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Winding Back the Clock, Part II

Enda O'Doherty writes: In the later 1920s Italy’s fascist leader, Benito Mussolini, introduced a series of measures designed to boost birth rates, sometimes referred to as la battaglia della natalità (the battle for births) by way of analogy with other high-profile campaigns such as the battle for grain (boosting agricultural productivity) and the battle for land (reclamation of marshland): Mussolini hoped to increase the population from around forty million to sixty million over twenty-five years. Loans were made available to newly married couples, with repayments being gradually “forgiven” with the birth of each successive new child. In December 1933 a visit to Rome was arranged for the ninety-three most fertile women in Italy, those with a number of surviving children ranging from fourteen to nineteen. They had the honour of being received by both the pope and the duce, with the latter also presenting them with a cash honorarium.

For Mussolini the chief purpose of increasing the birth rate and the population was to boost Italy’s military might. It was only natural that women should produce children, as it was natural that men should fight wars: la guerra sta all’uomo come la maternità alle donne (war is to men what giving birth is to women). Mussolini’s pro-natality campaign was actually a flop, while his initiatives on land reclamation and productivity had at least some success. He is said to have believed in later years that the Italians had let him down. Had they done their duty they might have provided him with several more divisions in the Second World War, another million perhaps to join those who died in the crusade against communism on the Eastern Front.

One may hope that war is not uppermost in the mind of current Italian vice-premier Matteo Salvini but he too has identified low birth rates as Italy’s number one problem, and his preferred means to tackle it are not dissimilar to Mussolini’s. “A country where children are not born is a country destined to die,” he told Britain’s Sunday Times last year, adding that the left used Italy’s demographic deficit as “an excuse” to facilitate immigration. This was a solution he would not countenance. At stake were “our traditions, our history, our identity”: “at the end of its mandate, this government will be judged on the number of newborns more than on the state of the public finances”. (In the same interview Salvini advised Theresa May to take a harder line in her negotiations with the EU and to be prepared to leave without a deal.)

A desire for a good deal more childbearing seems in fact to be common currency among all sections of the harder right (“A normal German family should have three children,” says Frauke Petry of the Alternative for Germany [AfD]), together with the expected endorsement of the traditional family, as opposed to any other kind, “the partnership between man and woman” as the fundamental basis of society, a return to traditional gender roles, no quotas in politics or public life, no meddling in employment practices and an end to all that nonsense, what the AfD’s Björn Höcke has called “damaging, expensive, publicly funded societal experiments that seek the abolition of the natural order of the sexes”.

But what is this natural order of the sexes? Well, for some it is so natural that it scarcely requires explanation. Men are made to do this, while women are made to do that. It can help, however, to go back a hundred years or more to get some of the flavour, to 1909 perhaps when the Men’s League for Opposing Woman Suffrage was founded in the United Kingdom; or even nine years later when the vote was kindly conceded to women over thirty who were property holders, university graduates or the wives of property holders. It was in the following decade that in a newspaper letters column under the rubric “SMOKING ON TRAMS” one contributor offered the commonsense observation: “Men have always smoked. With women it’s only a habit.”

In 1929, in A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf imagined herself conducting research to help cast light on the problem of the poverty of women (incidentally, she means very largely the poverty of middle class women). Many men, she finds, have written long articles and indeed learned books on the problem of women. There is sure to be something in there to help. So she lists a number of topics she has encountered, some of which can be returned to later, rather in the manner of an index:

Condition in Middle Ages of,
Habits in the Fiji Islands of,
Worshipped as goddesses by,
Weaker in moral sense than,
Idealism of,
Greater conscientiousness of,
South Sea Islanders, age of puberty among,
Attractiveness of,
Offered as sacrifice to,
Small size of brain of,
Profounder subconscious of,
Less hair on the body of,
Mental, moral and physical inferiority of,
Love of children of,
Greater length of life of,
Weaker muscles of,
Strength of affections of,
Vanity of ...

At this point she remembers an aphorism of Samuel Butler, to the effect that “wise men never say what they think about women”. But this cannot be true, she thinks, for is she not discovering that wise men – or at least professors –seem to say very little else than what they think of women? And in many cases what they say is marked by “an element of heat”.

This heat took many forms; it showed itself in satire, in sentiment, in curiosity, in reprobation. But there was another element which was often present and which could not immediately be identified. Anger, I called it. But it was anger that had gone underground and mixed itself with all kinds of other emotions. To judge from its odd effects, it was anger disguised and complex, not anger simple and open.

When I read of the schemes of wise men in government to encourage women to have a lot more children, or, by reminding them rather emphatically of their duties, to discourage them from too vigorously pursuing careers where they are not really wanted, I think of Virginia Woolf’s diagnosis of male anger, which she went on to speculate possibly derived from “some infringement of [man’s] power to believe in himself".

Women have served all these centuries as looking-glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size. Without that power probably the earth would still be swamp and jungle. The glories of all our wars would be unknown. We should still be scratching the outlines of deer on the remains of mutton bones and bartering flints for sheep skins or whatever simple ornament took our unsophisticated taste. Supermen and Fingers of Destiny would never have existed. The Czar and the Kaiser would never have worn crowns or lost them.

In four separate enactments between 1870 and 1893 (the Married Women’s Property Acts), women in the United Kingdom won the right to hold property independently of their husbands. In two stages in 1918 and 1928 they won the right to sit in parliament and to vote (they were waiting until 1944 in France for this and 1971 in Switzerland). From the 1970s legislation began to be passed which attempted to tackle inequality of opportunity in the world of work and to provide the necessary supports to enable women to fulfill themselves in roles beyond the family and home. We may tend to think that all of this has been accepted but there is evidence that it has not, and particularly not the most recent phase of change. The singer Joan Armatrading used the image of a woman kept “barefoot and pregnant” by her lover, out of the way of society, work, family and friends: “You gave me babies / To you that proves your love / Tie my hands with jewels / Barefoot and pregnant you kept me / You sought to / Hide me from the truth.” (For some women this may have been an apt metaphor but for others it was the literal truth. The singer Ronnie Spector was kept captive and threatened by her husband, the record producer Phil, who confiscated her shoes. She escaped barefoot with the help of her mother in 1972 after four years of marriage.)

We are perhaps more inclined to picture abusive husbands or lovers dominating and bullying their partners as angry and perhaps rather useless men in tracksuits or string vests. But it would seem that some of those who would like to see the women staying home wear good suits and shirts and work through committees. But let us hope that most of us have learned that the improvements in their lives – with still some way to go – that contemporary women and their families have accrued over the last forty years or so are too valuable to be carelessly lost again.

But your lady’s gone and bought some shoes
And she’s stepping out on the town
Your lady took herself in hand
And she’s spreading herself around.

20/2/2019