From the Resistance to social struggles

From Resistance to Rebirth: The Role of Women in Post-War Reconstruction in Reggio Emilia (1945-1953)

From the Beginning

The period of German occupation of Italy and the antifascist Resistance had a decisive impact on the maturation and choices of the female world. The twenty months from September 8, 1943, to April 25, 1945, involved broad segments of the population, with different cultures and political histories, in clandestine resistance against Nazi German occupation and fascist collaborators. In the Reggio region, participation in the Resistance reached mass levels, with over 10,000 recognized partisans and fighters at the time of Liberation. A number lower than was actually the case, considering that armed struggle had widespread support organizationally and in assistance from women, often organized in clandestine Women's Defense Groups (WDG). This commitment resulted in a heavy sacrifice in terms of human lives, with over 600 fallen partisans and over 1,200 civilians killed due to war-related causes (massacres, bombings, deportation to Germany).

Female participation in the Resistance played a crucial role. Locally and nationally, women entered the national history fully for the first time. Constrained within a still patriarchal, rural, and religious society, the liberation struggle provided them with an opportunity to break free from traditional roles and play a new role within their families, taking on a distinct personality through activities such as assistance, reception, and information within partisan formations. The risks faced, life experiences during months of clandestinity, and the birth of expectations for a new, different, and more open society motivated many young women, after the end of the conflict, to reject a passive return to the previous social order and strive to maintain the spaces of activity and participation they had built and experienced during the twenty months of struggle. The return to civilian life could only occur by building a new society where the female (and maternal, in particular) role had to assume new characteristics.

Post-War in Reggio Emilia

Group of preschool children together with teachers [1946], UDI Reggio Emilia Archive – Panizzi Library Photographic Archive – Reggio Emilia.

The work that most characterized women's activity in the Reggio region in the summer of 1945 was undoubtedly childcare assistance.

On May 1, 1945, the first "Saltini Vandina" kindergarten opened in Santa Croce esterna, managed by UDI (Italian Women's Union, the communist women's organization, heir to the Women's Defense Groups). It continued its activities until 1954 when it had to leave its premises, which previously housed a fascist party office, to allow its transformation into a Carabinieri barracks.

In many municipalities in the province of Reggio, UDI initiated fundraising campaigns to open nurseries. Immediately after the experience of the Resistance, a new generation of women wanted to participate in building a new society, "a new world" that could not be a simple resumption of what had allowed the construction of the fascist regime.

Attention to the children who would grow up in this new society under construction became central in the policies of the Italian Communist Party (PCI), which emerged as the dominant force in Emilia from the antifascist clandestine struggle and its affiliated associations.

In a situation of extreme scarcity of resources, with the need for major reconstruction efforts, the balance of achievements made through spontaneous and organized offerings appears almost incredible today.

unds were raised through voluntary donations, lotteries, performances by members, and sports activities (basketball games, tennis matches)

The activity was widespread: with the support of the local National Liberation Committee (CLN), representing all parties that participated in the Resistance, UDI and CIF (Italian Women's Center, Catholic-inspired) circles opened "People's Kindergartens" for the children of working-class women.

On January 13, 1947, the People's Kindergarten of Villa Cella was born after a year of building the facility, constructed using materials recovered from other buildings destroyed by bombings.

Attention to childhood emerged not only from the memory of previous educational experiences and as a response to the difficulties families were facing in the immediate post-war period but also from a new sensitivity toward children. No longer considered mere objects of care and protection, but citizens with rights and hopes, children became central after the tragic experience of fascist war that had marked the life of communities in the last ten years.

This attention materialized beyond political affiliations: the first UDI Congress approved a motion recognizing the congruence of the organization's communist activities with those of the Catholic CIF:

"Employees, workers, intellectuals, peasants, home workers, domestics, artisans, all can and must improve their working conditions, from career to qualification, salary, working environments to hygiene and food services, from hours to assistance. With appropriate provisions that simplify family issues, such as daycares, nurseries, canteens, women's serenity at work must be guaranteed."

[1st UDI Congress, October 20-23, 1945, Florence]

Preschool Arcobaleno, Novellara

The Institutional Dimension (1945-1953)

There was a real element of continuity between the experiences of UDI and CLN and what would be typical of the Reggio Municipal Council, where the Communist Party maintained a majority position since Liberation (until the 1990s). This continuity was lived first in empathy with the general choices common to both and, secondarily, in the specific choices of a managerial nature. UDI and CLN schools were new because they were the result of a process wanted and promoted by the “people,” and the “people” participated equally in their governance.

In the experience of these nursery schools, we find this precise awareness that materialized in a real “social management” project.

