Women, Labour movement and Welfare State in Italy

1. Introduction

In the last years an increasing importance has been devoted both in historical and sociological sphere to the analysis of the relationship between gender and welfare state starting from a reflection, also in a comparative perspective, on the activities of women in the welfare state construction[2].

If today the supposed neutrality of welfare policies has been definitely denied, however, in literature there are different judgments on maternalist policies, or the policies based on the social value of motherhood. In addition, another important field of analysis is how the tactics used by women to obtain social policies have changed their political action blurring the relationship between the public and private sphere and introducing elements of novelty in the male policies.

In this context, a central node is the relationship between welfare, paid work and unpaid work, where the latter is not necessarily synonymous with care work.

A reflection on the construction of the welfare state in Italy and its evolution allows to grasp its historical course from a reading of gender and analysis the different being a citizen of men and women and the richness and the accomplishment limits of women’s rights of citizenship in Italy from the second post-World War.

In particular the reflection is centred on the different role that before the emancipationist culture and then the feminist one have had on the development of the female issue on the trades union women action aimed to change the welfare state policy in Italy.


This seems even more important because, as Patrizia Gabrielli underlines, from the origins of the Republic in the achievement of citizenship “the goal was to combine political and social rights, in the belief that the full acquisition of the first was not – for the women – independent from the second”.

Beginning from this period we have a shifting of boundaries between public and private, and at the same time a mixing and contamination of the two spheres on which grows the practical rather than theoretical ability of women to create, but also to lobby for the implementation of services necessary to create social citizenship.

As Annarita Buttafuoco underlines, “women leaving their house […] take upon themselves for many years tasks that the State has disregarded or ignored until then, instead, become central to the redefinition of State-citizens, especially in the modern era”[3].
2. The Fourteens and the Fifties Years

In the first decades after World War II, in the capitalistic economy states there has been a development with largely different characteristics of welfare both in the form of the welfare state and services.

In the Beveridge Plan, at the basis for the construction of a universalistic conception of the social system, there is as key the “abolition of need” which is expressed, on the one hand, through the social realization of a unified social security system, compulsory for all citizens, and, on the other hand, through the reform in universal and progressive way of the entire system of social insurance. The issue of security, which is not based exclusively on the figure of the citizen-worker, becomes the pillar of progress[4].

In Italy, however, according to the well-known classification of Andersen, beginning from the end of World War II, we have the construction of a “Mediterranean welfare” that has focused strongly on the central role of the family and female support[5].

In fact, the model of the Welfare State – that is stated in Italy after the Second World War – is set upon the centrality of the male breadwinner that guaranteed a greater protection since it provides for men long, full-time and uninterrupted careers, while for women are drawn lives wholly dedicated to the activities of reproduction.

Moreover, the centrality of the male wage, analyzed from the point of view of social security, implies that the monetary transfers – family allowances, health care, old-age pensions – are aimed to allow the male head of family to maintain its role as the main breadwinner of the family[6]. That situation will change only with the definitive acquisition of the right to work of women, that, at the same time, opens great questions inherent the “quality of life”.

The unfolding of the Italian welfare state, especially as the fulfillment of some fundamental reforms, takes place thanks to a strong Trades union pressure that have a propulsive role in the creation of a modern Welfare State and of services essential to the participation of women in the labour market. The Trades unions and Women movement requests have also answered instances of democratization that couldn’t be postponed in an economy that was evolving. It was created in this way a conflicting and replaced action, at the same time, linking collective demands, evident in the public sphere, and individual needs related to the private sphere[7].

In the years immediately after World War II in Italy, women put a special attention the motherhood issues and, as argued by Nora Federici – President of Cif and protagonist of the women’s movement – through the culture of Motherhood “were mixed the cards policy”[8] addressing the speech on social rights that could turn in guarantees for motherhood and childhood care, in a lightening of domestic work and, therefore, a greater portion of time available to devote to the public sphere and through the education of themselves. It is the attention to these issues, which finds its outlet in care practices, which supports the development of a culture of solidarity and prefigures the modern Welfare policies, so it shapes a paradigm of citizenship including social rights.

