The Congress of Women: Women in Modern Italy

Updated May 6, 2020 | Infoplease Staff
by Madame Fanny Zampini Salazar
The Fate of Republics
The Wife of Blennerhassett

Women in Modern Italy

Signora Fanny Zampini Salazar is a native of Italy, daughter of Demetro Salazar. She traveled in England, studying the industrial institutions for women in that country, made a report to the government of Italy which was favorably received and an appointment was given her for like service in America. At one time she published a paper, The Queen, in the interest of Italian women, for whom she has been a zealous worker, endeavoring to raise both the industrial and intellectual standards. Among her published works are, "A Glance at the Future of Woman in Italy," "Life and Labors of Demetro Salazar," "Guides to Physical and Moral Health of Italian Children," "Old Struggles and New Hopes." She was sent as an Italian representative to the Congress of Representative Women, which met in Chicago in 1893. She was also elected one of the judges of awards of the Columbian Exposition. She is a graceful writer, a most charming lecturer, but above all a noble woman, devoted mother and faithful wife.

Social customs, family habits, popular prejudices and individual opinions differ so utterly from the north to the south of Italy that to give a fair view of the subject I should exhibit two different studies of my country-women, if I did not feel it my duty not to trespass on your kind attention. So I must try to generalize my study and mark briefly the differences existing between one and another part of modern Italy, the north being far in advance of the south. Since national culture began to offer means to educate the minds of the people, some women earnestly profited by this light of the soul, and today we have groups of learned, enlightened women who seriously struggle for the elevation of our sex in Italy. Here also we must take into consideration the difference of these groups in the different provinces, and notice how the north is still in advance of the south as far as these groups are concerned. This may be explained by the fact that the south was for long years the prey of ignorant rulers, while the north was governed by more intelligent sovereigns, though no less tyrannical and oppressive, who did not, however, consider it improper to offer means of culture to their people.

And while this happened in the north and south, in the two extreme parts of Italy, the central portion was no better off under the dominion of the popes, whose religious mission, unfortunately, changed into a political one. Since 1870 this political aim has increased and spread all over Italy, the priesthood regarding it as a duty to keep control, not only over souls and religious matters, but in other concerns in life, and above all in politics. Feeling that men escape such control, priests concentrate all their efforts to keep women under their influence. Allow me an explanation. If such influence was exercised in good faith and for pure religious purposes, all that is best might come of it. But unfortunately the strangest anti-patriotic feeling rules their behavior. The ardent dreams dreamed by our patriots, in prison and in exile, during the long years of subjection, and realized in the union of Italy, with Rome for a capital, leaves them worse than cold and indifferent-dissatisfied and angry. Hence a perpetual struggle to regain temporal power makes of the purest of human feelings, religion, a question of politics; not in view of the welfare and the popularity of the nation, but for the meanest ends of worldly ambition. Men influenced by women, though often unconsciously are kept from taking any part in elections; and these being left mostly to ignorant and ambitious people, are used for mean personal ends of obtaining power, fortune and influence. The results are what lately created shameful scandals and made the hearts of true Italians bleed with sorrow at these disgraceful facts. And while the priesthood, in hope of repressing progress and reconquering Rome, work in every way, extending their influence even over persons whose position and interest ought to keep them far from their reach, the Italian government, for a sort of counteraction, has no religious culture in public schools. The result is a relaxation in morality to the great detriment of religion and politics, regarded in the highest sense of their noble meaning. Women consider themselves pious if they follow religious practices, and men good citizens if they look on, complaining if all does not go right in the country but seldom rising to the consciousness of their great responsibility as pertains to their political duties. All this has its origin in and is the consequence of the general indifference to all that concerns politics.

Uncultivated women cannot understand what noble influence they might exert for the welfare of their country, and the elevation of the family and of society. The few who realize such a duty and try to accomplish it are wearied by misunderstandings, opposition and unfair criticism Men are more easily led, in general, by the so-called feeble women who rule over them, and who seem to be entirely subjected to their will. Strong, earnest, noble-minded women, whose interest in educational, social and political matters, combined with their culture, makes their conversation much prized in society, though admired, are feared, and are kept carefully apart because of a strange sort of prejudice about their becoming too influential in the country. Of course, men wish to keep their predominance, and though willingly disposed to accept privately woman's seasonable advice and moral help, they take great care not to make her conscious of her power, and in society they make much more of light, well-dressed, insignificant women, whose influence they fear not, being unconscious in this case that such negative influence leads them down to the lower level of such charming, empty-minded, useless creatures.

