Woman is a Rational Animal

By Jadwiga Tedeschi ~

Simone De Beauvoir famously said: “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” For a friend of hers, often unnamed, sometimes effaced, the challenges she faced in becoming a woman spurred her to challenge socialist theory and practice as her gender exposed the hypocrisies of the anti-fascist revolution she faithfully served for many years. In conversation with some of the leading intellectuals of the latter half of the twentieth century, this person employed her sociological and journalistic talents to “advance towards the prospect of a new humanism.”[1]

Maria Antonietta Macciocchi is born south of Rome in 1922 to an affluent, antifascist family. In her autobiography, Duemila Anni di Felicità (2000 years of happiness), she often refers back to this pampered childhood – a little sister, a spendthrift father who fully embraced the roaring twenties and yet made them “promise to swear their hatred to fascism”[2], and an anxious mother who worried about her husband’s excessive spending and only wished a stable future for her daughters. As she recounts her life, she is clearly integrating some of Freud’s ideas in how her origins and experiences as a woman shaped the course of her life and intellectual interests. Thus understanding her story is crucial to understand what motivated her contributions to society. Her mother died when she was a teenager, her father squandered all their wealth, so Macciocchi throws herself head-first in her classical studies. In her first year of university in 1942, she joins the PCI (Italian communist Party) and begins clandestinely distributing communist newspapers. She becomes increasingly involved, and even marries Piero Amendola, who belonged to a very prominent Italian antifascist family. With him, she moves to Naples, where in 1946 she is appointed as editor for the Party’s La Voce.

Macciocchi’s Neapolitan experience was certainly a training ground for her to put together socialist theory, sociological observations, and socially-oriented practice, thanks to which she eventually earned many Neapolitan women’s respect and established herself in the local community. Macciocchi describes when, in full labor, she “walked through the devastated streets…bombarded by the Allies, clutching her husband’s arm, to reach the hospital” and give birth to her daughter. In many ways, this city seemed retrograde, as its population clutched to monarchist ideals and seemed to actively oppose its own emancipation. This was the period in which Italy, having just emerged from the war, was passing its referendum on women’s suffrage and transitioning to a Republic. So Maria Antonietta would often incite “women, women of Salerno, the Republic…” and as soon as she pronounced that word, she would be hit by a rain of “cauliflower scraps, rotten tomatoes…bed-pans,” as the people screamed “we want the king!”[3] But many locals, led by “women…dressed in black, with the Savoy cross on their breast like a peplos, with their children in their arms,”[4] kept crying for monarchy. Many there were so hungry “they ate every fish in Naples’ aquarium – the most famous in Europe” at the time. This is the period from which Macciocchi starts making sociological observations when she reports about Neapolitan glove-makers, and their meager wages relative to the profits of their capitalist employers. While she never studies sociology (her university degree was in Letters and Philosophy), at different points of her career in the party she undergoes trainings which plausibly included sociological methods to measure the effectiveness of socialist policies and interventions in communities like Naples. Here she also begins supporting the local community by organizing a centre that took care of neglected children – both orphans and members of poor, overcrowded families – before sending them to the north, where they were promised an education, room, and boarding.”[5]

Maria-Antonietta Macciocchi, 1922-2007. Wikimedia Commons.

All this ended in 1950, when with a lower class communist journalist for the first time she finally experiences “amorous delight by penetration, that was for [her] like the Copernican revolution.”[6] She immediately decides to confess to the Party, claiming she is in love with this comrade and asking for a divorce. Despite the many love affairs that male editors of her paper were known to have, hers results in an exile back to Rome, where she is sent to direct Noi Donne, the PCI’s women’s paper. Not only is she erased from the city where she had begun to establish herself and taken away from her daughter, but her very association with Amendola is progressively effaced from official records. In 2007, her obituary in The Guardian recognizes Amendola as her daughter’s father, but not as her ex-husband.[7] The fact that such a strong liaison with a prominent member of the communist party was overlooked speaks volumes about how she was not merely forgotten, but actively removed from inconvenient chapters of history she was a part and witness of. On the other hand, her “saint communist” husband, who never opposed “the official ideology of the PCI,”[8] was freed and cleansed of his association with the rogue Macciocchi.  Other elements of her life and work have been downplayed, hidden – much of her work has remained untranslated, and is hard to access. Further proof of her erasure occurred in 1979 when she goes to the Noi Donne archives to inquire after the documentation of her expedition to Maoist China during the cultural revolution in 1970 as an official representative of the Party. Almost every record of that journey has vanished. All she finds under her profile are a few old ID photos and some more recent ones in which Macciocchi says: “I saw myself as horrid…a “witch.””

It is not coincidental that I was only able to find French and Italian works by Macciocchi, so every quote by her you are reading is directly translated by me from yellowed books, printed in the seventies, bought off of Amazon. Reprints, official translations, are virtually non-existent.  This woman deserves to be reread, retranslated; it is not for lack of depth or value that her life and works are little known or linguistically inaccessible.

