Noce, Teresa (1900–1980)

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Noce, Teresa (1900–1980)

Italian activist, labor leader, journalist and feminist who served as a parliamentary deputy and advocated sweeping social legislation on behalf of mothers. Name variations: "Estella" (underground name used during her years as a political émigré in France). Born in Turin, Italy, on July 29, 1900; died in January 1980; married Luigi Longo.

Worked as a turner for Fiat Brevetti and later became a journalist, writing for Il grido del popolo and Ordine nuove (1914–17); joined the Socialist Party (1919); became a member of the founding generation of the Italian Communist Party (1921); oversaw the Communist Youth Federation and their periodical La voce della gioventù (1920s); helped instigate the antifascist strikes of the female workers in the rice fields (1934); organized movements in both Italy and France, becoming a leader of the women's Communist Party in France; edited a number of periodicals, including La voce della donne, an anti-fascist periodical founded by women (1934); escaped from a concentration camp and aided the French Resistance; captured by the Gestapo and interred in the Ravensbrück concentration camp; returned to a liberated Italy (1945); as a member of the central committee of the Communist Party, worked to form the Italian Republic; had a long and successful career in public life, including election to the Italian Parliament, selection as general secretary of the textile workers union, and election to the Central Committee of the PCI; was a driving force in achieving passage of a comprehensive maternity law (1950).

Selected works:

Nuestros hermanos, los internacionales (1937); Tra gli eroi ed i martiri della liberta (1937); Gioventù senza sole (1938); Teruel martirio e liberazione di un popolo! (1939); Ma domani fara giorno (1952); Rivoluzionaria professional (1974); Vivere in piedi (1978); Estella: Autobiographie einer italienischen Revolutionärin (1981).

A self-declared "professional revolutionary," Teresa Noce was born in the northern Italian industrial city of Turin on July 29, 1900. The second child of an unmarried working-class mother, Noce grew up in poverty. At age ten, she began working at the local Fiat factory. To protest low pay, long hours (ten hours a day), and poor factory conditions, by age 12 Teresa was active in her plant's union, joining demonstrations. In 1915, she and thousands of other workers took to the streets to denounce Italy's entrance into World War I. She remained active in union affairs throughout the war, becoming increasingly militant as the conflict dragged on. Starting in 1919, she became an active member of the Young Socialist movement, and for the next several years was one of Turin's most active working-class leaders in a period when the workers of northern Italy occupied their factories and many observers believed the nation was moving toward a revolution.

The dreams (and fears) of a workers' revolution in Italy in the early 1920s turned out to be illusions. The conservative forces rallied, finding their savior in a renegade militant Socialist named Benito Mussolini who headed a violent mass movement calling itself Fascism. In 1921, convinced that the moderate tactics of the Socialist Party would never be able to meet the challenges of Fascism, Noce resigned from the Socialists and became a charter member of the newly founded Italian Communist Party (Partito Comunista Italiana or PCI). In October 1922, Mussolini was appointed prime minister, and in stages, by using both terror and political deceit, he imposed a Fascist dictatorship on Italy. By 1925, both the Socialist and Communist parties had been outlawed, but Noce continued her agitation among workers on an illegal basis. It was during this period that she met her future husband Luigi Longo, an up-and-coming PCI functionary.

By the early 1930s, Mussolini's secret police, the OVRA, had succeeded in smashing most of the Communist cells that served as nuclei of anti-Fascist resistance throughout Italy, particularly in areas of industrial and peasant discontent. In the spring of 1934, Noce organized one of the last acts of working-class resistance, a rice workers' strike. Fascist authorities succeeded in crushing the strike, but Noce was able to escape to Paris, where a large group of anti-Fascist exiles lived. There, Noce quickly emerged as a leading figure in Italian exile politics. She took advantage of the new PCI party line, a "unity of action" pact signed between the formerly warring Socialists and Communists in August 1934, to work alongside Socialist exiles on the propaganda front.

In one of the most successful signs of the new spirit of unity on the Left, Noce became editor of a weekly journal, Grido del popolo (The People's Cry), which was greeted enthusiastically by political émigrés who often had little to be optimistic about. In its pages, anti-Fascist Italians in France and elsewhere received the latest information from the underground cells still active in Italy, reports that were critical of the proFascist news often found in the French bourgeois media. Noce kept Grido del popolo on track, calling for agitation both within and outside Italy for improved conditions for the industrial working class, and for the abolition of the Special Tribunals that had sentenced anti-Fascists to long prison terms. Noce's strong editorial hand resulted in clear, framed demands for amnesties for political prisoners of Fascism. Grido del popolo emphasized the situation of the PCI leader Antonio Gramsci, a brilliant intellectual who was dying of tuberculosis in one of Mussolini's prisons. The campaign led by Noce reached its climax with mass demonstrations of Italian anti-Fascist exiles, joined by French workers and intellectuals, in the streets of Paris.

