Laborto criminoso nel diritto penale, nella medicina legale, nella politica demografica (Milan: Fratelli Bocca, 1941).Google Scholar
  17. 19.
    Statistics on the repression of abortion during the Fascist years give a clear indication of an unprecedented situation. According to the legal expert Luigi Lucchini, in the whole territory of the Kingdom of Italy in 1869, only seven people (six women and one man) were convicted for carrying out abortions. The following year saw only four sentences. Luigi Lucchini was forced to observe that: ‘either …, the offence under examination is extremely rare in Italy, or …, justice and the law are being evaded and derided’: see ‘Aborto procurato’, ad vocem, Digesto Italiano (Turin: Utet, 1884), p. 107. Under Fascism, however, things changed. In a sample of 24 of Italy’s major cities, criminal proceedings for abortion numbered 1,130 in 1938, 994 in 1939 and 896 in 1940. See Luisa Passerini, Torino operaia e fascismo (Rome-Bari: Laterza, 1984), p. 283. According to Detragiache, during the 1930s the number of abortions which came to the attention of the authorities steadily increased due to the unremitting zeal of the police investigations. See Detragiache, ‘Un aspect de la politique démographique’, pp. 702–3.Google Scholar
  18. 22.
    See, for example, Lisbeth Burger, Fiocco bianco. Le memorie di una levatrice (Rome: SALES, 1934), translated from German; Le ostetriche in funzione di visitatrici ai fini della prevenzione dellaborto, della nati-mortalita (Rome: Ed. Federazione per Lotta contro la tubercolosi, 1940). The production of articles, essays and pamphlets was widespread. In addition to those cited see, for example, Giovanni B. Dotti, ‘Il compito della levatrice dell’OMNI’, Maternita e infanzia, 6 (1936), p. 11; Ernesto Pestalozza, ‘Disciplina e doveri dell’ostetrica’, Lucina, 1 (1934).Google Scholar
  19. 23.
    Benedetto Marini, Ferdinando Prosperini and Tea Sesini, In difesa della vita. Per voi ostetriche (Rome: SALES, 1935). The mother continued in the following manner: As a health professional with Christian principles the midwife ought to feel totally responsible for fighting against these extremely dangerous theories. Anti-fertility practices have pernicious effects upon the organism: pain …,, sense of fatigue, migraines …, There are no circumstances in which the midwife has the right to consider herself innocent when co-operating in the suppression of a new life …, In this matter the midwife shouldbehave as an apostle in the salvation of a Being which is physically threatened, or for the salvation of souls whose spiritual existence is under threat. Monsignor Prosperini took the trouble to include in the final chapter entitled ‘The obstetrician, Minister of the Supernatural’, instructions on how to administer baptismal rites, something the midwife was permitted to perform in cases where a baby was near to death or in the case of aborted foetuses. For one example of various interventions by clergymen on the professional, moral and religious duties of midwives, see Agostino Gemelli, ‘Doveri morali, doveri religiosi nell’esercizio dell’arte ostetrica’, Larte ostetrica, 7 (1934), p. 249.Google Scholar
  20. 24.
    Ildefonso Schuster, ‘II diritto alla vita’, Larte ostetrica, 3 (1936), p. 73.Google Scholar
  21. 25.
    The data about population is from Istituto Nazionale di Statistica (ISTAT), Censimento della popolazione, 1936. Data about midwives is from ISTAT, Annuario Statistico Italiano 1937, IV serie, Vol. IV, Esercenti professioni sanitarie al 31 dicembre 1935, p. 254.Google Scholar
  22. 26.
    In the same article, Perondi called for legislation to place midwives directly under the control of health officials: see Giuliano Perondi, ‘La natimortalita in Italia e i limiti d’azione della levatrice’, Maternita e infanzia (June 1929), p. 643.Google Scholar
  23. 27.
    Giovanni Battista Allaria, II problema demografico italiano visto da un pediatra (Turin: Bona, 1935).Google Scholar
  24. 28.
    On ONMI’s activities see Annalisa Bresci, ‘L’Opera Nazionale Maternità e Infanzia nel ventennio fascista’, Italia contemporanea, 192 (1993), pp. 421–42.Google Scholar
  25. 29.
    See Carl Ipsen, Dernografia totalitaria. II problema della popolazione nellItalia fascista (Bologna: Il Mulino, 1997), pp. 218–19.Google Scholar
  26. 30.
    Francesco Valtorta, ‘Quanto possa e debba la levatrice in favore della campagna demografica’, Maternita e infanzia, 7 (1937), p. 3.Google Scholar
  27. 31.
