Sporting Fun: Italian Women, Cartoons, and Sport in the 1920s

by Sabrina Pennetta

Sports and Italy. They go together. They have for years. Now re-read the first sentence. Did you picture men or women? Italian sports history, and even modern-day media coverage, focusses to a large extent on men. However, in a not so distant past, Italian women were also making headlines, both good and bad, with regards to sports. This past, the 1920s and 1930s, was filled with historical complexities relating to politics, gender, war, and society. Under the fascist government of Benito Mussolini, Italian women were told to support the fascist state through obedience, loyalty, and procreation. This left little room for sport. Or did it? Although official news bulletins, radio broadcasts, and public speeches by Mussolini and his ministers lauded women for their supposed importance in the future of the Italian race (of which Mussolini and demographers were fond of propagating) there were also women who maintained their independence, refused to marry or bear children, and, scandalously, participated in sports. A unique avenue to research the importance of this participation is through printed cartoons. These cartoons illustrated women’s bodies on display in non-traditional ways and expressed social anxieties regarding women’s shifting position in society. 

‘Women Athletes: Today, the athletic woman functions truly and marvellously, but we hope that, in an indiscreet manner, she does not also want to function in a family!’
From Almanacco (1929) from Guerin Meschino, 11 May 1928.  

Before we move on – time for a quick history lesson with a history lesson! The First World War greatly challenged preconceived notions of gender, sex, and social roles associated with men and women in and outside of the home. The Interwar period thus becomes an intriguing and complex period for the historical study of women. In some countries, women gained the right to vote and began to demonstrate a new level of autonomy after 1918, however in Italy, women did not gain the vote (that would happen in 1946) and while some women began to push boundaries with new haircuts, fashion styles, and remaining in the work force, there was great degree of social anxiety related to the shifting of social and gender norms. With the pro-marriage and pro-natal rhetoric of the regime throughout the 1920s, this anxiety only increased as the birth rate fell, and Italian women continued to enjoy life outside of the home. 

Cartoons, such as the one published in Guerin Meschino in 1928, demonstrate the full fear of athletic women. In the cartoon, women – who are also dressed quite fashionably – demonstrate their athletic ability in the streets and at home for all to see. The anxiety is present in the subtext, that an athletic woman should not, or cannot, function as a mother. In another cartoon, a woman is leading a man down the hill while the two people standing in the foreground comment that like life, women are always leading men. This is a cheeky cartoon, poking fun at a woman’s alluring control over a man. Yet, considering the historical context, this cartoon seems subversive to the idea of the virile fascist man that was idealized by Mussolini. Women could, and did, play sports – from running, to skiing – and these two cartoons, of the several dozens that were published, demonstrates the dialogue between comedic representations of women and the subtle anxieties embedded within such visual discourse. 

Italian women participated in sports, despite the advice (read: unscientific musings) of demographers and physicians employed under the fascist regime. One such figure, Nicola Pende, thought that too much physical education was detrimental to women’s bodies. The Catholic Church and the Fascist regime also wanted women to curb their physical activities. There was a pervasive fear the sport would result in masculinization, a trend that was not unique to Italy, but heard throughout several countries, including Canada, during this period. To complicate this further, let’s look at Ondina Valla, one of Italy’s star athletes during the 1930s. Since Pope Pius XI prevented women from going to the 1932 Olympics, we’ll skip to 1936, where Valla won a gold medal in hurdles. When she returned to Italy, she was celebrated, and she met with both Mussolini and the Pope. Interesting, isn’t it. 

‘Winter Sports:
On the ice, grouped together, it is almost always the women that leads the man.’
From Almanacco (1930) originally from Illustrazione Italiano

Women’s successes in sports were exploited – they were applauded when it benefited the nation and shunned when they hurt Italy’s supposed virile future. Yet, these cartoons, which were actually republished by a women’s magazine titled L’Almanacco della donna italiana, illuminate another perspective on women and sports in Italy. Were they satirical, absolutely, were they at times derogatory to women, yes, but that does not negate their importance in studies of fascist Italy.

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About the Author:

My historical interests lie in the vastly complex twentieth century, with a specific focus on social, cultural, and gender history. I graduated from the University of Calgary with BA Honours in History and a BA in Italian Studies in 2019. My honours research examined representations of women in print culture in relation to fashion and sports in Interwar Italy and the subtle and overt ways in which gender challenged the Fascist regime. It was a fascinating, and tiresome, project! I took a year off to recuperate and relax – albeit it’s a bit difficult to do this during a pandemic – but I was kept busy by my work as a Research assistant at a not-for-profit organization. I will be starting my education degree in Calgary in Fall 2020 and I am eagerly looking forward to going back to school. In my free time, I enjoy reading crime dramas and Italian short stories, baking, and watching historical dramas! 

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