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Maria drew dark lines underneath her lashes and on the tops of her lids. She began to smooth her skirt and her hair when Marco banged on the door of the bathroom and yelled that her turn was up. Between the family of ten, there was only one bathroom and three bedrooms. Maria’s older brothers had to share the living room, and the baby was in a crib next to her parents’ bed.
She walked into the kitchen and her mother rolled her eyes at Maria when she saw the way she was done up, and Maria gave a piercing stare in return. She knew that looks were important, and that hers would win her a successful husband someday. Her hope was that she would not have to bear one child after the other the way her mother did in an effort to get the large family award. Maria had no interest in school, or reading, for she knew that these would get her nowhere. Her mother had been educated and had worked in a post office until recently, when a new law was passed. Maria thought that it was irresponsible of her mother to have a job, anyway. She should be tending to the family, not worrying about her career. Women were restricted from so many jobs, the most reliable (and natural) plan was that of becoming a housewife. Maria had never considered doing otherwise.
Woman, made to ripen a child within her body for three-quarters of the year, made to nourish this child, with a secretion of her organism, for longer than a year, endowed with qualities that make her able to raise and educate the child at least through adolescence, nevertheless receives, in our civilization, the same education as if her functions were equal to man’s (Ferdinando Loffredo, Pickering-Iazzi, 30).
Maria was sitting up straight at her desk in the classroom. Her teacher was boasting of his position in the Party. He called on Marco to have him speak of his loyalty to Il Duce. Marco said the same phrases that he heard spoken by his father every day in favor of Il Duce. Maria looked out the window. She was not listening to her brother, but daydreaming. She pictured herself the wife of an accomplice of Mussolini, and knew that nothing would make her more proud. A successful future in the party would therefore be inevitable for her children.
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It was a quick solution to her problem. It would give her a life. Perhaps it was her only option then. So when Teresa met with Giovanni, she took him up on his offer. She would be the only married women in the house, but she was not ashamed. She was living in poverty, with only enough food to feed her children. If she wanted to survive, she would have to take matters into her own hands.
Her husband, Lorenzo, had stopped supporting the family when he allowed himself to be overtaken by alcoholism. Because divorce was illegal, as well as birth control, Teresa was living as a hopeless single parent to a growing number of children.
Her last child had not survived more than a minute in the world before he died, the doctor said because of malnutrition. The devastation that the death of the newborn caused her brought her to a state of numbness. It was this numbness that still had not left her, three months after the death, that led her instinctually and without shame to work at the brothel. She did her job mechanically. It did not feel violating, or any more degrading than life had already been.
When there is not a place for everybody, men come first and then women (Pickering-Iazzi, 28).
She went to work after dinner and in the morning she came home and cooked breakfast for her children, since she now had money to feed them.
After her first two months in the brothel, Theresa’s numbness began to turn into giddy happiness. She felt empowered with her financial independence. She was one of few women in the country who had control of her life. The act of doing her job was no longer mechanical. She thrived in the position of power that she was in. Finally man needed her – even if it was only for pleasure, she felt that man was at her mercy.
When she went out on the street to advertise herself, women often looked at her with pity or disgust, but Theresa felt the same way for them. She remembered having to force a smile when she went out with Lorenzo. Now when she walked alone on the street she couldn’t help but smile out of rebellion, out of strength. Finally she was fighting for something, and her women co-workers were her allies. Teresa was free.
I realized it while I was washing my face this morning. I was running the washcloth over my forehead when I noticed the wrinkles. Then my eyes wandered up to my graying hair. I am tired.
This life is aging me. I have been awaiting a change, a change that I thought would be inevitable in so tragic a situation. No change has come.
I am tired out with repetition, with oppression, with sacrifice. My life is a battle between myself and the dust mice. The battle does not end.
This is the problem with life as a housewife. There is no end. The work is the same everyday. Everything I clean is used and soiled for me to clean again. It is this cycle that gives me the circles under my eyes.
I have tried to force a change. I suppose that in each task I complete every day I resist. My actions are mild, because they must be by law, but they are consistent. When I clean I always neglect to dust the picture of Il Duce, for it is he who has made my house a prison. This act of disrespect gives me a deep sense of satisfaction. I have tried to misplace the photograph, but Mario notices without fail when it is missing.
When I walk to pick the children up from school and talk to the other mothers, I encourage them to read novels, even though we are all discouraged from any intellectual activity. Ever since I was forced to leave my teaching position at the elementary school, I read literature as often as I can. It has been three years since I left the school, and I continue to feel useless.
With work a woman becomes like a man; she causes man’s unemployment; she develops an independence and a fashion that is contrary to childbirth, and lowers the demographic curve; man is deprived of work and dignity; he is castrated in every sense because the machine deprives him either of his woman or of his virility (Benito Mussolini, Pickering-Iazzi, 27).
Last night Antonio woke me up crying. I stumbled out of bed and into he and Vito’s room. As I lifted him from his crib I noticed some of Vito’s artwork on the floor. I often look at his drawings, as I am in awe of his artistic talent at only seven years of age. With Antonio in my arms, I picked the artwork up on my way out of the bedroom. I sat down to look at it, expecting to see his usual pictures of animals and houses, but this picture was not quite so innocent. On top, Il Duce, staring down at a man and a woman. The man looked like a business man. But the woman was dressed like a prostitute. She held a child in her arms.
This drawing terrified me because it illustrated the view of the younger generation; the future. If my son sees the world this way, made up of the all-powerful Duce who rules over the successful male and the objectified, disabused female, then there could very well be no hope for women at all.
In knowing that I am being neglected, that we, as a race, are being neglected, I am at a disadvantage. I am angry that I have this knowledge because it is impossible for me to ignore my position, while at the same time I am not allowed to act on it. I have kept quiet as long as I can stand. I cannot keep quiet any longer.
Bono, Paolo, and Kemp, Sandra. Italian Feminist Thought. Basil Blackwell Ltd., Cambridge, MA, 1991.
De Grazia, Victoria. How Fascism Ruled Women. University of California Press, Oxford, England, 1992.
Horn, David. Social Bodies. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 1994.
Koon, Tracy W. Believe, Obey, Fight. University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, NC, 1985.
Pickering-Iazzi, Robin. Mothers of Invention. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, MN, 1995.