‘Tell me, please, is it true that the city is a dangerous place for a good girl?’ Work, independence and leaving home for young women in 1950s Italy

The fotoromanzi, all Italians know, are about love, escapism and fantasy. Occasionally the stories take their readers to exotic locations like the American wild west, medieval Venice, ancient Rome or pre-revolutionary Russia where adventure and intrigue are added to the basic ingredients of romance and melodrama, but these are always at the centre of the story. What then might such magazines have to say about the opportunities, expectations and choices that young women had to face in the 1950s as they set about building their lives? I spent last week going through my notes on the magazines I’ve been reading, and putting my research together to write a paper for the Social History Society conference taking place next week. As I read back through my summaries of the stories and letters I found that the magazines actually had a surprising amount to say on the subject of work, career and leaving home as well as the more familiar themes of love, dating and marriage.

While aristocrats, nobility and wealthy heirs and heiresses featured heavily as protagonists in the early 1950s, from then on the heroines of the stories generally worked. It was usually understood as a passing phase before marriage, but even then there were a surprising range of opportunities open to them and there were some real career women featured too. Most heroines were admittedly typists and secretaries – reflecting the sort of opportunities that were opening up towns and cities across Italy for ‘respectable’ girls with some education and training – followed closely by university students – again rapidly growing category in late 1950s society – but they could also be teachers, accountants, book keepers, scientists, models, actresses, musicians, boutique owners and directors of fashion houses. A story set in California featured a high- level research scientist as its heroine. She survived sabotage and kidnapping, and married her man with no mention of giving up her job afterwards, making her a pretty impressive romantic lead for 1955. Being a scientist in a top research lab in California was probably just as far removed from many readers’ experience as being a famous actress or for that matter living in medieval Venice, even. But stories like this did let them know that there were other paths for women besides being wife, mother, or typist.

The letters page of the magazine also gives us some insights into the struggles and challenges that some girls faced as they strived for find work outside the home, whether to escape the monotony of being closed up all day in the home or in their village, or just to earn some money to survive or keep their family afloat. In 1955 ‘Giuseppina’ and ‘Lonely soul’ wrote in to ask how to go about looking for work. Both were young women from the rural south, and were confined to the home, unable to continue their education or find work. This was not an unusual predicament in traditional families in the south, where girls were expected to stay at home until marriage. Finding a job in their own village was a big step, while leaving home for other opportunities in the nearby town or city was often an unthinkable taboo. Often they didn’t even know where to start looking for information, and writing to a magazine filled with love stories and celebrity gossip must have seemed like the most sensible, or even the only thing to do. While the first girl, who was very isolated and afraid, was told to ask her local dressmaker for an apprenticeship so that she wouldn’t have to go too far from home for work, the second was advised to look for an evening class in her local town so that she could get some training before she considered the bigger step of moving to the city.

Always vague, the city in question was rarely named in letters or stories. It was simple, ‘the city’; a shadowy, dangerous place that young single girls were warned to stay away from if they valued their reputations and even their lives. Grand Hotel is full of cautionary tales about these mysterious places; where ‘serious’ young women could meet the wrong men, come back pregnant or even fall into vice in order to survive. However it was also an exciting place; there were stories of couples meeting by chance on the street or on the tram – something which would never happen in a small town where couples usually knew each other from childhood – while in a cinema-obsessed decade, there was always the possibility of being spotted by a director or film-maker and becoming the next Sophia Loren. It was also the place where young women who wanted to study and work realistically had to go; there were few opportunities for them on the land. The statistics indicate that the scare-mongering was less and less effective as the decade wore on; as the boom took hold in the late 1950s Italians migrated to the towns and cities of Italy in their millions, searching for work, fame, excitement, better opportunities or just a steady means of survival. The letters page gives glimpses of how girls and young women viewed these changes and possibilities; anxious about the unknown, many inquired about the dangers of the mythical, murky cities of Italy, while others wanted to take evening classes in the nearest town as a better job. Yet others dreamed of moving to Rome, ‘Hollywood on the Tiber’, to pursue their dreams of cinema and celebrity.

What does all of this say about the magazines and how they spoke to their women readers? A magazine like Grand Hotel was a commercial venture with no coherent ideology. It wanted to hold on to its readers, so it aimed to speak their language. The messages, stories and settings were of their time, a conservative hiatus between war, economic boom and the cultural revolution of the 1960s. But this conservative restoration was an uncertain one where change always simmered beneath the surface. The magazine, like the decade in which it was most successful, was full of conflicting voices, uncertainties and contradictions. On the one hand readers were warned about the dangers of the city, but they might be given practical advice on how to work or study there, and occasionally they could also read about women scientists and career women who didn’t have to choose between work and love. Ultimately they had to work out these contradictions for themselves.

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