The very enjoyment of Whiteness: Class, Gender and Italian bourgeois women between the metropole and colonial Libya (1900-1940)

My paper investigates how representations and self-representations of Italian bourgeois women in colonial Libya contributed to the construction of ideas of Italian whiteness, shaping gender and class identities both in the metropole and in this colony. I adopt the concept of whiteness in order to challenge ideas of national community in “Italian” Libya, stressing differences of class and gender among the Italians who settled or travelled across Libya. The possession of this specific colony liberated Italian elites by the anxieties of being confused with other Southern European and Mediterranean people fault of the alleged backwardness of most of nationals. The Italian bourgeoisie was eager to secure its European belonging, and performed its white and European identity studying, patronizing and civilizing Italy’s new colonial subjects, as well as domestic southern and rural populations. The colonial setting thus expanded the national setting in the shaping of ideas citizenship and race. Images of bourgeois Italian women were extensively used in the official visual representation of this colony, and some examples of their self-representations in travel writing, photography and interviews shed light on their active participation in the construction of ideas of whiteness. The presented materials – i.e. documentation of Ladies’ charities in Tripoli, press reports of the Young colonial fascist’s (Giovani fasciste coloniali) camp in Libya in 1938 – reveal such desire for the sharing of a “modern” colonial culture (notably through forms of consumerism of the exotic) and the subsequent enjoyment of an imagined European whiteness. From the paternalistic attitude performed under Liberal Italy, to the mass-inclusive strategies designed by the Fascist hierarchies, these women’s representations also point out the shifting strategies of colonial rule, and the interplay between bourgeois search for distinction and fascist racial and totalitarian politics.

Barbara Spadaro graduated in Modern History at “La Sapienza” University of Rome. Her dissertation on the colonial training courses for women under fascism awarded the Franca Pieroni Bortolotti Prize in Women’s and Gender History by the Società Italiana delle Storiche, SIS, and was subsequently published as an article (Intrepid housewives. Gender, imperialism and totalitarianism in women’s colonial training under Fascism (1937-1943), in “Contemporanea”, 1, 2010 [in Italian]). She holds a PhD in History at Istituto Italiano di Scienze Umane (SUM); her research project on the Italian bourgeoisie in colonial Libya intersects Gender History, New Imperial History and Oral History. She is an active member of the Società Italiana delle Storiche – Italian Association of Women Historians (SIS).