Sofia Gandolfi (1983) recalls:

"At the school's management, representatives of all political forces, trade unions, but above all families and citizens, who showed enormous interest in educational affairs, participated. They were groups of citizens who addressed difficult economic conditions and faced responsibilities through voluntary work or the provision of foodstuffs, through collections. It was still the people who helped during outings, visits, who hosted children, built educational aids, and furnishings. Workers at "Reggiane" stayed at work beyond regular hours to use the equipment to build chairs for the children."

Eight educational structures were opened by UDI-CLN:

eople's Kindergarten of San Maurizio, Santa Croce esterna (Vandina Saltini), Massenzatico, Villa Sesso, Villa Cella, Roncina, Masone, Via Bainsizza, S.Prospero Strinati, with an overall average attendance of 400-430 children per day and a 25% enrollment rate for children of age.

The utopian dimension, however, quickly fell away to make way for the less fantastic but more orderly political-educational construction, based on daily intervention and perpetual effort to seek real improvement and refinement tools. The sharp rise in registrations recorded between 1945 and 1953 testified to an institutional trust that had been gained, capable of capturing the meanings of the new collective psychology typical of the emerging phase of reconstruction and eager to transform it into a concrete language.

In 1953, this articulated series of interventions assumed truly noteworthy characteristics and included:

  • 35 temporary kindergartens organized during seasonal work periods (weeding, harvesting, etc.) in collaboration with municipalities, Federterra, and ONMI.
  • 20 after-school programs operating throughout the province and within the municipality, often in premises adjacent to those of nursery schools but separate, with the number of attending boys around 700.
  • A seaside colony in Riccione for 88 children, autonomously managed by UDI.
  • Two colonies (one in the mountains in Vetto d’Enza and one seaside in San Mauro Mare) in collaboration with the League of Cooperatives and the Chamber of Labor, accommodating 64 and 450 children, respectively.

From Assistance to Education (1945-1953)

In a short span of time, thanks to the growing proximity with families, the UDI (Union of Italian Women) nurseries evolved beyond mere custodial roles towards an increasingly strong pedagogical focus. The staff consisted of certified teachers, cooks, and caretakers who lived the reality of the nursery alongside parents, collaborating and planning activities together by creating programs collaboratively.

The concept of school as an exclusive physical space for a child's instructional process was discarded, emphasizing the importance of the relationship with the territory (primarily the neighborhood) as a significant educational element.

A key innovation of the People's Nurseries of UDI was that they originated within a collective emancipation process that involved the entire population, starting from the organizational structure of the Italian Communist Party (PCI) and the feminist movement. It was not an ordinary story, as emphasized by Loris Malaguzzi himself in 1971 when admitting his initial inability, within the logical frameworks of an elementary school teacher, to comprehend this new phenomenon. It did not derive from a vertical-bureaucratic process but from the action of emerging social forces. A path that, starting from childhood and family, dreamt of constructing a new socialist society through the labor of an entire community.

It was a utopian process that disrupted the canons of traditional pedagogy but, as Malaguzzi pointed out, transformed into reality through collective commitment.

UDI was not a public entity but filled the void left by the absence of the Municipality, consistently aiming to integrate its experience with what would become the Local Authority. Engaging in advocacy actions even at the national level, the demand for municipalization became frequent and urgent from the mid-1950s. This demand, supported by women elected to the municipal council (some from UDI itself), arose due to the difficulties faced by some schools, leading to the cessation of their activities (such as the People's Nursery in Via Bainsizza, Villa Masone, and San Prospero Strinati).

The request was successful, resulting in the transformation of some of these schools into municipal schools between 1969 and 1973 (Villa Cella, S. Maurizio, Roncina, "Martiri di Sesso" in Villa Sesso, "Camillo Prampolini" in Massenzatico).

As early as 1963, responding to pressures from UDI and the women's movement, the Municipality decided to establish five nursery schools, incorporating them into the urban development of new neighborhoods and drafting regulations for their management.

The first to commence operations in 1963 was the "Robinson" School (located on Via Pastrengo), followed the next year by the Municipal Nursery School "Anna Frank".

The first Municipal Crèche, named after Genoveffa Cervi, the mother of seven partisan brothers killed by fascists in 1943, began its activities in 1971.

The Municipality of Reggio Emilia, led by communist mayors Cesare Campioli (an anti-fascist exile and a Resistance figure) and later Renzo Bonazzi (a young bourgeois intellectual), embodied the political ideals of a transformative generation, now aware of its utopian horizons and actively committed to achieving them pragmatically in the shortest possible time.

Thus arose the request to activate a new training circuit resulting from the changed conditions of the institutional panorama, which was reflected in the desire, already developed by UDI through those psychological channels, to establish nursery schools. It was the women's movement that dominated the response, finalizing it towards objectives that were closest to the discovery of the meaning of the emancipation of women and children.