Again, the great difference to be found in the various social classes makes it difficult to define a woman of typical character in Italy. We have aristocracy, from which class little is to be hoped. In this class a few, a very few, exceptions are worthy of notice for giving their lives a really noble aim. In general, old prejudices, ignorance, pride, a sybaritical conception of life, considered with the most selfish views of satisfactions of a mere material order, reign supreme in that part of society which might so easily do so much good. The middle class has good elements, cultivated persons actively busy in some sort of serious aim in life. We have there a group of intelligent, learned women, gifted with modern ideas, and trying to their utmost to contribute to social progress. They do not turn to the higher classes for help; none or very little, indeed, would come to them from that source; but they look to the common people hopefully for the future moral regeneration of Italy. We have, indeed, all to hope from this much neglected and greatly oppressed social class.

The Italian people have the best human instincts; with a little culture and much love anything may be made of them. But allow me to observe that we must not judge the Italian people by some specimens of poor emigrants, stupefied with the long struggle with want and sorrow before they make up their minds to break the old home-ties of the beloved fatherland. In general, Italians belonging to the popular classes are full of heart and kindness, frugal, simple, much attached to their families and the place where they were born. They only need the enlightenment of culture to rise, strong and powerful, in the full consciousness of their most sacred rights, to a nobler life. But here, again, priesthood and prejudice, political fears and negligence neutralize the few efforts made in favor of their elevation. They are flattered when their service is required, helped occasionally by the humiliating charity offerings, and kept down in the dark regions of ignorance and poverty. Badly fed, badly paid, oppressed by heavy taxes, often without work-no wonder their life is a hard struggle to keep it up in sacrifice and suffering, unconscious of any right to a brighter one. I have often tried in the southern provinces and in Rome to arouse humanitarian feelings in the idle upper classes, speaking and writing about all that had been done in England for the moral and intellectual elevation of women and the people generally; but I only obtained praises and nice words, without ever being able to begin, even on a small scale, something practical in the way of associations of cultivated persons to promote popular classes, artistic societies in favor of these neglected portions of our country-people.

The press in Italy encourages such a movement; but the fearful indifference of the public, and the opposition of the officials, of the clergy, and other prejudiced persons are still to be overcome.

This work, I consider, must be undertaken by women, and I am glad to be able to say that we have begun to undertake it in the northern provinces, and I trust that persevering through all difficulties it will bring its fruit in time.

In Bologna, the ancient university town, where learned women taught one day in the character of acknowledged professors, in Milan and in Turin, associations exist and are being established with the view of promoting woman's progress and culture. In Bologna ladies have been at work for the past two years; and, indeed, it is there I noticed the most important group of intelligent women actively busy in promoting the interests of their moral and judicial condition. What struck me in Bologna was the solidarity of these cultivated women so earnestly at work together. It is there that the noble influence of one of our greatest Italians, Mazzini, is deeply felt, for a nobly gifted Englishwomen, whose soul was given to Italy in marrying Mazzini's best friend, Aurelio Saffi, has perseveringly been at work in the sunny years of her happy youth, and the sad ones of her widowhood, always endeavoring in all ways to elevate those with whom she comes in contact. She has established at Forli women's associations, the objects of which are to promote culture, sisterly help in need, and to find work for all. In the fullness of a richly gifted nature, Giorgini Saffi honors our sex in Italy, and simply goes on with her noble work, blessed by all that know her. Nor did this work prevent her from educating most highly her sons, and giving always the example of a beautiful life spent for the welfare of all those around her. I fully believe that the higher level of the women at Bologna is due to her influence.