Starting from the work of the “Commission of 75”, the Constituents put a particular emphasis on the full recognition by the State of the “Social function” of motherhood and his right to protection, in fact, as argued Teresa Noce – member of the Costituente (Commission III Assembly)-, “Motherhood is besides a natural function of the woman besides human mission, but it is also a social function, because it is based on the family, that it is the support of society. […] It’s necessary therefore that all statements of constitutional principle are accompanied by a series of practical measures that will truly guarantee assistance to the family”[9].

The struggle carried out by the constituents during the works of the Commission, from this point of view, becomes central to start the long process of affirmation of the women “rights of citizenship” and finds a strong political and cultural anchor in contemporary experiences that ripen inside the trades union and its claims. Already, in 1945 Teresa Noce, future leader of the Textile Union and member of the Constituent Assembly, proposes the work as a central node of a new female identity. Women – writes Estella – go to work not only because they are forced by poverty, but also to answer other needs, to “assert their economic independence and their productive technical and cultural capacity. The need to get out of the limited place of the small kitchen and home, and attend to the social and political life, through work, struggles, contact with other human beings and through the knowledge of other problems of wider and more general character”[10].

This struggle is in line with the emancipationist culture at the end of the nineteenth century. In fact, in this period many women movement fought for suffrage and full citizenship rights, not only to achieve formal equality with men, but to search to model social policies in favour of women.

The feminist demands were related to motherhood itself, regardless of the actual poverty of women, their employment and marital status because they argued that these specific groups of mothers were extreme versions of a universal female condition.

This feminist attention towards the maternal care, that can be defined feminist maternalism, was also based on the assumption that motherhood was not a particular problem, but the unifying condition of the female sex. In this context, the Women Movement fought for a kind of Welfare State and a status of citizenship that recognize the rights and needs related not only to the risks of the work and life of the male employees, but also of the mothers, workers and not.

Feminists assert that the “motherhood is a social function”, not only physiological, private or personal. So they challenge the traditional cultural dichotomy between the private / personal and the public / political sphere, and they fought for a new vision of relationship between the two spheres. The women, according to the Illuminist conception, demand their rights of citizenship on the basis of their nature, as a special contribution to the society.

Instead, coming back to the immediate second postwar years the central struggle of the Trades unions women was related to equal pay and maternity protection. These struggles, aimed at the defense and strengthening of producers citizenship, result first in the approval of the Law on Maternity Protection (“physical and economic protection of working mothers” approved on August 26, 1950 and for which Teresa Noce hardly worked) and, from the second half of the fifties, in the mobilization that will lead to sign the Interconfederal Agreement on Equal pay in 1960. An agreement, that marks a qualitative change in Trades union contractual policy which, until then, had not given practical application of the emancipation principles through work, equal rights and wages as enunciated in the first two Congresses.

Instead, as regards the protection of working mothers, unlike the initial draft presented by Teresa Noce, the law of 1950 introduces the paid maternity leave to 80%, but it excludes women who worked at home (cottage industry), the Maid-servants, the Metalworkers and Direct women farmers[11]. In addition, the law – together some measures of protection of the maternity period (Prohibition of dismissal during pregnancy until the child is one year old, compulsory rest for three months before and four weeks after the birth)- provides in some situations (production units where more than 30 married women are less than 50 years old) a requirement for companies to provide nurseries and rooms nursing.

This law certainly represents a valuable tool for working women, in relation to the absence of a network of social services that could set up an acceptable mediation between work and family, but those who couldn’t take advantage remained far from any prospective of welfare, because – beyond its important positive outcomes – the law was far from sanctioning a general right. It also prompted many companies to implement the practice of “dismissal for marriage” to which an ad hoc law after important struggles on January 1963 will put an end.