    Silvia Salvatici, Contadine dellItalia fascista: presenze, ruoli, immagini (Turin: Rosenberg & Sellier, 1999), p. 14; Perry Willson, Peasant Women and Politics in Fascist Italy: The Massaie Rurali (London: Routledge, 2002).Google Scholar
  28. 32.
    Nuto Revelli, Lanello forte. La donna: storie di vita contadina (Turin: Einaudi, 1985), p. 91. Revelli’s interesting book contains more than 250 oral testimonies collected from women who lived on the plains and in the mountains of Piedmont.Google Scholar
  29. 37.
    This case seems to confirm the trend found in Sicily which, with the lowest birth rate in the southern regions, was already in a phase of demographic decline in the early years of the twentieth century. According to Livi Bacci, the average number of children in Sicilian families was 3.94 in 1920–39 and 3.73 in 1930–39. He maintains that, during the 1930s, the birth rate was so low that it was clear that some very effective method of birth control was being used, in other words, abortion. See Massimo Livi Bacci, Donna, fecondita e figli (Bologna: Il Mulino, 1980), pp. 115–36. These data are also confirmed by Triolo’s findings: Triolo, ‘Famiglia, aborto e ostetriche’, p. 255. On fertility control in artisan families in Villamaura in Sicily see Jane Schneider and Peter Schneider, ‘Demographic Transition in a Sicilian Rural Town’, Journal of Family History (Fall 1984), pp. 245–72.Google Scholar
  30. 39.
    On Italian women’s persistent recourse to abortion see Perry Willson, ‘Flowers for the Doctor: Pronatalism and Abortion in Fascist Milan’, Modem Italy, 2 (1996), pp. 44–62.Google Scholar
  31. 41.
    The fact that midwives continued to perform a range of roles in the community of this nature also emerges from Nancy Triolo’s research. In interwar Sicily, she argues, midwives, whether registered or unlicensed, regularly ‘took part in baptisms, acquiring a sort of godparenthood; …, rather than the mother or the father, it was usually the midwife who presented a new-born child to the community, carrying the baby in her arms to the church for the christening’: Triolo, ‘Famiglia, aborto e ostetriche’, p. 257. See also Charlotte Gower Chapman, Milocca: a Sicilian Village (London: Allen & Unwin, 1973).Google Scholar
  32. 42.
    In the previous century in Rome, for example, baptism was a frequent activity of midwives. Margherita Pelaja has observed that, in her study of three densely populated parishes in central Rome from 1850 to 1864, as many as 57.9% of single mothers relied on midwives to baptise their babies: Pelaja, Matrimonio e sessualita, pp. 102–3.Google Scholar
  33. 44.
    The scene was similar to the situation in mid-nineteenth-century Rome described by Margherita Pelaja, where: to give birth to an illegitimate child, and even more so if the child was to be abandoned, it was necessary for the mother to make arrangements: she had to find a midwife to go to at the onset of labour, ideally one who was well connected with intermediaries — these too were generally women. (Pelaja, Matrimonio e sessualita, p. 74) On this point see also Gianna Pomata, ‘Madri illegittime tra Ottocento e Novecento: storie cliniche e storie di vita’, Quaderni storici, 44 (1980), pp. 497–542. On the controversial Fascist policy towards illegitimate children see Bresci, ‘L’Opera Nazionale Maternità e Infanzia’, pp. 433–9; Maria Sophia Quine, Italys Social Revolution: Charity and Welfare from Liberalism to Fascism (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2002).Google Scholar
  34. 46.
    Louise Bourgeois published her ideas on gynaecology in Observations diverses sur la stérilitE, perte de fruict, foecondite, accouchements et maladies des femmes et enfants nouveaux naiz in 1609. In a later edition she added Instruction a ma fille. See Giulia Calvi, ‘Manuali delle levatrici XVII—XVIII secolo’, Memoria, 3 (1982), pp. 114–16; Wendy Perkins, Midwifery and Medicine in Early Modem France: Louise Bourgeois (Exeter: Exeter University Press, 1996).Google Scholar
  35. 47.
    On resistance to the Fascist pro-natalist policy see Chiara Saraceno, ‘Costruzione della maternità e della paternita’, in Angelo Del Boca, Massimo Legnani and Mario G. Rossi (eds), Il regime fascista. Storia e storiografla (RomeBari: Laterza, 1995); Passerini, Torino operaia e fascismo, ch. 4; Victoria de Grazia, How Fascism Ruled Women. Italy, 1922–1945 (California: University of California Press, 1992).Google Scholar

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