In Milan we have a very remarkable group of intellectual women, but which is disintegrated, each working in her own way, very few of them following together the same high purpose. But these few, who are just beginning to aggregate, have felt the need of establishing an association to promote the interests of their sex. When I was there lately Pauline Schiff, a learned university teacher of German origin, published the program of an important association, to which many gave their names. In Milan are some very excellent schools and institutions for girls. I met there a most remarkable woman, Alexandrina Navizza, whose life is entirely devoted to good works, and who has no end of trouble to go on with them, because she would have nothing to do with the clergy, and is full of human pity and sorrow for unfortunate girls whom she tried to help and save from disgrace. In Turin is also a very interesting group of cultivated women, actively busy trying to unite their efforts to establish some useful association of like character to those at Milan and Bologna. In Rome we have two societies, but of quite a different order, most conservative in their aims and views. One was lately established by the persevering efforts of a brilliant, earnest, learned young professor and deputy, Angelo Celli, who succeeded in interesting a band of cultivated ladies of the aristocracy in the fate of poor women struggling in want of work and help. The society is called "Work and Help," and was organized two years ago under the patronage of our Queen Margherita. It is now prospering, and much good comes of it. Poor women find work and help during times of sickness or want, their young children being cared for during hours of work in a sort of nursery school established by the daughters of the ladies who aided Professor Celli to organize the society. Still, useful as it is, no attention is given to intellectual culture or recreation as is done for similar institutions in England. The other society in Rome was established in 1873, twenty years ago. It was established for the purpose of promoting the education and general culture of women, but it is such a mystification that it deserves honest criticism. I think nothing could better reveal the subjection of our women to prejudices and old ideas than this association of theirs, which pretends to promote woman's culture by a weekly lecture, mostly regarding ancient history, and carefully excluding any and all of the modern questions regarding social, educational, legal or political matters. In place of awakening the mind to examine these most important subjects, it seems that the aim of this society is to put it to sleep by the constant repetition of that which we all can read or have more or less been learning at school. Now and then, very rarely, some beautiful and interesting lecture is given, but in general they are very dull indeed. Fashionable ladies go because the Queen goes, but I have often noticed how uninterested they seem to be in the lecturer's old-fashioned theme. Another strange feature of this society is that lady lecturers are excluded from giving lectures there, though we have now in Italy a large number of successful lady lecturers. I believe that this society, infused with modern spirit and purpose can be made a powerful factor in the promotion of woman's culture and education.

Three years ago Prof. Angelo de Gubernatis, with the purpose of associating all who were willing, and offering them a study of the progress made by women of Italy, organized in Florence an exhibition of woman's work, and also arranged for a course of lectures along this line, to be given by ladies. These lectures were published in book form, and some of them are worthy of notice because of the originality of thought and ideas. But the exhibition and lectures were a source of great trouble to the professor, mainly because he could not obtain the patronage of persons in high position who obstinately refused to recognize the question of woman's development in Italy.

Considering woman's education in modern Italy, I have not much to say. We have public schools for elementary work, higher schools for girls, but a lack of competent teachers for them, and normal schools for those wishing to become teachers; but no proper training college for them, and the course of study is defective in nearly every department. Our present minister of instruction, Ferdinando Martini, is fortunately a high-minded man of modern ideas regarding woman's culture, and he is studying a project for the entire reform of education for both sexes. His work is very hard, for in Italy much is expected from the government because of the great lack of individual effort. Women are now admitted to the universities, lyceums and gymnasiums, but there are none of these exclusively for women. This, with the indifference of the parents as regards the education of girls, or their opposition to mixed schools, leaves little profit from these institutions to girls. Schools of art are open to girls, but the same objection obtains here also, and the young men who attend these schools are not always as refined as they should be. In the way of education we have still much to do, as, in general, not all understand that culture is one thing and education another, and that both are demanded. We easily find such a thing in some private schools, established by refined and cultivated women, whose personal influence has a good effect upon the pupils.