In the same year, we have another important achievement: the recognition of pension to housewives (strongly supported by UDI) in which there is an implicit admission of the economic value of domestic work . So it is partially put a question the model of emancipation exclusively linked to the participation in the labour market[12].


2. The Sixties and the Seventies

However, it is from the mid-sixties, jointly the evolution of the reform period of Centre-left Government, that we have a real change in the social services field and in Italy we pass from a model of care and charity to a universal model of social rights. In this framework, ripen the laws on the Nursery schools (1968) and on Public nurseries (1971) that will be indispensable for the expansion of what in the Seventies will be defined the category of “double presence”.

In fact, in this period of rapid political and social change, the limits and the contradictions of Italian women conditions – squeezed between the persistence of a family culture, heavy working conditions and an asphyxiated Welfare State – are placed at the centre of debate of the civil and political society.

If in the fifties many claims seem to be necessary for the protection of the family, in the sixties women appear as concrete subjects and recognized in what that is called double trouble or double work. This focuses the problems of women work as issues of class and in this context also the struggle for the services has a new emphasis (laundries, kindergartens, nurseries, company canteens).

At this juncture, even the Trades union, in particular the Women’s Committee of CGIL, led by Donatella Turtura, plays a central role through a series of social policies proposals after the change imposed by a massive entrance of women into production.

From this point of view, the Third Conference of the Women Workers (Rome, November 9-11, 1962) is a turner point in the history of women of CGIL, because it closes definitively the 50s.

The Conference assumes the perspective to “overcome the equal settings ” and points to “an objective assessment of the value of the woman work”[13].

The Women’s Committee, which attempts to give a new impetus to the areas where the Union is traditionally weak and where the presence of women workers is widely prevalent (food, retail, packs in series), face the “deep changes occurred in the productive facilities” and the consequent increase in female employment, which also opens new ‘conditions for a wider impulse of the entire democratic life’ of the Trades union, so it is defined a perspective that aims to change the whole policy of the CGIL.

In terms of social policy, in particular, it is proposed to “find a solution to social, public and universal” needs emerged in the society through the development of a wider network of social services.

In the Women Workers Conference the theme of the double work is, also politically, rearticulated. The struggle of women goes out of the cone of equal claims, aimed at the pursuit of male privilege, to take on a universal dimension. It is, as Ruggerini and Canovi say, a line substantially marked by the primacy of political action[14].

The women emancipation, characterized in this period by a great modernization, is seen primarily in the dimension of citizenship.

So it takes shape the demand to reform the motherhood law of 1950 and begins the struggle for the institution of nursery schools and infant-school, not only to be charged to companies and located inside the factories, but as a territorial service.

So we have also a cultural change that will allow in the 70s the achievement of other measures aimed at widening the sphere of citizenship to people that were equally under protection – as young and disabled people-. So we have not merely the support of the work but the widening of the right of citizenship.

This struggle will be carried on by the CGIL from 1963 (Conferenza delle grandi fabbriche where the Trades union endorses the proposals for action on the welfare state, expanding its initiative to social issues after the chaotic Italian development that led to a lack of accommodation, Public transport, adequate Health care and Social services for workers) and that will bring to the approval of institutional laws of the State nursery schools in 1970 and childcare centre at Council level in 1971.

The two legislative measures, even if the assumption, that had officially placed the women in the family sphere and had made the same a self-sufficient organization, cracks at the same time there is for the first time in Italy the birth of a universalistic Welfare State (that leads to reform the social system inherited and developed in the fascism, breaking the division between employed and unemployed).

Agree with the more general content of the workers struggles developed in Italy since the sixties, the women struggle – as pointed out by Vittorio Foa – was “based on a critique of inequality and social division of job”[15], not only on the wage.

The Trades union women – in the period from 1968 to 1973 – as Maria Luisa Righi underlines, choose “the way of the general initiative, such as the most effective way to face historical female inequalities”[16].