Throughout the 1930s in Paris, Noce was active not only as a journalist but as a PCI organizer. She was interested in women's issues, although her growing influence within the Communist Party meant that most of her time went into "general political work." She believed that with the achievement of socialism, which would follow the demise of both Fascism and capitalism, discrimination against women would rapidly become a thing of the past. In the crisisplagued 1930s, however, the bulk of her energies went into hastening the end of the Mussolini dictatorship, and into participating in the general struggle against other Fascist regimes, including the growing menace represented by Adolf Hitler's Third Reich. One of the ways Noce hoped to alert the world to the Fascist threat was by reporting the civil war that broke out in Spain in the summer of 1936. She traveled to Spain to see for herself how the embattled Republic was fighting against not only the domestic Fascist elements led by Francisco Franco, but against the "volunteer" armies sent by Hitler and Mussolini to assist Franco. Based on her observations, she wrote several appeals in pamphlet form to report to the world on the Spanish struggle. In early 1939, Noce saw her hopes of defeating Fascism shattered when the Spanish Republic succumbed to the superior armed forces of the opposition.

Noce remained in France when that nation surrendered to Nazi Germany in June 1940. Unbowed, she quickly helped to organize anti-Nazi cells within the Italian exile community in Paris. During this period, she eluded arrest on many occasions, using the underground name "Estella" as a leader of an effective partisan unit. Eventually, however, her luck ran out, and she was arrested and deported to the infamous German concentration camp for women, Ravensbrück. Noce, who survived the horrors of Ravensbrück, was liberated in the spring of 1945. As soon as transportation was available, she returned to Italy, which had only recently been freed of German occupation forces. Mussolini had been executed by Communist partisan forces in the final days of the war, and Italian Communists enjoyed immense popularity, being able to boast of a record of two decades of resistance to Fascism that had cost the PCI many lives and much suffering.

In the years after 1945, Noce was one of the few universally recognizable women in the world of Italian Communism (other women of note within PCI circles were Giulietta Ascoli and Camilla Ravera ). Among the many honors and responsibilities that now came her way were election to the PCI Central Committee, election to the Italian Parliament, and selection as general secretary of the textile workers union. (In that capacity, she was a founder of La voce dei tessili, the voice of the union.) Noce was in fact virtually the only woman in the post-World War II Italian labor movement to hold a position of national leadership and prominence. Her years of party work and her past, as a survivor of dangerous underground assignments and a Nazi concentration camp, gave her immense prestige among both PCI rank-and-file and leadership circles. Noce refused to become a rubber stamp for either the Italian party hierarchy or "the Soviet comrades" during the final, paranoid years of the Stalin dictatorship. Displaying a spirit of independence rare at the time, even within the PCI hierarchy (it would flourish in later decades, when the PCI exemplified a "Eurocommunism" free of Soviet control), in 1951 Noce was one of only two members of the Italian Communist leadership to vote against a "proposal" made to the PCI by Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. The issue was one of PCI chair Palmiro Togliatti residing permanently in Prague (or Moscow) rather than Rome, clearly enabling Stalin to exert much more control over the Italian Communist movement. Togliatti objected to the idea and did not return to Moscow for a visit until after Stalin died in 1953. Even though her vote put her at odds with the great majority of her Communist colleagues, Noce voted her conscience and was vindicated by later events.

It was in the area of women's issues that Noce was able to accomplish what many observers of contemporary Italian society would argue has been her most lasting legacy. Under Fascism, and before as well, Italy's women had been denied full legal and civic equality. The post-1945 era saw a surge of reformist energies that would result in significant changes on this front. An organization that Noce was strongly identified with at this time was the Unione Donne Italiane (Italian Women's Union or UDI), which had its roots in the anti-Fascist women's front that Noce had led in Paris in the 1930s. Another source of membership for the UDI were the armed units of women partisans, Gruppi di Difese (Defense Groups), who were active in the anti-Fascist struggle from 1943 through 1945. Officially founded in Rome in September 1944, the UDI claimed to be a non-partisan organization when it was in fact informally but strongly allied with the PCI on all major issues.

Soon after the war, women members of the left-wing parties to the Italian Parliament, headed by Noce, led a mass crusade for a comprehensive maternity law. The UDI—which has averaged 400,000 members since its founding—mobilized its resources for the campaign, which as it turned out would last several years. Not surprisingly, the campaign met with strong opposition from employers, but it was sporadically and often only halfheartedly opposed by the forces of political Catholicism, meaning Catholic women's groups, the Italian church, and indirectly the papacy. Led by Noce and other parliamentary deputies, a UDI victory was achieved in 1950, when a sweeping law was passed giving protection to working mothers, prescribing compulsory and paid leave for pregnant women two months before and three months after birth, and defining a number of provisions for mothers of children under one year. Highly progressive for its day, the law remains in force after a half-century. When Teresa Noce died in January 1980, one of the most remarkable women in her nation's modern history passed from public life.


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——. Ma domani fara giorno. Rome: Editori Riuniti, 1965.

——. Nuestros hermanos, los internacionales. Madrid: Ediciones del Soccoro Rojo, 1937.

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——. Tra gli eroi ed i martiri della liberta. Madrid: Brigate internazionali, 1937.

——. Vivere in piedi. Milan: G. Mazzotta, 1978.

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John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia