The stars of the show were all women — 92 of them — who had been brought to Rome because they had birthed the most children in each of their respective provinces. As they passed for review in front of Mussolini, an official introduced each woman not by name but by number — the number of her live births. The event culminated in cash prizes awarded to the women’s husbands. This first Mother and Child Day ceremony would become an annual accounting for the so-called Battle for Births, the government’s pronatalist campaign to increase the Italian population.
Because Mussolini’s dictatorship developed in step with rapidly changing media technology — cheap print, film, radio — it left behind a vast record of political theater that makes clear how Fascism viewed and treated women. But what about the reverse? How did Italian women experience Fascism? How did they navigate a regime that simultaneously exalted them as central to its projects while limiting their access to education and jobs?
They were told that their highest purpose was motherhood and were assigned “primary responsibility for the people’s destiny,” subject to scrutiny in even the most intimate aspects of their daily lives — how they socialized, when they married, when and how often they reproduced, and how they cared for their families and kept their homes.
To see past the ceremonies that celebrated the “exemplary wives and mothers” of the period, we must look into the spaces that women and girls most frequently occupied and ask how their experiences intersected with the regime’s dictates. With its focus on Italian women’s food work, Diana Garvin’s Feeding Fascism is an ambitious attempt to recover a crucial — if unappetizing — piece of European history.
“Food matters,” Garvin tells us in her introduction. “[H]ow food is produced, purchased, cooked, eaten, and represented illustrates social norms as well as personal choices. Further, food constitutes the point at which politics physically touch the individual through the material reality of everyday life.” As the book unfolds, we see that, for a regime that sought not only autarkic food production but also the literal creation and molding of “new men” through control of consumption and the discipline of bodies, this physical touch of politics reached into women’s homes and workplaces — and even into their wombs and stomachs.
When the Fascists took power in Italy, only four years had passed since the end of World War I, a conflict that had cost the nation an estimated 600,000 lives. Heavily invested in the narrative that Fascism had been “forged in the trenches” and that Italy’s future relied upon being able to field a large and self-sustaining army, Mussolini’s government consciously adopted a militarized model even during peacetime. The aforementioned Battle for Births was one of many domestic endeavors that “mobilized” the population in bellicose, life-and-death terms.
Another was the Battle for Grain, a series of initiatives to reduce Italian reliance on imported cereals and achieve self-sufficiency in food production. For Garvin, it was the combination of these two domestic “wars” that determined what was asked of Italian women and set the “economic, autarkic, and biopolitical” boundaries within which they operated through most of the period. Together, they created a kind of feedback loop: the Battle for Grain was the mandate for the day-to-day operations of women’s work and domestic lives, coloring how they were supposed to view their food work, while the Battle for Births remained their highest calling. Italian babies and the breast milk to feed them were, after all, the ultimate autarkic products.
Garvin takes the reader inside an agricultural workforce — the mondine (female rice weeders) — and an industrial one — the women who worked in the Perugina chocolate factory — attending particularly to the ways these women’s acts of protest specifically related to food. We get a look at rationalist factory cafeterias and nurseries and learn how the regime adopted those models “to naturalize a factory-like vision of women’s healthcare by casting breastfeeding and childbirth as forms of mass production belonging to the state.”
Even while in their own kitchens, women were on the front lines of Mussolini’s Battle for Grain, as cookbooks, almanacs, and housekeeping manuals of the period demonstrate. Perhaps most surprising to devotees of Italian food is the degree to which the Fascists vilified pasta. Because Italy had to import wheat, the regime promoted rice as an autarkic substitute and sought to associate pasta with backwardness, “doughy bellies,” and a lack of virility. Recipes de-emphasized beef and pork, pushing home-raised chicken or rabbits instead, and even the language of food became autarkic as foreign terms were eliminated in favor of Italian ones, replacing sandwich with tramezzino, for example.
Such exhortations, Garvin tells us, probably did little to change the way Italians ate: poverty already constrained most to a diet where even the “lesser” proteins like chicken were a luxury. Instead, the Fascists assigned social value to a diet of deprivation, “framing economic necessity as a patriotic gesture.” Even middle-class families were encouraged to embrace cucina povera (literally “poor cuisine”) as moral service to the nation.
