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Fabricating Women’s Histories

Fabricating Women’s Histories

Laura E. Ruberto (March 7, 2009)
Tilde Capomazza and Marisa Ombra
8 Marzo: Una storia lunga un secolo

Italy’s construction and memory of International Women’s Day.



International Women’s Day (IWD) is March 8. As I noted on this site last year, it’s a day that is not celebrated much in the U.S.; however, a great part of how March 8 is remembered today is mostly due to the experiences of immigrant women in the early part of the twentieth century in New York—most notably, in the tragedy that has come to be known as the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire.
Many narratives exist about the development of IWD; together they create a series of crazy twists and turns caused by ideological choices, cultural memory, and personal narrative. In the case of Italy, a country that has long embraced la festa della donna—to sometimes nauseatingly consumerist levels—some of these twists seem particularly curious.
Here’s one of the online versions of IWD history I came across while preparing this post:
The Italian Communists invented the most colorful rationale of all in the 1950's, claiming that a hundred striking women factory workers in New York City had been murdered in 1910, and that the holiday was proclaimed at a women's conference in Copenhagen later that year as a result of a proposal by the German Communist Clara Zetkin. No such massacre took place, although there was a March horror in New York City the following year, on March 24th, when 134 workers of both sexes were burned to death when emergency doors failed to open and an emergency staircase collapsed during an accidental fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. Nor did the Copenhagen conference proclaim Women's Day. In fact, it was the American delegation to the Copenhagen women's conference— not the German Communist icon—that proposed the establishment of an International Women's Day, but the conference declined to act on the proposal. (“Women’s Day Fantasies," Alessandra Nucci)
This version of events intrigued me—why would the Italian Communist Party fabricate and disseminate a story about immigrant women’s exploitation and death when they had a perfectly dreadful and indisputably true story in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of March 25, 1911?
Triangle Fire
Bodies of women who jumped from the Triangle Fire, 1911
I started surfing for more information. I found it, for the most part, only in Italian-language sources—like the notoriously unreliable Wikipdia:
L'origine di questa giornata è stata oggetto di strumentalizzazioni; una di queste riguarda in Italia il settimanale "La lotta", edito dalla sezione bolognese del Partito Comunista Italiano, che nel 1952 pubblicò una storia rivelatasi poi un falso storico.[3] Il settimanale comunista sostenne in un suo articolo che l'origine della festa sarebbe risalita ad un grave fatto di cronaca avvenuto nel 1908 a New York: alcuni giorni prima dell'8 marzo, le operaie dell'industria tessile Cotton iniziarono a scioperare per protestare contro le condizioni in cui erano costrette a lavorare. Lo sciopero proseguì per diversi giorni finché l'8 marzo Mr. Johnson, il proprietario della fabbrica, bloccò tutte le vie di uscita; lo stabilimento venne devastato da un incendio e le 129 operaie prigioniere all'interno non ebbero scampo. Questo falso ebbe ulteriore seguito nella stampa comunista: l'Unione Donne Italiane nello stesso 1952 distribuì alle iscritte libretti con un resoconto dell'incendio. Nel 1954 "Il Lavoro", settimanale della Cgil, aggiunse un fotomontaggio di Mr. Johnson con la bombetta che si fa largo tra la massa di donne tenute dalla polizia.[4] In realtà non esiste alcun documento storico su questa fantomatica industria Cotton e sul suo incendio.
The online references to a fire in either 1908 or 1910 at a place called the Cotton Factory owned by a Mr. Johnson exist almost exclusively in Italian (even the above-quoted English-language description by Alessandra Nucci appears originally in Italian).
Moreover, all of the references linking the fabrication of this story to the Italian Communist Party (Pci) and/or Udi (Unione Donne Italiane) and/or Cgil (the Italian General Confederation of Labor) seem to stem from Vittorio Messori’s book Pensare la storia.
