In 1890, Anna Kuliscioff stood before a packed house at the Philological Circle in Milan and delivered a searing speech on the “woman question.” 131 years later, Lorenzo Chiesa brings us Kuliscioff’s speech from that day, “The Monopoly of Man,” for the first time in English translation, to kick off the exciting new series Insubordinations: Italian Radical Thought. The series promises to bring Anglophone readers into contact with well-curated works from “various strands of post-World War II militant thought” as well as “seminal earlier Italian authors who may be regarded as ‘forerunners’ or critics avant la lettre of current trends in Italian radical thought” (ix). Who better than Anna Kuliscioff, clearly a member of the category of forerunners, to launch this ambitious project? The ultimate difficulty of giving one’s attention to this century-old work is not what we might expect: it is not an allowance for outdated assertions about gender that readers must make, but rather an acknowledgement that the pursuit of positive change calls for a drastic dismantling of the economic system that perpetuates and exacerbates acute wealth inequality.
Perhaps we can learn a thing or two from Kuliscioff’s tactics, as well as from her thought. In The Monopoly of Man, her approach is to address head-on what she understands as the history of women’s oppression. She begins by calling out the roots of physical dominance in the course of human evolution, noting that “laws and institutions still exist for women that originated from brute force, were legitimized and sanctioned by the Church, and finally became the basis of existing civil codes.” (9) As such, she emphasizes the logic of her key assertion: that “economic independence is a precondition for civil and political rights” (25). Kuliscioff’s insistence on economic autonomy as a prerequisite for women’s emancipation precedes by several decades a similar line, much better known, advanced by Virginia Woolf; while Woolf’s lyrical work addresses the conditions needed in order for women writers to thrive, Kuliscioff’s argument for financial equality has a far grander goal: the establishment of a fruitful and just collaboration among equals to lessen the burden of what she calls the general “struggle for existence” (11).
As if to demonstrate the efficacy of eventual collaboration, Kuliscioff’s analysis moves into a discussion of the current state of affairs by calling upon several experts and a slew of statistics – all data attest to the large scale of women’s involvement in late 19th-century industry. Women are everywhere the hardest and most trodden upon of workers, she asserts, and while capitalism has, on the one hand, destroyed the dignity of labor by driving for profit and productivity, it has also made clear that claims of essential inequality used to perpetuate injustice against women are ultimately invalid. The fight of the proletariat must have at its heart the fight of the laboring woman. Why, she asks, if women are undeniably engrained in the fabric of working society to the point of outnumbering their male counterparts, does such widespread inequality of access to specialized jobs and fair remuneration persist? With this question, Kuliscioff embarks on the second half of her study, in which she gathers up the most common defenses used to justify the unequal treatment of women – from the idea of women’s pay being only a complimentary wage to the conviction that women are weaker and produce less – and dismantles them one by one.
Interestingly, her demolition of tired counterarguments and her investigation of the real causes of perpetuated injustice do not lead to a fanfare of victorious rhetoric at her conclusion: rather, Kuliscioff’s sign-off is measured as she allows herself a subdued moment of optimistic imagining: “I hope,” she says simply, “that men will be slightly less intolerant and women slightly more supportive of each other” (62). Her closing vision of alliance and relationality might seem somewhat out of tune with the insistence on economic autonomy that dominates Kuliscioff’s analysis of emancipation, but it is in fact the most inspiring feature of her thought: economic autonomy as a precursor, a liberating step, that will allow individuals to come together in a dignified manner. A beautiful passage in this same vein is found in the middle section on economic independence, whose spirit seems to anticipate Hannah Arendt’s idea of the political:
I believe it is only at that point that women will have the moral strength needed not to put up with the pressures of fathers, husbands, and brothers, and will themselves be able to create, among their sex, that powerful weapon of modern social struggles, namely, association, in order to acquire civil and political rights. (26)
What is clear from the get-go is that Kuliscioff’s demands on feminism are politically radical, anti-capitalist, and statistically driven in such a way as to make popular contemporary Western feminism look watered-down, flimsy, and commodified. In fact, Kuliscioff scoffed at the term “feminism” in her own time, unimpressed by the sweeping universality of a sexed subject and concerned about the conflicts that inevitably arise along class lines. Airy “feminism” was for the bourgeois; a socialist approach to the woman question was for those who cared about real justice.
Kuliscioff’s words, delivered to a powerful group of her peers during the hey-day of socialist organizing and political purchase, risk landing among today’s Anglophone readers with a painful sense of momentum lost. Rather than reflect on the progress of Kuliscioff’s proposed twofold struggle – women, with men, against capitalism; and women, in a second struggle, against those who perpetuate their gendered oppression – we find ourselves today reduced to wielding power as consumers in pursuit of limited degrees of change, locked within the realm of our particular privilege. The call for equal pay remains relevant; the call for compensation for the work of housewives still falls on deaf ears.
Of particular relevance when considering Chiesa’s solid, unambiguous English translation is the fact that the US inspired Kuliscioff, at the time of her speech, to hope for imminent progress with the opening up of professional and political opportunities to women; yet in the nearly one hundred years since Kuliscioff’s passing, the US has adamantly pursued a line of policy and investment that opposes foreign experiments in socialist governance. For this reason, there could be no better moment at which to encounter the thought of this inspiring figure, and no better context for the encounter than this series, since Insubordinations fully embraces the function of paratextual material. In this inaugural volume, Kuliscioff’s words fill 60 odd pages, preceded by a brilliant introduction by Jamila M. H. Mascat, which constitutes the book’s first half. Ideal for pedagogical purposes, the introduction not only provides a fascinating biography of Kuliscioff, but it is also instrumental in constituting a theoretical link between the text at hand, the traditions from which it emerged, and the currents that have followed.
The book stands alone with ease as a worthwhile read for those already interested in the history of European feminism; it will no doubt shine even brighter when read alongside its eventual companions in the series. In fact, the best way to honor the life and work of Anna Kuliscioff might just be to place her at the outset of a published series, establish her as a fore-mother of contemporary critical Italian thought, and bring this genealogy together as a package into a realm of wider readership. Kuliscioff was in many ways a figure ahead of her own times, and, as becomes clear to readers of her oratory essay, she remains – over a hundred years later – decisively ahead of ours.
Kuliscioff, Anna. The Monopoly of Man. Translated by Lorenzo Chiesa. The MIT Press, 2021.
Maria Massucco is a PhD Candidate in Italian at Stanford University with minors in French and in Feminist, Gender and Sexuality Studies. Her current research draws together works of Italian prose, poetry and film from the last century in an investigation of gendered madness. Her work as a translator includes collaboration on several essay volumes, including Ovid’s Metamorphoses in Twentieth-Century Italian Literature, ed. Comparini.