Ultimately, it was Fascist foreign policy rather than food policy that had a dramatic, if temporary, effect on the Italian diet. Imperial expansion, military intervention in Spain, and Italy’s entrance into World War II at the side of Nazi Germany stretched resources thin to the utmost and brought on increasingly austere rationing. By the 1940s, this had taken such a toll on available foodstuffs that cookbook authors gave recipes for foods that might be foraged (“a beautiful plate of frogs in sauce”) or even by listing “ingredients that you do not need to make this recipe rather than those that you do: ‘niente pasta, niente riso, niente grassi’ (no pasta, no rice, no fats).”
Garvin’s juxtaposition of cookbooks with factory practices is thought-provoking. She also mines sources that are often overlooked in accounts of the Fascist period, including material culture, song lyrics, oral histories, almanacs and other periodical literature, newsreels, and industrial archives. This approach is an important reminder that any attempt to understand everyday life must look beyond traditional sources and categories. Garvin generously includes a note introducing smaller archives and collections of material culture that will surely be of great interest to current and future scholars of Fascist Italy.
By placing the ephemera that women created alongside the ringing universals of Fascist pronouncements, Garvin allows us to consider the contradictions that women negotiated as they responded to the regime’s totalitarian pretensions. We meet female writers who employed the rhetoric of the regime to forge careers based on telling other women the proper way to feed their families. We get deep analyses of the recipes, advertisements, and propagandistic photocollages that worked to showcase fatness, hyperproductivity, and fecundity (even as many families struggled to get enough to eat) and to cast traditional behaviors, like cooking or breastfeeding, as both modern and patriotic.
The promise of the work makes its flaws especially frustrating. The writing is dense. Nonspecialist readers may have trouble following the narrative. Garvin provides too little of the larger context of Fascism and the longer arc of cultural history that informed many of the practices. All things happening in Italy under Fascism were not due solely to Fascism. More attention to the continuities in women’s lives and to the ways the regime sought to layer new meanings onto old practices would better support the study. The chronology is often unclear, a major fault when dealing with a regime as mercurial as Italian Fascism.
This temporal vagueness may repeatedly mislead some readers. This includes slippages of terminology: the mondine are alternately identified as “liberal” and “socialist,” for example — terms that were far from synonymous during the era. One must go to the endnotes in some cases to find that phenomena described as emblematic of the Fascist era often began much earlier or elsewhere. In one such instance, the author makes much of how the food industry seized upon “the wild fantasies of Futurist cuisine,” but the industrial production of extracts and concentrates cited as evidence of this claim date to 19th-century preunification Germany. Of course, it is true, as Garvin notes, that Fascism reframed and claimed credit for much that preceded it, but more careful rendering of how this took place would be appropriate.
The chronological fuzziness also produces some jarring inaccuracies. Although she correctly notes that Italy’s 1935 invasion of Ethiopia marked a critical period for Fascist autarkic policy, Garvin gets the dates wrong. She credits the Fascist period with being the “first time the state attempted to create public housing and to interfere in private life.” This is just not true. Indeed, many neighborhoods and public housing projects that are associated with Fascism today — like Garbatella in Rome — first began under the previous regime. L’Istituto Autonomo Case Popolari (the Independent Institute for Public Housing) was created in 1903, and numerous provincial institutions followed. At one point, she describes a mondina’s self-portrait as including letters “to her young husband at the Eastern Front in the 1930s.” Italy did not actually enter World War II until 1940 and sent no soldiers to the Eastern Front until after the Nazis invaded the USSR in the summer of 1941.
Despite its problems, Feeding Fascism contributes much to our understanding of women’s lives under Mussolini’s dictatorship and is a welcome addition to a growing body of scholarship that challenges the consent-resistance dichotomy that long dominated studies of interwar Italy. Fascists rarely missed an opportunity to celebrate what they were doing or to explain to people how they wanted them to act and feel. By subjecting the kitchen cabinets, factory cafeterias, ration cards, and recipe collections of the period to scrutiny, Garvin has brought the experiences of at least some Italian women into the frame.
The women we meet performed the work necessary to allow themselves and their families to survive. That propaganda lauded them for the work that served their families’ interests, laying claim to women’s productive and reproductive work in the Battle for Grain and the Battle for Births, surely gratified some and infuriated others. Ultimately, though, as Fascism’s metaphorical battles gave way to actual war, this mattered less to women than the daily struggle to put food — any food — on their tables.
Anne Wingenter is an assistant professor of European history and gender studies at Loyola University Chicago’s John Felice Rome Center. Her current project is a study of Rome between “hot” war and cold.