We will not obtain it today, but we will represent ourselves tomorrow

Anna Maria Mozzoni

Gisella Lombardi

Women’s emancipation as an autonomous political goal, ought to be pursued with an equally autonomous political organisation.

At this moment, while I am writing this article, I am unaware of the upcoming results of the elections. Elections in which we fear a woman as Prime Minister. We fear her, because gender, nor sex determines one’s political view, even when they clearly are at odds. But I don’t talk about current affairs on these pages, I write about history, and thus my thought goes to Anna Maria Mozzoni and what she would think of the paradoxical situation. And in the silence that follows every question asked to historical figures long gone, I want to tell you her story, the story of a woman who fought all her life for female emancipation rejecting any compromise.

Anna Maria Mozzoni was born in 1837 in a noble family from Milan that professed the ideals of the Risorgimento. But this did not hinder them from prioritising her brothers’ education at her own disadvantage, so she was sent to a reactionary boardinghouse. Once dismissed, she continued to study on her own, reading anything she could put her hands on, from French illuminists to contemporary novels. It was in Mazzini’s framework that she took her first steps into politics: during her youthful writings, she had refused the idea that women’s role was in the household, which was previously theorized as her natural place. As a woman she could not participate in “real” politics, so her means to this end were speeches, essays, and petitions, she founded schools and worked with several newspapers. Maybe, from today’s point of view, thinking she held speeches in which she asked for the abolition of marital authorization and demanded equal rights, as well as the right to vote, seems little. And yet, one has to imagine the scandal that a lone woman travelling the country and demanding to be heard was causing. Especially in a context where a woman, once married, was put on the same level as children and the mentally incapable by law. She could not manage or use her own money, buy or sell any of her properties, she could claim no right on her own children. Only once a woman had broken the law, would she become legally capable of her own actions, and thus deserving of punishment.

She was a political agitator, and she knew it very well. In her speech “On women’s political vote”,  she begins with an introduction, in which she praises her public by telling them how forward-thinking they are because the matters she was about to discuss were very present at the time, and could only be understood by the most elevated crowd. She is slightly mocking them, as it becomes clear from the rest of the speech, but it also underlines how even asking for the most basic rights for the female sex may be seen as incendiary. With an impeccable logic and a good sense of humour, like those used to laugh in front of tragedy, she dismantles every possible argument against women’s vote. She tackles ignorance, the scarce attitude to public life,  the scarce interest in politics, and the feared manipulation by the Church. She does not skip or gloss over anything, with a rigorous method she presents all the arguments and their flaws and proves what everybody could see: how the presence and influence of women were already everywhere even without authorization, in all parts of life, from the home to the stage, through the shops, to the markets, reaching even the factories.

«What level of intelligence is required from the voter? To know how to read and write? Ask more of him! Because I know my fellow companions, my lords, and I don’t want male voters to result way more inadequate than us female voters».

Unafraid, she never backs down and even addresses the contradictions of democrats who fight for freedom just as much, especially in foreign countries, but want to uphold servitude in their own homes «because there where you command, there alone you deem freedom not suitable.».

Emancipation is the final goal, voting is the first step. If politicians only care about those that can get them elected, then women need to obtain their own vote so that their matters can finally be addressed and taken seriously. This is Anna Maria Mozzoni’s goal that she pursues all her life, alone. She collaborates, fights, she interacts with but never becomes part of any political party. It could be seen as choosing the sidelines, instead, it’s the expression of clear political thought. Emancipation was not only the goal, but it was also the means. It shall not be tainted, compromised, lost or confused with other battles. Women’s emancipation as an autonomous political goal, ought to be pursued with an equally autonomous political organisation. Anna Maria was aware of the close ties between the social issue and the assertion of rights with the advent of Modernity, as well as the spread of industrial production and thus of women’s labour. The autonomous political goal was, therefore, not detached from its surroundings, but she did not kid herself, women’s rights would not be a happy secondary effect of another cause. It would not have been the fatherland of the Mazzinians, or the democracy of the radicals, nor the power given to the working class by the socialists that would have helped change the condition of women. The most supreme and most radical of all social issues can be coordinated with the others, but never subordinated to other fights. At the same time, it shall not be delegated, only if conquered by women, freedom and rights will be real; as a gift, they are nothing but illusions. Her fight with Anna Kuliscioff over a similar matter is well known. The two had previously collaborated, along with Kuliscioff’s socialist party. Kuliscioff was working on a law proposal to protect women in the workplace, while Mozzoni had thought it to be detrimental. To her, they should fight for their rights in their place of work, through syndicate battles, but she feared that such a law would on the one side diminish their independence, whilst on the other justify more discrimination. A debate that is still extremely relevant today.

«We will not obtain» ‒ she writes at the end of About women’s political vote ‒  «but we will have stated our maturity and our will; we will not obtain the vote today and we will represent ourselves again tomorrow, and again, and again, until privilege squashed between the door and the wall by the weight of overdue debts, will concede to what it does not understand, and democracy will understand logics need.».

She knew, that she would never vote. She died in Rome on the 14th of June 1920, sometime after she left the political fight. She never voted, but she was right. Many other women built on her work, they showed up and fought, again and again. And while we resign ourselves to the fact that emancipation also meant the right to be horrible as people, and I wait anxiously for the evolvement of the current situation, I allow myself to imagine, a little bit presumptuously, that Anna Maria would be at least gobsmacked by the situation. But, she would tell us to fight and show up again, and again, to make ourselves heard because someday they will have to concede.
Then again, today women can vote.

[1] Dipartimento per le pari opportunità, “Italiane Volume I”, Roma (2004) 

[2] S Mozzoni, Anna Maria, “Del voto politico alle donne” Passerino (2014)

Illustration by Filippo Ronzelli

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