Development and Underdevelopment in the History of Economic Thought

A FEMALE ACTIVIST ELITE IN ITALY (1890-1920) Overcoming the gender bias in the history of thought

Mosca Manuela Mosca, University of Salento (Lecce)
Laurenzi Elena, University of Salento (Lecce)

This presentation offers a portrait of a network of women belonging to the elite, based in Italy but politically active also on an international level in the early 20th century, and reflects on the legacy that these women bequeathed to subsequent generations. The concept of elite here has the sense used by Pareto (1916), to refer to the class at the top of income distribution that, by this very fact, has power. On this basis, we define a female activist elite as formed by committed women endowed with wealth and power. The presentation focuses on a range of leading figures among the upper bourgeoisie and aristocracy, of both European and American origin, living in Italy, one of whom was part of an Italian-American family that we trace over several generations. In the decades preceding WWI these women criticised the official politics of both the Italian State and their own countries of origin, turning their attention on many urgent political issues. At the same time, they focused their struggles on women’s emancipation: their privileged position, their wealth and power, enabled them to undertake groundbreaking and productive entrepreneurial initiatives aimed at promoting and developing women’s work. Their initiatives also converged with some of the major currents of the European political and cultural scene of the first half of the 20th century, such as the Arts and Crafts movement, modernism and religious reformism, innovative healthcare and educational theories (such as those of Steiner or of Montessori), anti-colonialism and pacifism. We finally trace the paths and modes of transmission of this elite’s ideas and practices down to our own times, mainly through the study of private letters from family archives, and we reflect critically on the ideal historiographical and methodological instruments for studying women in the history of thought in general.

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Keywords: elite, philanthropy, women's emancipation, historiography and methodology