Di Robilant, Daisy, Countess (fl. 1922–1933)

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Di Robilant, Daisy, Countess (fl. 1922–1933)

Italian feminist and activist who worked for the cause of women's and children's rights to welfare benefits both before and during the fascist dictatorship of Benito Mussolini. Pronunciation: Dee Ro-bee-lan. Little is known about di Robilant apart from the details of her involvement in fascist politics. She came from a wealthy Piedmontese noble family.

The wealthy Piedmontese noble family of Countess Daisy di Robilant was well connected to the European aristocracy and the upper reaches of Italian society. Di Robilant had a privileged upbringing and education that prepared her for an extraordinary life. Members of her family included such illustrious personalities as the Count Carlo di Robilant, who served his country from 1849 to 1887, first as a general in the Italian army, then as an ambassador to Vienna, and finally as a foreign minister.

Unwilling to pursue an idle existence, the countess devoted over 35 years of her life to public service as a philanthropist, feminist, and activist. Before the arrival of Fascism, she was a founder and president of the national Mothers' Aid Society, a charity that provided temporary shelter for homeless, single mothers. She was also an international campaigner for children's rights. Di Robilant believed that the state should enact sweeping welfare reforms to protect citizens from poverty. For years, she lobbied successive Italian prewar governments to enact legislation that would help lone mothers care for their children. She did so out of recognition that the more desperate the plight of the unsupported mother, the greater the compulsion to abort, abandon, or murder her child. Widely recognized within her own country as a major figure in public life, she was appointed to the presidency of the National Council of Italian Women in 1931, an important feminist organization that had been founded by upper-class women like herself in 1903. She also served on the governing body of the International Committee for the Protection of Children, an organization that promoted the adoption of laws to guarantee children everywhere basic rights to health, happiness, education and opportunity. In 1934, the International Congress of Women, a worldwide network of feminist leaders, also appointed her to the directorship of its department on maternity and infancy.

After the fascist seizure of power in 1922, Daisy di Robilant became a keen supporter of Benito Mussolini's social reforms and acted as a spokesperson for the regime at many international congresses throughout the period. During the dictatorship, she held a number of important government posts and served as a director of welfare and social services for unwed mothers. She also publicly endorsed the regime's attempts to prevent illegal abortions and to increase the birthrate. After 1927, she worked tirelessly and selflessly within the new institutions for women's welfare that the fascist state established. But by the early 1930s, Daisy di Robilant began to become disillusioned with Fascism's failure to implement reforms effectively. Her forthright and courageous criticisms of fascist social policy eventually provoked the indignation of Mussolini who brusquely dismissed her from high office in 1936. Her historical importance lies in the fact that she was both a feminist and a fascist. She was also one of the very few women of power and influence within an almost exclusively male-dominated fascist dictatorship.

The countess entered the most important stage of her career as an activist after Benito Mussolini and his National Fascist Party seized power in 1922. Fascism destroyed the institutions of parliamentary democracy, then determined to inaugurate a new era of Italian politics—one marked by strong and decisive action. After 1871 when the Italian kingdom was first formed, many successive governments had hoped to expand welfare provision for mothers, children, and the family, but all had hesitated to do so because of the huge cost to the treasury and the taxpayer. Italy's involvement in the First World War in the years 1915 to 1918 caused a major shift in attitudes, however. The loss of hundreds of thousands of young men at the front accentuated fears that the postwar birth and marriage rates would drop so low that the population would not replenish itself. In addition, the hardships suffered by women and children at the homefront raised awareness that the state would have to enact legislation to combat Italy's high levels of poverty and disease. In the immediate aftermath of the war, the nation was beset by unemployment and inflation that culminated in escalating labor unrest. The rise of the fascist movement after 1919 brought organized terrorism and political instability in its wake and further minimized opportunities to develop ambitious social programs. But when Mussolini became prime minister in 1922, he committed his new government to a broad range of social reforms that promised to improve the health and welfare of the nation.