Two such institutions in Naples I visited with great interest. One is a daily school, kept by the Misses Vittori, daughters of a most superior woman, who, having lost her husband, and been left with a young family to support, very courageously determined to do it with her work. She studied to obtain her degrees, and was soon entitled to a principal's position as inspector of girls' schools. With this she had also taken private pupils to teach, and withal, she succeeded in bringing her children up nobly, and they are now the crown of her old age, one of the girls being a distinguished pianist, and the others are very good teachers. Their school is considered one of the very best in Naples. The other private institution is a boarding-school for girls, situated in one of the most beautiful and healthful country places, a few miles from Naples. There are Froebelian kindergartens, and from the elementary to the higher classes, and normal classes for those wishing to become teachers. This school has been very courageously started by the six daughters of Garibaldi's friend, Dr. Occhipinti. It is, indeed, just opened, but the oldest girl has a very good head, and sound, practical ideas on education, and truly she deserves full praise and encouragement for having taken upon herself such a difficult enterprise. It is prospering, however, many families sending their children as day students, and a few boarders have already been admitted, and I left my own dear daughters there, being sure that they could not be better off elsewhere. The Misses Occhipinti are religious, but Italians before all, having been raised under Garibaldi's noble influence. I am sure that in time this school will be one of the first in Naples. This school is called, by royal permission, after our Queen, "College Queen Margherita." The two very best schools we have in Naples besides those named, are due to the private enterprise of foreigners. They are Mrs. Julia Salis Schwabe's School and Seminary, which takes girls from childhood in the kindergarten to the seminary, which they leave with the degree of teacher. Still, before seeing this splendid institution prospering as it is now, Mrs. Salis Schwabe had to overcome no end of difficulties and opposition. I am proud to remember the help given her then by my dear father, who was always ready to encourage all intellectual pursuits. The other is an International College for girls, where they receive a most complete education, and are also taught to speak the principal modern languages.

We have also in Italy several professional schools for the working-classes, and these answer their purpose, though I think they ought to provide for more mental culture, and not limit their aim to manual work. This I generally regard as the principal defect in most of our Italian schools, the little or no regard that exists for the moral culture-that culture which tends to elevate the soul and give it a high conception of life, and of the high and sacred duties that make it full and worthy to be lived. The teaching of mere reading, writing and other branches is nothing if with it the mind is not led to think and consider life's problems, its duties and its rights, to make it noble and beautiful. Some new and well-organized institutions answer such an end, for they are the work of noble hearts and highly gifted Italians. One is the Suor Orsola College in Naples for girls, entirely reformed by the Princess Strongoli Pignatelli, a learned, high-minded woman, whose life is entirely devoted to good works. She is one of Queen Margherita's most esteemed and beloved ladies of honor. Besides having reformed this college, where girls receive a complete homely education, and whose hearts are guided to high principles by the constant care of the distinguished lady principal, Princess Strongoli Pignatelli has also established in Naples, together with Contesse Sansa Verino Vimercati Tarsis, another college for poor orphan girls. A beautiful college for the daughters of public teachers was also lately organized by one of our greatest Italians, Ruggero Bonghi. This college is near Rome, in a pleasant, old-fashioned country place, and is fairly prospering. Her Majesty, the Queen of Italy, patronizes it, and it bears her name, "Margaret College of Savoy." In Naples we have three remarkable old colleges for girls, bound to old-fashioned, conventual systems of education. But to give you an idea of our customs, I only state that while the entire staff is composed of ladies, most of whom reside in the colleges, the institutions are superintended entirely by gentlemen. Two of these are distinguished young writers, the Duke Richard Carafa D'Andria and Benedetto Croce. The superintending of the schools by ladies has never even been thought of. That women are competent to take part in public affairs of any kind is still a hard thing to establish in Italy. Even when obliged to work but few ways are opened to their activity besides teaching, and the only reason is the strong prejudice existing against women. They are not considered fit to work, and are not much trusted. If they follow the superior studies and obtain a degree they are actually prevented from competing with men in any but the medical profession. A young Turinese lady, Miss Lydia Poí«t, having followed successfully the university courses, obtained some years ago her degree in law. Well, men got so frightened at such competition that they managed to exclude her from the practice of her profession, stating that it would demoralize the Tribunal if women were allowed to work therein. The press tried to explain the injustice and illegality of such a proceeding, and quite a fuss was made about it, but nothing resulted. No other woman took the law course, and the noble girl, who had a right to the profession she had chosen, was obliged to give it up, though privately she works in the law office of her brother, who considers her a most useful aid. As medical doctors women could have a large practice and a most important field of action; but here again prejudice is against them, although our Queen gave her moral support to the profession, naming as her honorary medical attendant a Turinese lady, Miss Mary Valeda Farne. This learned and well-known woman would have a brilliant career anywhere else, as she was also appointed medical assistant at the principal hospital in Rome by one of our greatest doctors, Bacelli, but she could not overcome public prejudice and she must be satisfied with her small, though very select, practice.