Messori is by some accounts “the most translated Catholic writer in the world" (Sandro Magister). Although many of his books are available in the U.S., his Pensare la storia is not part of the collection of my local university library, the Bancroft Library at the University of California Berkeley. I tried unsuccessfully over the last ten days or so to find someone—even via email and Facebook—who has a copy of the book so that I might confirm the story. Online, I found this passage from his book:
In Italia è molto diffusa una storia che fa risalire l’origine della festa ad un grave incidente avvenuto negli Stati uniti, l’incendio dell’industria tessile Cotton. Questa storia è un falso storico accertato che fu elaborato dalla stampa comunista ai tempi della guerra fredda.
(Vittorio Messori, “Una ‘festa’ inventata,” Pensare la storia. Una lettura cattolica dell’avventura umana, Paoline, Milano 1992, p. 107-108)
This is the story that interests me. Women’s everyday lives and work experiences have long gotten a raw deal in dominant cultural narratives. At the same time, much of feminist theory reminds us of the power of the personal; that is the importance of what we might consider subjective memory in the reconstruction of history.
Assuming Messori’s version is accurate, we’re compelled to ask why the Pci would bother to make up a workplace horror story when it already had a real-life historical incident ideal for propaganda purposes? Why choose a narrative that echoes the 1911 Triangle Factory Fire? Was it sloppily written, knowingly falsified, or innocently passed along from another (most likely Soviet) source?
And what does it suggest about Italy’s history of leftist activism to place the creation of the fake story, as Messori does, in Bologna—la rossa, la grassa, la dotta—of all places? On the one hand, the city’s communist intellectual history makes Messori’s assertion perfectly logical. On the other hand, the tidiness of the account—the too-convenient association between communism, labor, and Europe’s reddest university town—makes me suspicious.
I emailed or spoke to over twenty academics working in Italian and Italian American Studies, both in the U.S. and Italy, about Messori’s account. Many people sent my question on to others. (Mille grazie a tutti!) A few knew of the competing stories surrounding IWD in Italy, but no one could corroborate or debunk the Bologna-Pci/Udi/Cgil aspect of it. In short, the communist-fabrication connection was news to everyone.
Poster for the 1970s era Movement for the Liberation of Women (Mld)
Edvige Giunta of New Jersey City University offered me part of a story she had started writing about the two historical accounts of IWD:
In the 1970s I was one of the many Italian women who, every year on March 8, filled the streets and the squares of Italian cities. We marched, chanted, raised our left fist, held our hands high, fingers connected in the symbol of womanhood. We marched hoping for a different future of gender justice and equity and we remembered the women who had come before us. One of the catalysts for International Woman’s Day was the memory of a fire in a factory in the United States where, at the beginning of the twentieth century, over one hundred women died. Those American women were our sisters, and the grief and hunger over their unnecessary death vibrated in our collective memory and pushed us forward.

What I did not know as an eighteen-year old Sicilian girl, and what I would not learn until my late thirties, was that the fire did not occur on March 8, but on March 25, 1911, and that those women were our sisters in more ways than one. About one third of those factory workers were Italian immigrant women and girls.
Similarly, Margherita Heyer-Caput of the University of California, Davis, who also knew of the two versions of the story, evoked La Societa Italiana delle Storiche in reminding me of what she described in an email as the “volatility of capitalized History.”
History’s power and its fragility has been of concern to feminists for quite some time. In thinking of this particular case, it made sense to me to turn to the radicalized voices of Italian feminists. From the 1970 Rivolta Femminile’s evocative manifesto we read:
We consider incomplete any history which is based on non-perishable traces. Nothing, or else misconception, has been handed down about the presence of woman. It is up to us to rediscover her in order to know the truth.
(in Bono and Kemp, Italian Feminist Thought, 39)
Earlier today, Clarissa Clò of San Diego State University responded to my query with a link about a recently-published book and documentary—8 Marzo: Una storia lunga un secolo (the trailer to the dvd leads my post), by Tilde Capomazza and Marisa Ombra. The story, it seems, is still unfolding.

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