The motivation behind Mussolini's purported commitment to the social betterment of the Italian people lay in Fascism's broader political agenda. The dictator outlined his aims in 1927, when he made a historic speech in Parliament. Mussolini proclaimed that a "Fecund Decade" had begun—a new age that would, he declared, see Italy transformed from a lesser economic and military power to an industrial giant and a maker of world empire. Italy needed more workers and warriors to realize Fascism's grandiose plans, so the state would have to act decisively in order to encourage a rise in fertility. Not concerned solely to increase the quantity of the population, Mussolini also sought to improve the quality of the population so that Italians would be fit enough to meet the challenges of the future. The goal of birthrate increase inspired major institutional and social reforms targeted specifically at women. Only by helping women bear and rear healthy children, Mussolini reasoned, would Fascism be able to convince them to have more babies.

The main institutional vehicle for Fascism's demographic campaign was the National Organization for the Protection of Motherhood and Infancy whose purpose was to create a health service for needy mothers and their children. Since levels of infant and child abandonment were high in such a poor country as Italy, and the mortality rate of abandoned children was almost double that for those raised within families, the new institution launched a series of initiatives aimed at persuading single mothers to care for their own children.

It is far easier to bring more babies in the world than it is to ensure that those babies survive their infancy.

—Daisy di Robilant, in a letter to Benito Mussolini

Under liberalism, the whole system of care for so-called "illegitimate" children had revolved around the foundling home, an archaic institution first created in the Middle Ages in which nuns cared for infants born out of wedlock. Many unwanted infants were simply abandoned at churches, convents, foundling homes, and hospitals. In areas equipped with such facilities, unmarried pregnant women were sometimes housed in shelters run by the Catholic Church. The church set up such charities in order to protect the lives of both the unwed expectant mother and her unborn child. It was known that women who became pregnant before marriage were sometimes killed by members of their own families. In rural communities in particular, a scandal involving accusations of the rape or seduction of a young woman could also result in a blood feud between families. Feuding families engaged in ritual violence and retribution to protect their honor. In circumstances such as these, single women often felt compelled to hide the fact that they were pregnant. Some fled the villages in which they lived. Others had abortions in order to hide their shame. And others still sought refuge with the church.

The church, however, did not wish a single mother to have any contact with her newborn child, since, according to Catholic teaching, she was a sinner who had lost her grace before God. The prime consideration of the church was to save the soul of the offspring of so-called "illicit love" by means of the ritual of baptism. Once baptized, however, the illegitimate baby faced an unsure future in impersonal and institutional care. After a brief spell in the foundling home, these infants were often farmed out to paid wetnurses who reared them until they were old enough to be sent to the orphanages where they spent their adolescence. The entire system of relief for foundlings was based on secrecy and shame.

From the late 19th century, these traditional institutional arrangements came under increasing attack from reformers who felt that single mothers should raise their own children. By 1922, Daisy di Robilant had devoted years of service to this cause. Her long experience as a campaigner and philanthropist made her the ideal person to play a major role in Fascism's project to extend state-funded services for social welfare. In 1927, the leadership of the National Organization for the Protection of Motherhood and Infancy launched what was called an "illegitimacy campaign" to reduce levels of child abandonment and mortality. Direction of this program was given to the countess, who became head of a new experimental center in Rome that ministered to thousands of single pregnant women.

From the start of her new career as a fascist welfare activist, the countess expressed very strong views about the direction policy should take. A committed supporter of publicly funded welfare programs, she believed that the state had a moral obligation to care generously for single mothers and their children. Unmarried Italian women bringing up children alone, she realized, faced stigma and censure because the Catholic Church and social custom abhorred motherhood outside marriage. Since contraception and abortion were illegal in fascist Italy, she never hesitated to remind her colleagues, the government's own laws contributed to the social problem of child abandonment. The regime, she believed, had to help women go against convention by giving them the legal, social, medical, and financial support they needed to form stable single-parent families.

