Penny Morris

‘Piccola Posta: Advice Columns and Mothers in early 1950s Italy’

Whilst advice columns are often seen purely as entertainment and as frivolous, they can also offer interesting insights into what were perceived to be the problems or issues of the day and into attempts to regulate or change behaviour. The early 1950s saw a huge increase in the publication of magazines aimed at women or at the family. The paper focussed on two in particular: the women’s magazine Grazia and the family magazine Epoca.

In Grazia, the letter-writers tend to be quite young and the adviser, the fictional ‘Signora Quickly’ (in fact the playwright Dino Falconi), establishes ‘herself’ as a mother figure. Reluctance to become a mother is severely criticised; motherhood is understood as the natural, inevitable destiny of women, the pinnacle of her achievements. Mothers are encouraged to impose discipline on daughters, whilst complaints about mothers from daughters are usually dismissed with the argument that disagreements will be resolved because of the ‘natural’ understanding that exists between them. A married daughter, however, always owes allegiance first to her husband, to whom she should also be prepared to act as a mother figure. This, it becomes clear, is not so much to do with mammismo or the infantilisation of men, as with double standards and an indulgent attitude which minimises the responsibility of the husband for his infidelities. There is no suggestion that a mother has a particularly significant relationship with her sons except in relation to the problem of what is always assumed to be a fraught relationship between the daughter-in-law and mother-in-law. Addressed with increasing frequency towards the end of the 1950s, it is presented as a power struggle within the home that occurs when a young couple obliged to live with the husband’s parents, and sympathy tends to lie with the mother-in-law whose status is being challenged.

The writer Alba de Céspedes’ column in Epoca, on the other hand, represents a much more subtle approach to problems posed by readers. There is a very strong sense in both the questions and answers of a society in flux that was leaving many confused and uncertain about how to deal with changing relationships between generations and between men and women. Alba de Céspedes has considerable sympathy for older and younger generations, but advises her readers that they need to adapt to a modern world in which much more was demanded of women: as well as being good wives and mothers, they should also have some independence and cultivate their own lives too. However, she proposes no one model of motherhood, and, rather surprisingly given the epoch and the publication, suggests that single mothers are as acceptable as more traditional married ones. Whilst rejecting stereotypes and simplistic understandings of relationships, de Céspedes does nevertheless highlight the clash between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law, but also recognises the importance of the affective relationship between mother and son and suggests that through co-habitation with his parents, a son can never escape the idealised mother of his childhood. Italian mothers are not shown to share essential characteristics; some features of the stereotype appear particularly in the mother-in-law – her possessiveness, the son’s lack of maturity – but the emphasis is on external causes and the suggestion that the economic situation in the early 1950s was creating monsters within the home. On the other hand, her novel Quaderno proibito, published in 1952, suggests that the damage caused by domineering mothers-in-law has been passed down through the generations and will only stop when women gain independence outside the home and family.

Quotes from the advice columns:

1. ‘Don’t you think that women were created to become mothers? And if that’s how it is, what’s the point in all this talk of freedom? […] Motherhood is synonymous with sacrifice, in fact it becomes sublime through sacrifice’ (Grazia 7 July 1951)

2. ‘the ark, the tabernacle, the altar of the family’ (Grazia 26 June 1950)

3. ‘little, separate nucleus’ (Grazia 3 July 1955)

4. ‘this is exactly what you must force yourself to be with him at the moment, a mother, a tender, understanding, wise and consoling mother’ [mammina] (Grazia 27 July 1955)

5. ‘the piercing look of a future mother-in-law can see a safety pin through three layers of material’ (Grazia Donna Letizia, 6 Sept 1953)

6. ‘What do you expect? That these elderly mothers [madri di famiglia], who are often authentic “heads of the family” [capi di famiglia] should adapt to acting almost as maids for the wives of their sons, just because they had the imprudence or carelessness to get married before they could afford a house?’ (Grazia 8 July 1956)

7. ‘Many women complain that men today are different from the way that they were, they don’t have a sense of responsibility, they are weak, uncertain, dissolute, work only for economic gain not following the kind of ambitions that their fathers had. This is a sign of the way that the figures of father,  mother, spouse are changing; instead of regretting those of the past, we have to recognize that those of today have equal value, even they appear in a new form. Customs usually evolve slowly, but recent wars […] have made this evolution so rapid that we’ve been left disconcerted. Our generation has the difficult task of adapting to these changes’ (Epoca issue 102, Sept 1952)

8. ‘The mother loves the son and, often, especially if she is a widow or victim of her husband’s indifference, she unconsciously transfers all her accumulated and repressed feelings into her love for her son. In this way, by dominating her son, she enjoys the pleasure of dominating men. So already, as the son leaves adolescence behind and becomes independent, the mother suffers and fights back.’ (Epoca vol 98, Aug 1952)