The Trades union rights, in fact, in this stage reach particular importance, both in claiming platforms and in negotiations, helping to bring out even the wage issues as part of an overall plan, not only and not more aimed to a rebalancing of the relationship, but tending to the achievement of real and effective powers in the factory and the society.

The struggle for the working environment, reducing time to gain a better quality of life, control of production and investments are claims that characterize the Union as a political entity that aims to control and direct social change.

In the “Hot autumn” the experience of women in politics turns to account. From the Trades Union struggle emerges the need of a reconsideration of the role of women, both inside and outside the factory, and this is accomplished through the bond, between the feminist movement and workers, leads to the assertion of an autonomous political subjectivity of women.

An element of particular importance, which characterized the policy of demands in this period, was the maturation of integrative bargaining system and the push towards egalitarian wage.

The construction of the right to citizenship in Italy, then, is built up through a long process whose main steps are represented by the right to a pension, childcare centres and counseling. These themes have put in relation the world of work with the private one, placing new originally issues.

The acquisition of the social rights of the working mother expands both the most traditional role of women in relation to family and children,– and the presence of women in the labour market. This achievement, however, has on another side, to make more visible the direct assumption of the role of women as collective political subject, the emergence of their social role, seen as the duty of participation, will play an extraordinary importance in the birth and development of Trades Union Feminism in following years.

In the Seventies we have the achievement of civil rights sanctioned by the laws on divorce (1970), on the institution of Counseling (1975), the legalization of abortion (1978) and the reform of Family Law-right (1975). So it is closed on the legal plan the cycle of equality opened at the end of World War II and starts the season of “difference”[17].

Since the sixties, the participation of women in the labour market is no longer an exceptional event, related to the conditions of the poorer classes, or courageous wish of emancipation of a few brave pioneer, it becomes a mass phenomenon for more and more women to work outside adds to the traditional tasks to care for children and their families, but domestic works remain predominantly, if not exclusively, assigned to them. The women, in fact, become employers, workers, professional women, businesswomen, but they continue to be a mother, wife, daughter, housewife and must reconcile their working hours, rigid, or otherwise highly flexible, with duties and times[18].

This change from the late sixties and early seventies is parallel to satisfactory levels of wages, thanks to an increased presence of the state in the distribution of income, and an expansion to larger and larger groups of citizens in a series of guarantees and services in the field of education, health and social security; but from the second half of the decade in contraposition of a worsening economic conditions, with a continuous increase in the cost of living, inflation and increasing difficulties in the labour market it evolves. The crisis is also reflected in a series of changes in family organization. Emblematic in this regard is the analysis of Laura Balbo:
“The model of the housewife has facilitated the isolation of the family at the same time reducing the contradictions arising in the 60s by the expulsion of a million women from the labour market and in the 70s by the mass phenomenon of domestic work . In the mid-70s […] the woman can’t […], mediate the imbalance-resource needs. So tensions emerge, but also a general subjective awareness […]”[19].

Assumption of this dynamic is the recognition of the fact that capitalist society has continued to delegate to private family the management resources available to meet their needs and, in the performance of this function, central is the activity of the woman facing the growing expectations that fuel the perception of ever new needs, the system intervenes in the allocation of resources, but “there is no collective responsibility with respect to the fulfillment of needs. This remains the private responsibility of the family “.

It emphasizes that the role of families as a place of production of composite income, work and family services, especially through forms of female production both for the market and the family. With regard to the first aspects, it is imposed a model for which an increasing number of women work for the market and tends to work longer despite a worsening of working conditions (concentration of women in the most backward areas and low-paid) and we assist to the spread of ‘marginal’ forms of employment (irregular work).

Politically and culturally there are considerable contaminations among feminist movement, political parties and social organizations, in primis the trades union re-elaborate their subjects and conceptual structure.

The encounter between Feminism and the Union, in the mid-seventies, starts a fruitful discussion that develops and issues completely unique compared to other European and international contemporary movement.

