A brief history of women's suffrage in Italy

How did the universal suffrage of 1946 come about?

The origins of women's suffrage

In history, women's suffrage represents an important achievement as regards women's rights. The suffragette movement, which has historically fought for this cause, has its origin in 18th century in France. Indeed, during the Revolution of 1789, the first formal request for the extension of the right to vote to the General States was presented in the Cahier de Doléances (literally "Notebooks of Complaints", in which the assemblies responsible for electing deputies to the States General noted criticisms and complaints from the population). Two years later the playwright and activist Olympe de Gouges published the Déclaration des droits de la femme et de la citoyenne (“Declaration of the rights of women and citizens”); drawn up on the basis of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen of 1789, the text of de Gouges called for the full legal, political and social assimilation of women, making the French activist a forerunner of the feminist movement.

Although the movement that took inspiration from the ideals of Olympe de Gouges played a fundamental role in Europe in the struggle for women's rights, the first democratic example of women's suffrage is to be found in the Constitution of the Corsican Republic of 1755, in which women were recognized the right to vote both active and passive (ie the possibility of electing members of the National Assembly, but also that of being elected, provided that they are single or widows). Women's suffrage was revoked when France annexed the island in 1769, and it would take about one hundred and fifty years of suffragist struggles to see women's right to vote recognized in most Western democracies.

Women's suffrage in Italy before '46

The most democratic pre-unification Italian states were among the first to include the female population in electoral choices. In particular, the Grand Duchy of Tuscany was the third world state, in 1849, to sanction women's suffrage; the Grand Duchy was followed by Lombardy under Austrian dominion (with limitations with respect to the census) and the Veneto; in particular, during the votes for the plebiscite of 1866 which would have sanctioned the annexation of Veneto to the Kingdom of Italy (which took place according to the Italian law, which did not allow female suffrage) many towns appeared at the polls, which, seeing the possibility of expressing their vote precluded, they sent several letters of protest to King Vittorio Emanuele II.

It is interesting to note how the Albertine Statute (the constitutional charter of the Kingdom of Sardinia, which after the unity was extended to all the states of the Kingdom) did not explicitly deny the vote to women; Article 24, which regulated the right to vote, stated:

"All kingdoms, whatever their title or rank, are equal before the law. All enjoy civil and political rights equally, and are eligible for civil and military office, subject to the exceptions determined by the Laws."

Several activists exploited this legislative vacuum to keep the debate on the recognition of women's rights alive. Topical was the example of Maria Montessori, who in the newspaper La vita wrote an article in which she invited readers to register on the electoral roll, specifying that the law did not place any explicit prohibition. Several appellate courts rejected the recognition of the female electorate, which some local commissions had accepted. For example, the verdict of 4 August 1906 by the Court of Appeal of Florence argued that the Montessori interpretation of Article 24 would have made women "not only electric but also eligible", which would have represented a serious risk factor:

"It could happen that a majority of women came to be formed in Parliament, which by coalescing against the male sex, forced the Head of State, a scrupulous observer of good constitutional norms, to choose from among him the advisers of the Crown, and thus give the civil world the new and bizarre spectacle of a government of women, with what prestige and usefulness of our country it is easy for everyone to imagine."

The turning point of '46

On January 30, 1945, when much of Italy had already been liberated by the allies, Mussolini was confined to Salò and the North was under Nazi occupation, the Council of Ministers approved women's suffrage: all women with more than 21 years were allowed to vote, except for prostitutes who practiced "prostitution outside the authorized premises". The eligibility of women was instead established with a subsequent decree on 10 March 1946.

The first opportunity for women to vote was the administrative elections of '46: the turnout exceeded an anachronistic 89% and two thousand candidates were elected to the municipal councils.

The same turnout was registered for the referendum of 2 June. 21 women were elected to the Constituent Assembly out of 226 candidates, equal to 3.7 per cent.

To remind us, however, that the recognition of a single right does not in itself constitute a real equality, echo the words of the radio journalist Anna Garofalo, who commented on the first speech of a deputy on a non-female issue:

“For the first time since women have sat down in Parliament, a deputy, Marisa Cinciari Rodano, of the PCI, has taken the floor in the debate on foreign policy. There was a movement among journalists that could be called preventive distrust. It was not a political reaction (…) but she defended herself against the fact that a woman was speaking. So it was that (...) many were seized by the compelling desire to drink a coffee and others went to smoke in the corridor, coming back from time to time to exchange not too new words in a low voice about the pots that the speaker would have neglected to boil socks that, of course, he hadn't been able to mend."

Translated by Veronica Giustiniani


1. Fonte CEN:

2. Giulia Galeotti, La sconfitta di Atena, in Storia del voto alle donne in Italia, Biblink, 2006

3. Lucio Pegoraro, Angelo Rinella, Sistemi costituzionali comparati, G Giappichelli Editore, 2017

4. Fonte Il Post:

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  • L'Autore

    Francesco Marchesetti

    Studente di Lettere Moderne.
    Aspirante giornalista, certo che l'informazione libera debba essere un diritto universale.

    Student in Modern Literature.
    Aspiring journalist, certain that freedom of information should be a universal right.


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