Although she never hesitated to express frank opinions, even when these might damage her career prospects, the countess was an early convert to Fascism. She completely endorsed the political objectives behind the regime's demographic campaign, going so far as to advocate that motherhood was a sort of patriotic duty owed to the nation and the state. Given the pressures on individuals to conform during the dictatorship, it was hardly surprising that she should define herself as a "fascist of true faith" in her correspondence with Mussolini and her colleagues. However, it seems likely that what motivated the countess to abandon her earlier liberalism and embrace Fascism was the promises the regime repeatedly gave that it would solve some of Italy's most serious social problems by making these top priorities in domestic politics. No previous Italian government had pledged such firm and unwavering commitment to the achievement of improved health and welfare for its people. This deeply motivated reformer believed that Fascism's rise to power did mark a new era in Italian politics—one characterized by the presence of strong leadership at a national level capable of implementing inspired policy.

She longed to have faith in the promise that Fascism would create a new and modern form of state welfare. More difficult to understand, she also believed that Fascism and feminism were not necessarily incompatible. Her brand of feminism, it has to be said, was of the moderate and reformist kind typical of a woman of her class and breeding. But even liberal and bourgeois feminists could find ample cause to oppose a regime that was so vehemently hostile to the quest for women's emancipation.

Fascism defined women purely in terms of their biological function. Women's capacity to bear children, fascists maintained, affected their personality and intelligence and made them less able than men to be active in the world outside the home. As a consequence of this belief, women faced institutionalized discrimination in all areas of public life under Fascism. Their personal, educational, and employment opportunities were severely circumscribed by a dictatorship determined to relegate women to the private sphere of family and motherhood. Fascism aggressively sought to deprive women of freedom of choice over their own bodies and political rights as citizens. But it couched its patriarchal agenda in paternalistic and protective language that aimed to make women feel that the state valued their unique contribution to society. Women's reproductive role as mothers was deemed to be of paramount political importance. The fascist government lavished much praise on women who sacrificed all for the betterment of their husbands, their children, and their nation.

Ultimately, it was the regime's professed commitment to improving the lot of women that allowed someone like the Countess di Robilant to become a follower of Fascism. Focused on the issue of welfare entitlements, her feminism had always been concerned with advancing the social rather than the political rights of women. Pragmatic and realistic, she, like many feminists of her generation, realized that the family was the pivotal institution in Italian society, one which shaped women's identity and roles. She also believed that since most Italian women did, indeed, spend the better part of their lives having and raising children, their labors should at least be recognized and rewarded. Perhaps naively, she thought that she had found in Fascism's social reforms a means to fulfill finally her highest feminist aspirations.

The countess hoped to build up the social services needed to provide unmarried mothers with medical help, free food and lodging, and financial aid. She believed strongly that social assistance to unwed mothers had to be substantial enough to support the woman during her pregnancy and to sustain a single-parent family long after birth. In particular, she was concerned to protect the most vulnerable women from a life in poverty or prostitution which, she believed, was often caused by an unwanted pregnancy. Young girls, rape victims, the homeless, and outcast women who chose to mother their children would be assisted in their endeavor by sympathetic and trained welfare workers whose prime goal was to keep families together. From the beginning of her work as an administrator, Daisy di Robilant showed a marked tendency to defy the directives of her superiors. Official policy aimed only at encouraging women to register the newborn with the appropriate authorities, thereby accepting the responsibility of parenthood, and to breast-feed the baby in its early months, thereby increasing its life chances. As an incentive, fascist welfare agencies offered single mothers a monthly cash subsidy. Any woman, moreover, who lived with a man or had a history of producing illegitimate children was denied entitlement to the benefit. The reforms that Fascism implemented aimed at making unwed mothers into responsible parents; but fascist welfare legislation completely ignored the father of illegitimate children.