Music is a profession allowed to women in Italy, and several struggle on as music teachers, and a few rise to the summit of art as opera singers or concertists. I may name as one of the leading concertists Miss Castellani, and also a sweet young girl just at the threshold of her career, Margaret Brambilli, who promises to rise high. We have in Italy very good conservatories, where, besides music and singing, a proper literary education is given. The most noted of our conservatories are at Naples, Rome and Milan.

In Italy women may occupy positions in the post, telegraph and telephone offices but the competition for these positions is so strong that they are most difficult to obtain.

So the highest public position a woman may hope to obtain in Italy is something connected with the educational work, the highest position therein being inspector or principal of the highest government schools. These positions are much sought after notwithstanding that at the very best they seldom pay more than one thousand dollars per year.

However, we have now a remarkable number of women who are fairly struggling for economic independence by their own work. The larger number of these are writers, some of whom succeed in making a living, though a very modest living at the best. Publishers seldom pay more than from one hundred dollars to four hundred dollars for a book, which they sell in no less than a thousand copies in one edition, thus receiving about eight hundred dollars for it, even when the book has little or no success but when three or five thousand copies are sold, the publishers' profits are immense. Printing is not costly in Italy, and so we have rich publishers, but I know of no writers who have made a fortune with their pen. My esteemed and dear friend, Miss Alice Howard Cady, of New York, who came to Italy last year, worked hard to induce our lady writers to send their books to the World's Fair. They thought their productions did not deserve such honor, for one of the characteristics of my charming country-women is a remarkable modesty or shyness. So several of them wrote to Miss Cady in that sense, that they were flattered and interested to be considered worthy of notice, and felt grateful to Miss Cady, etc., etc. The latter succeeded, however, in gaining her point and winning their confidence and friendship. Only to aid Miss Cady in her noble efforts, I published an appeal to Italian women employed in literary, scientific, artistic and educational work, explaining their patriotic duty to join in an exhibition wherein women from the world over would send their intellectual productions. However, lately, in my tour through Italy, I found that many women had not sent their books, simply because of that timidity which they could not overcome. Still many others gave me their books, which I had the honor to present to the beautiful library in this building. Because of the fact that the productions of Italian women are not as fully represented as they might have been in this great international exhibition, you must not judge us by our display. Besides, woman's intellectual work is not encouraged in Italy, not even by those who should regard it as a duty, and so, without encouragement or organization to that end, one band of distinguished, cultivated women could not manage to send all their intellectual productions.

As for industry, the beautiful, artistic lace work my country-women do will prove this to the fullest advantage. Much honor is due to your noble country-woman, Countess Cora di Brazza, for it is to her intelligent efforts and spirit of organization that we owe all that is to be admired in the Italian section of the Woman's Building. The rich historical laces of our royal family she obtained herself from the Queen, and many others from personal friends. But her perseverance in organizing schools for, and teaching lace-making herself, so as to give easy and beautiful work to our Italian peasant girls, is, indeed, worthy of all praise. Many noble ladies have lately become interested in this industry in Italy, foremost of whom was the late lamented Countess Marcello, who revived the old lace manufactories in Venice, and the Countess Maria Pasolini, one of the few ladies in the aristocracy remarkable for her culture and her interest in the girls of the working classes.