Macciocchi’s demotion to Rome as a consequence of her extramarital affair shines some light on the fact that the emancipation of women “passed by ancestral laws, obscure, that come from the deep darkness of southern humanity and whose interpretation was in the hands of the Party and the Soviet Union, the first Socialist Republic.”[9] As a woman serving the Party, she feels she either has be a perfect souldier, or “reproduce like rabbits and Stalin solicited.”[10] In essence she is arguing that there are so many cultural constructs and expectations about women’s role in society that even an egalitarian ideology like communism couldn’t override. Women in the regime, according to her, were either sterilized, like the “glorious woman leader… [who] came to teach [them] about the emancipation of women in the USSR, and every five minutes her two fake incisors fell…she picked them up and put them back,”[11] or romanticized as “wombs of the species, guardians of the race, archetypes of human reproduction.”[12]

Her concern with the condition of women stimulates conversations and studies that lie outside the school of communism, from Freud, to Wilhelm Reich’s “psychologie de masse du fascisme” (mass psychology of fascism), and De Beauvoir’s “The Second Sex.” In the latter, Simone (who Macciocchi was good friends with) advocates for a modern woman that “can boast her thought, her actions, her work, her creations in the same conditions as men. Instead of denigrating them, she declares herself their equal.”[13]These inquiries will eventually lead Maria Antonietta to produce works such as her “Sept thèses sur la sexualité féminine dans l’idéologie fasciste” (”Seven Theses on Women’s Sexuality in Fascist Ideology”). In this essay, she explains how the Italian adhesion to fascism required sexual repression.[14] “Her particular enquiry is into the ways in which fascism, as an ideology, takes hold of and is fastened onto women … she is arguing that the ideological analysis of fascism is quite as indispensable as an economic analysis.”[15] When in the 60s she was a correspondent for L’Unità, another communist newspaper, in Paris, one of her primary contributions to French intellectual life was her book Pour Gramsci (For Gramsci), in which she elaborates on the Neo-Marxist founder of the Italian communist Party and his original political theories. One of the concepts he coined is “cultural hegemony”[16], according to which diverse individuals are acculturated to a dominant class’ worldviews, and homologation becomes a means of suppression – which is an idea we find reflected in Macciocchi’s feminist arguments, in which she voices “a problem of women’s consent to fascism, and … accuses a ‘new feminist metaphysics’ of idealizing a heroic image of the essential (perfectly wronged) woman.”[17]

Macciocchi refines these thoughts in Paris, where she is welcomed by the intellectual avantgarde. While her correspondence with Althusser, a groundbreaking French philosopher who also pushed Marx’s ideas further, is widely acknowledged, not many know this arose from a profound friendship, and on behalf of Maria Antonietta, almost a platonic love.[18] “Thanks to Althusser, [Macciocchi] felt reassured and opened to life.”[19] He too believed there was “a contradiction between what [he] wrote and the political situation. Between the theory [he] tried to advance and the strategy of communist parties. Politics anguished [him], made [him] sleepless, were a dilemma that exhausted, tortured [him].” In saying this, Althusser predominantly referred to Russia, and believed that Stalin’s death was an opportunity to refresh the way communist theory was applied. “China reproposed the problems of the USSR, and denounced its limits,” and in his mind constituted a great opportunity. Macchiocchi took such a great interest in China also because, in traveling there, she was fulfilling many of Althusser’s incitations. While the discrimination she felt as a woman in the Italian Communist Party led her to question the way socialist theories were enacted, Maoist China represented an experimental ground for answering her queries.

Her journey to China starts off as promising. She is going towards a Mao that claimed: “the active role of knowledge…[expresses itself] in the leap from rational understanding to revolutionary practice”[20] However, the initial enthusiasm, and possibly even the admiration Macciocchi reports in her account of that voyage, wore off. When, after the Cultural Revolution, she met a Chinese delegation in Paris, they told her “our peoples are happy, today. Yesterday we suffered greatly.”[21] When Maria Antonietta commented that that was exactly what she was told the decade before in Maoist China, they replied that while last time it was a lie, this time it was true.

The MEP Maria Antonietta MACCIOCCHI during a session in Strasbourg in May 1981. Source: European Parliament Multimedia Centre.

In her becoming a journalist, a professor, a politician, Macciocchi distances herself from clear-cut political affiliations. In 1977 she is finally expelled from the Party for overtly critiquing it. Two years later, in 1979, she becomes a member of the European Parliament in Strasbourg, and advances causes such as the abolition of euthanasia in France. From this period on, her involvement becomes more cause-specific and non-partisan (another one of her faut-pas was defending Pasolini, an overtly gay, radical Italian intellectual and dear friend in the late 60s and early 70s), and towards the end of her career she mainly focuses on feminism and reflections on her life, as well as tracing the lives of strong women in Italian history like Fonseca Pimentel and Luisa Sanfelice.