In particular, it should be highlighted the actions of “Sindacato Donna di Torino” that states the “idea of the difference as a value, as a resource to affirm for the equal opportunity policies, against the discrimination and inequalities in the world work and in the same trades union”.

In this period we have the development of the “Coordinamento donne” that asserts the overcoming of the sexual division of labour and the rebalancing of the representation. The relationship between work and life assumes a new central role in the political and bargains platforms, particularly inside the female movement[20].

At the same time the roots of the elaboration that from the ’90 reached in the Unions became part of the discussion of the CGIL’s Conference Program of 1994 about “Active employment policies, new jobs, city times”.

The legislative initiatives of the nineties (eg art. 36 of Law 142/1990) are born in a context of significant changes in the society and its structure consists of three levels: life cycles, working hours, time in the cities. With Law no. 125/1991 on “Equal opportunities” are introduced innovative principles for the redesign of the times, in fact in art.1 it is said that “the balance between family and work responsibilities and a better division of these responsibilities between the sexes” can be achieved through a “different organization of work, working conditions and working time”[21].

This law, that introduces the concept of affirmative action for the achievement of equal opportunities, runs parallel to obtain locally (by coordination female unions) the possibility to enter into collective bargaining measures for the implementation of equal opportunities.

At the same time central in the nineties is the discussion carried out by the women of the CGIL on the interventions to support family income that starts with “a new conception of the value of the work that is no longer linked only to the recognition of the value of productive work, but recognizes the value and utility of social reproductive work to reconnect as a new policy of services, money transfers and social interventions”.

A debate, that precedes the promulgation of the law 418/1999, introduces a maternity allowance for housewives, unemployed, and of the Law 53/2000 which is a further step towards the construction of a different parental model. In fact, the care work for their children is no longer the prerogative of mothers, but it involves fathers in the first person, guarantees them the same rights and protections.



[1] The paper it is a part of a project of research about “Women, Labor and Welfare” promoted by Fondazione G. Di Vittorio.

[2] For a general descricption of the studies on the subject see E. Vezzosi (ed.), Modelli di welfare state e interpretazioni di genere, in «Contemporanea», a. III, n. 1, January 2000, pp. 123-150.

[3] A. Buttafuoco, Questioni di cittadinanza. Donne e diritti sociali nell’Italia liberale, Protagon Editori Toscani, 1997, p. 21.

[4] See W. Beveridge, La libertà solidale. Scritti 1942-1945, edited by M. Colucci, Donzelli, 2010; on the construction of the Welfare State in Europe and its evolution see Welfare per un’Europa sociale, Annali Fondazione Di Vittorio 2004, Ediesse, 2005; La cittadinanza che cambia, Annali Fondazione Di Vittorio 2005, Rome, Ediesse, 2007; Nuove povertà, nuove priorità, Annali Fondazione Di Vittorio 2006, Rome, Ediesse, 2008.

[5] See G. Esping-Andersen, Social Foundations of Postindustrial Economies, Oxford University Press, 1999.

[6] M. Bergamaschi, Nel sindacato dell’Italia repubblicana: le donne e gli uomini, in Un territorio e la grande storia del ‘900. Il Conflitto, il sindacato e Reggio Emilia, Vol. II, Rome, Ediesse, p. 357.

[7] See N. Caiti, M. Ruggerini, Donne e servizi sociali nella politica del sindacato fra secondo dopoguerra e anni Settanta, in L. Motti (ed.), Donne nella CGIL. Una storia lunga un secolo, Rome, Ediesse, 2006, pp. 247 and ss; and also C. Saraceno, Cittadini a metà, Milano, Rizzoli, 2012.

[8] See P. Gabrielli, Il 1946, le donne, la Repubblica, Donzelli, 2009, p. 36; also see G. Bock, Povertà femminile, maternità e diritti della madre nell’ascesa dello Stato assistenziale (1890-1950), in Perrot, Duby, Storia delle donne. Il Novecento, edited by F. Thébaud, Rome-Bari, Laterza, 2003.

