The Anti-Fascist Sex Workers Who Were Institutionalised for Challenging Mussolini
Sometimes it's left to some "ill-mannered" women to call out a fascist regime.
All photos courtesy of Matteo Dalena
This article originally appeared on VICE Italy
Around noon on the 8th of May, 1937, Teresa Pavanello switched on the radio in the waiting area of the brothel she owned in Naples. After hearing a speech by the country's fascist leader, Benito Mussolini, she commented to her clients and employees in the room on how badly corrupt Mussolini's government had become. The parlour fell silent and several clients left, outraged by what she'd just said. One of the people leaving was a member of the regime's voluntary militia – commonly known as the Blackshirts – who reported Teresa to the authorities. She was arrested, diagnosed as "delirious, confused and aggressive" and sentenced to several years in a mental asylum.
For the duration of Italy's fascist regime – between 1922 and 1943 – many sex workers and other women were added to the government's official registry of "subversive people" – a list of Italians who were said to jeopardise public safety by not abiding by Mussolini's rules for a moral society. Those rules didn't just extend to sexual behaviour – women who didn't want to have more children than they already had, or who couldn't take care of their children properly, were also considered "deviant" and were institutionalised.
But Teresa's story is just one of many cases of Italian sex workers who made it on the list for openly speaking out against Mussolini. Historian and journalist Matteo Dalena studied those cases for his new book Puttane antifasciste nelle carte di polizia ("Anti-fascist Prostitutes in Police Files"), in which he details and analyses the phenomenon. I spoke to Dalena about his project.
VICE: What inspired your research?
Matteo Dalena: As a historian and journalist, I'm passionate about telling the stories of people who are ignored and marginalised by society – especially stories of women. Under Mussolini, people could be imprisoned in asylums for years if they didn't conform to the government's idea of moral behaviour. Those orders particularly affected sex workers, but searching through the women's criminal records, I found that many weren't just arrested because of their profession, but for challenging the fascist regime. When they felt they were being discriminated against, they would openly call the regime out on it, which often led to them receiving more severe punishments.
Do you think those women were more politically conscious than your average Italian or did they just feel like they had nothing to lose given their status in society?
I'd say a bit of both. I believe it was mostly just anger at the way they were treated by the government in general. These were often women who grew up in rough environments and would have generally been considered to be ill-mannered. That also meant they didn't have much respect for authority or polite society, and were ready to speak out if they felt they were being disrespected.
How was prostitution regarded at the time?
Prostitution was legal, but had to take place in what was called "tolerated sex alcoves" – brothels that were forced to operate under strict guidelines. Sex workers had to undergo fortnightly medical exams, for example. If these women ever acted out of turn for any reason, they would be arrested and accused of "violating public decency". And then, once they were arrested, they would often make their predicament worse by calling the fascist regime out. When they did that, the eventual punishment was very harsh.
So what were they sentenced to exactly?
One of the most common sentences was solitary confinement for up to three years – in mental institutions located in isolated villages far from their homes. Even at the time, solitary confinement was thought to be an extreme measure, but these women were vulnerable and didn't have anybody to speak up in their defence. Once they'd served their sentence, some went back to prostitution, but many ended up getting re-arrested and returned to asylums.
Did you find out much about the backgrounds of the sex workers who were institutionalised?
Not much is known about them, sadly. From the files, it's clear that a few had other jobs on the side too – they worked as waitresses, seamstresses and receptionists.
Was there one story you found during your research that stood out for you?
Yes, the story of Maria Degli Espositi really resonated with me. After she was arrested in Bologna in 1928 for violating "decency measures", Maria said to the police officer: "If Mussolini were dead, you wouldn't be arresting me."
She was diagnosed as "insane and paranoid", and her case was filed under "homeless anti-fascist prostitute". Her comments got her thrown in an asylum for over 10 years. Can you imagine? She was there for more than a decade, for saying that.