If one had asked Maria Antonietta Macciocchi whether or not she succeeded in becoming a woman, it is not certain she would have answered affirmatively. In recalling someone’s comment about her constantly hopping between hotels in Luxembourg, Brussels, Strasbourg, she comments that: “Nobody understands that it’s like telling an astronaut in orbit ‘Listen, why don’t you calm down a second and come down for a coffee?’ Nobody understands me/us. Also because, perhaps, there is nothing to understand. Politics is rapidity.”[22] With these lines, she expresses a disillusionment with her work, despite her externally great accomplishments. In her autobiography, she often refers back to masculinization she had to undergo in order to be taken seriously. Even Althusser, for whom her heart accelerated, to whom she felt “devout,” to whom she wrote every day, called her “a political man.”[23] There are moments, throughout her text, in which she describes her successful self as flaccid, pallid, austere – she recounts dinners on the Tour Eiffel, with Parisian intellegentia, as she makes polite conversation with her upper body while her feet, impatient, childish, kick their shoes off under the table and fidget.

If anything, Macciocchi’s constant becoming woman in a man’s world reflects the evolution of her thought from socialist, to radical, and beyond. Despite having headed several communist papers, been a member of the European Parliament, a sociology professor, having written numerous books on Marxist theory, feminism, revolutionary women, her vulnerable self, and having not just been in conversation, but intimate friends with personalities such as Satre, Simone De Beauvoir, Pasolini, Althusser, and many more, she is surprisingly ill-cited and known. By reviving Maria Antonietta Macciocchi’s life and works, one can gain insight on some of the most complex social issues of the last century. While diving into her life and work was a wonderful discovery for me, I realize I have just scratched the surface. In order to really appreciate the complexities and uniqueness of her dynamic arguments, I would have to have a solid grasp of a myriad other thinkers she was engaging with and responding to (i.e. Marx, Stalin, Mao, Freud, Gramsci, etc. not to mention her prominent friends). Hopefully this task will also be picked up by others. Maria Antonietta’s struggles reflect the limits of her times, and the hypocrisies in the application of socialist principles which continued excluding women and the lower classes. Her intimate understanding and methodical analysis of the history, development, and future of socialist ideals should be a point of reference for all of us who wish to “advance towards the prospect of a new humanism.”[24]


About the author:

Jadzia (pronounced ya-ja) Tedeschi was born and grew up in the countryside north of Rome, where, out of boredom, she learned to listen and observe. Once she understood the chickens and their coop dynamics, she decided to move on to boarding school in the US, and from there to the University of Chicago, where she is studying Philosophy of Science.




Featured Image: The MEP Maria Antonietta MACCIOCCHI during a session in the hemicycle of Strasbourg in November 1979. Source: European Parliament Multimedia Centre.

[1] “La condizione della donna: verso la conferenze di Pechino” [26:15]

[2]  Duemila Anni di Felicità, p. 40

[3] Duemila Anni di Felicità, p.103-104

[4] Duemila Anni di Felicità, p.103

[5] Duemila Anni di Felicità, p. 107

[6] Duemila Anni di Felicità, p. 110

[7] Maria Macciocchi, Italian dissident feminist at odds with the communist legacy

[8] Duemila Anni di Felicità, p. 57

[9] Duemila Anni di Felicità, p. 112

[10] “La condizione della donna: verso la conferenze di Pechino” [18:40]

[11] Duemila Anni di Felicità, p.47-48

[12] Duemila Anni di Felicità, p.48-49

[13] Analyse du Deuxième Sexe

[14] Le Feminisme Ambigu de Maria Antonietta Macciocchi

[15] Introduction to Female Sexuality in Fascist Ideology, p. 60

[16] Gramsci and the Theory of Hegemony

[17] Introduction to Female Sexuality in Fascist Ideology, p. 61

[18] Duemila Anni di Felicità, p.374

[19] Duemila Anni di Felicità, p.358

[20] Dalla Cina, p.97

[21] Duemila Anni di Felicità, p.429

[22] Duemila Anni di Felicità, p.119

[23] Duemila Anni di Felicità, p. 357

[24] “La condizione della donna: verso la conferenze di Pechino” [26:15]


Works Cited:

“La condizione della donna: verso la conferenze di Pechino”. Youtube. 2017.

Macciocchi, Maria Antonietta. Dalla Cina. Milano, Feltrinelli,1971.

Macciocchi, Maria Antonietta. Duemila Anni di Felicità. Milano, Mondadori,1983.

Caplan, Jane. “Introduction to “Female Sexuality in Fascist Ideology”.” Feminist Review, 1979. Accessed December 7, 2020.

Lane, John Francis. Maria Macciocchi, Italian dissident feminist at odds with the communist legacy. The Guardian. 2007.

Bates, Thomas R. “Gramsci and the Theory of Hegemony.” Journal of the History of Ideas 36, 1975. Accessed November 7, 2020.

Analyse du Deuxième Sexe (Simone de Beauvoir). La Philosophie. Accessed November 1, 2020.

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