As for women's papers, we have a few nicely written, but of a light literary kind, and several stupid ones, devoted exclusively to French fashions. Having dared, several years ago, at my own expense and alone, to establish a review for promoting the intellectual, moral, and legal interests of women, after fourteen months I was compelled to give it up, although I had the good fortune to interest the Queen and a large number of intellectual women. But the review did not please the clergy, that so energetically opposes woman's promotion, and they managed things so well that the paper had to come to an end. So tired was I that I would then and there have given up my work but for the promptings of duty to the contrary. This led me, lately, to publish a book, in which is an account of the struggles during the best twelve years of my life spent in endeavoring to raise the intellectual standard of the women in Italy. Indeed I am happy and proud to say that I owe to that book my presence here, as the Italian Minister of Instruction asked me to write a similar report of woman's institutions in America. This book, besides containing the lectures I have delivered on the subject of woman's intellectual development, also contained my report to the Italian government of woman's culture and work in England. It also cleared away many misunderstandings, and was considered by eminent writers of both sexes to contain a true conception of the true ideal of womanhood we have yet to attain in Italy. During my last tour in Italy I had the pleasure to observe a great change in the general public opinion regarding the woman question. Many ideas, not understood ten years ago, are now perfectly admitted. So I look forward hopefully to the future, trusting in the reviving of education to promote the much needed reforms in our laws to control the fearful injustice that oppresses womankind in Italy.

This leads me to say a few words about the legal condition of women in Italy, and for this I have only to repeat what I said four years ago on this subject in England: "If we look at the civil and penal code of Italy concerning women, and at the laws concerning their rights, their culture and their work we easily see that a general opinion of their moral weakness inspired these laws. It is commonly believed in Italy that a woman is morally, intellectually, and physically inferior to man; that she can not stand by herself in life, nor presume to be respected and considered if she is not supported by the protection of man." What this protection often means is misery to reveal!

Italians, both men and women, have very distinct characteristics, of which we must also take notice to understand better their present condition and the reforms required for their social and intellectual progress. Above all, they are intensely passionate people, and family links are very strong; this much more in the south, where woman's individuality rarely exists. Woman lives the life man makes for her. As a child, a girl, she blindly obeys her father; and as a woman, her will submits entirely to her husband, whom she regards as the absolute master of her body and soul. If she does not marry, old as she may become, she remains always the obedient child of her father or brother, and never dares regard herself as a free human being. This is the worst of all-the general want of a consciousness of one's own individual rights. Very often I tried to arouse such feelings in some naturally intelligent woman of our southern provinces. They looked at me with wide-open eyes, as if I spoke some unintelligible language! In the northern provinces the chains exist too, but of a different sort, lighter, because women have a relative liberty, and easier to bear because more apparent than real, more in form than in substance.

So all reforms pertaining to women in Italy must tend to simultaneous training of mind and heart, the intellectual and moral faculties, bearing in consideration the eminently passionate instincts of the race, which, well developed and controlled, would make splendid characters of our people. Humanitarian feelings are latent in the souls of Italians, and intelligently developed would become the best agent for the development of the people. It is, I fully believe, by kind, affectionate, earnest interest and sympathy in each other that life could be made easier and brighter for all throughout the whole world.

To accomplish this most sacred duty, and see Italy as great and powerful as our fathers wished it to be, we cannot trust in the help of those who are satisfied with everything, when all their personal concerns prosper. We must rely on the efforts of the pure and enthusiastic souls of our young people, principally our sweet girls, whose ideal of life is noble and high, who feel in their hearts the needs of modern times, and wish to live a true life, uncorrupted by the homage to appearances.

The need of elevating life is felt all around the world; we are near a great change. The cry of woman for freedom and her rights appeals to all those God blesses with a right mind and a kind heart; and I cannot help but believe that to us women, the mothers of the race, a great part is reserved in this grand work; and I think we are all willing to undertake it, feeling what a sweet and holy mission is entrusted to us, a mission that will highly bless our lives, even among the difficulties we have to overcome and the sorrows we are called upon to bear and endure. United all around the world in this glorious effort, we must feel sure of winning gloriously at last in the name of the purest and highest ideal of human brotherhood. The dream of the age lies in the enfranchisement of the human race, and when life shall be built on truth, in respect to holy natural laws which govern the great mystery of our existence, and all human beings shall be equally considered, socially and legally, without any privilege for one sex or one class above another, then human kind will be great, and the nations will for them be great, and the world reconquer then its Paradise Lost!

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