[9] Upon the debate at the Costituente see M.V. Ballestrero, La protezione concessa l’uguaglianza negata, in Il lavoro delle donne, edited by A. Groppi, Rome-Bari, Laterza, 1996 and also see Le donne della Costituente, edited by M.T.A. Morelli, Rome-Bari, Laterza, 2007.

[10] T. Noce, Il diritto al lavoro, in “Nord e Sud”, September 15, 1945, p. 20.

[11] See Proposte della CGIL per la tutela della maternità, “Notiziario CGIL”, I, n.1, July 10, 1947.

[12] See a M.L. Righi, L’azione delle donne nella CGIL: 1944-1962, in è brava ma… donne nella CGIL 1944-1962, edited by S. Lunadei, M.L. Righi, L. Motti, Ediesse, 1999 and F. Koch, Le donne e la costruzione di una nuova idea di cittadinanza nello SPI-CGIL, in L. Motti (ed.), Donne nella CGIL, cit., pp. 269 and ss.

[13] “Memoria sullo sviluppo del movimento rivendicativo italiano delle lavoratrici” from Consulta nazionale delle lavoratrici to the Secretary of the Camere confederali del lavoro. Rome, January 16, 1963, p. 4 in Archivio Storico CGIL, Ufficio lavoratrici.

[14] See A. Canovi, M. Ruggerini, La lavoratrice e la cittadina. Tra mondo del lavoro e welfare, in G. Chianese (ed.), Mondi femminili in cento anni di sindacato, vol. II, Ediesse, 2008, pp. 163 ss.

[15] Preface of V. Foa, in D. Grisoni, H. Portelli, Lotte operaie in Italia dal 1960 al 1976, Rizzoli, 1979, p. 13.

[16] M. L. Righi, L’azione delle donne nella CGIL, cit., p. 239.

[17] B. Beccalli, Le politiche del lavoro femminile in Italia: donne, sindacati e Stato tra il 1974 e il 1984, «Stato e mercato», n. 15, December 1985, pp. 347-348 and see also G. Cereseto, A. Frisone, L. Varlese, Non è un gioco da ragazze. Femminismo e sindacato: i coordinamenti donne FLM, Rome, Ediesse, 2010.

[18] F. Bimbi, La cittadinanza delle donne. Trasformazione dell’economia del dono e culture del welfare state in Italia, «Inchiesta», XXII (97-9), 1992, p. 80.

[19] L. Balbo, R. Siebert Zahar (a cura di), Interferenze. Lo Stato, la vita familiare, la vita privata, Feltrinelli, 1979, pp. 89-92.

[20] Conferenza nazionale delle delegate e delle donne elette negli organismi dirigenti della Cgil. Roma 8-9 aprile 1981, «Rassegna sindacale», Appendix, n. 18, May 7, 1981, p. II.

[21] Cambiare i tempi di vita, edited by Ufficio del Programma and Sezione femminile nazionale del PCI, Roma, 1990.

  • author's avatar

    By: Maria Paola Del Rossi

    Maria Paola Del Rossi, dottore di ricerca in Storia del movimento sindacale, è docente a contratto presso la Facoltà di Scienze politiche dell’Università degli Studi di Teramo e ricercatrice della Fondazione Giuseppe Di Vittorio. Tra le sue pubblicazioni Donatella Turtura : rigore, umanità, ragione e passione di una grande sindacalista, Ediesse, 2008; Rinaldo Scheda : l’importanza dell’organizzazione, Ediesse, 2011; Tra l’incudine e il martello. La satira ai tempi di «Lavoro», ( con Ilaria Romeo), Roma, 2013; Lavoro e sindacato nei 150 anni della storia d’Italia, (a cura di, con Gloria Chianese), Roma, 2013.

  • author's avatar

  • author's avatar

    Roy Jenkins, un inglese alla presidenza della Commissione nell’Europa della crisi tra allargamento e rilancio dell’UEM

    See all this author’s posts

Print Friendly, PDF & Email