Daisy di Robilant had a much more ambitious approach than other fascist reformers. She realized that in many democratic countries governments empowered courts to make the putative fathers of illegitimate offspring financially responsible for the upbringing of their children. Italian women, by contrast, were not entitled by law to seek child maintenance. The countess saw this as an injustice that served to protect men, particularly married men, from any embarrassment or responsibility. Moreover, she was motivated by a strong desire to see her women clients settled in stable marriages that might offer them some modicum of security. A lot of women who came to her for help had relationships with partners, some of whom were not the biological father of their children. These women revealed to her that their poverty was an obstacle to marriage. In order to encourage them to marry, the countess offered a different cash benefit, a marriage premium, which was substantial enough to assist a newlywed couple to set up household together. After the marriage, the countess still gave these women hardship allowances when needed.

Opposed by higher levels of fascist officialdom, di Robilant tried to implement imaginative and progressive reforms that were aimed at responding to the full range of needs of her clientele. She and the other volunteers who worked for her provided free legal advice for women, took care of all the bureaucratic maneuvering involved in welfare work, found low-cost housing and secure jobs for her clients and their partners, and coordinated all available social and medical services by means of referral. Di Robilant was attempting to go well beyond the mere provision of state handouts; she sought instead to create a comprehensive and integrated system of welfare that provided continuous and flexible support for the single mother.

Proud of the work she did, the countess claimed that she was so successful that Rome's historic foundling home was finally becoming an obsolete institution. Levels of child abandonment were decreasing, and more and more two-parent families were being formed. She attributed this success to the fact that she was offering women real support both during and after their pregnancy. Perhaps the most significant achievement of all, welfare under the countess' leadership seemed to be improving the health of single mothers and their babies. Poverty, bad housing, undernourishment and sickness all went hand in hand. Single mothers in Italy were especially disadvantaged in all these areas. The deprivations they endured made them particularly vulnerable to miscarriages and complications during pregnancy. Their children too suffered alarmingly high rates of prematurity and failure to thrive, as well as the diseases associated with poor diets and environments. But the women and children in her care received continuous medical attention, as well as free meals, and these together accounted for the improvements.

Despite her program's success in reducing levels of sickness and death among a particularly vulnerable group in society, the countess' experimental center in Rome was starved of funds. Although she achieved dramatic results, she came under increasing attack by a fascist hierarchy that disapproved of her independence of mind. In the end, her deviations from the official line cost her allies at the top of the National Organization for the Protection of Motherhood and Infancy.

The fascist regime had never fully anticipated the costs of a welfare state. By the early 1930s, the National Organization for the Protection of Motherhood and Infancy was in great financial trouble, so its leaders imposed cuts on many of its social programs. Originally conceived as a model that the rest of the nation would follow, Daisy di Robilant's experimental center in Rome was one of the first victims of the axe. Initially the size of her budget was decreased as her superiors tried to compel her to limit the scope of her services and to conform to fascist policy. By 1933, the government could no longer claim to be providing unwed mothers with any real incentive to rear their children. As her program was being dismantled despite her efforts to continue without much support from the state, the countess made repeated requests to Mussolini himself to intervene on behalf of all the children he had earlier promised to help. The dictator ignored her pleas.

The countess' attempts to salvage the illegitimacy campaign failed, and this social program fell victim to Fascism's overambition and mismanagement. Her brief experiment in Rome had shown that fascist welfare could work given enough funding and commitment. But the regime proved unable to follow her lead and sustain the momentum of reform.


Di Robilant, Daisy, L'assistenza obbligatoria agli illegittimi riconosciuti: note ed apunti di assistenza sociale. Turin, 1937.

Quine, M.S., "From Malthus to Mussolini: The Italian Eugenics Movement and Fascist Population Policy, 1890–1938," Ph.D thesis, University of London, 1990 (published as The Fascist Social Revolution: The Welfare State in Italy, 1922–1945, Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1996).

suggested reading:

De Grazia, V. How Fascism Ruled Women: Italy, 1922–1945. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1992.


Miscellaneous correspondence and papers located in the Archivio Centrale dello Stato (Central State Archive) in Rome.

Maria Sophia Quine , lecturer at Queen Mary and Westfield College, University of London, and author of Population Politics in Twentieth-Century Europe (London, England: Routledge, 1995)

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Di Robilant, Daisy, Countess (fl. 1922–1933)

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