The First Woman to Lead a Political Party Was an Italian Communist

Born this day in 1889, Camilla Ravera led the Communist Party of Italy through its first difficult years under Fascist tyranny. Her story shows how a generation of women became political leaders — by tying their liberation to that of the working class as a whole.

Camilla Ravera’s writings attracted the attentions of Antonio Gramsci, who proved decisive in directing her toward a leadership role in the newly born Communist Party.

Around noon on July 10, 1930 at Lake Maggiore, on Fascist Italy’s border with Switzerland. Two women get off a rowboat and are greeted by a man as they reach dry land. The three are expecting to meet other militants at a clandestine gathering which has taken months of planning. But the meeting never takes place; a spy has alerted Benito Mussolini’s police who arrest the three and haul them into the cells.

“My name is Camilla Ravera,” one of the two women tells the officer. After an eight-year hunt, the regime has finally arrested Ravera, general secretary of the Communist Party of Italy (Partito Comunista d’Italia, or PCd’I). For eight years, she had been operating under false names, starting when the Fascists banned her from teaching. In the intervening years, Camilla had been “Silvia” and then “Micheli,” becoming a ghost of herself — masking her identity so effectively that police were certain the famous “Micheli” must be a man.

With her austere face and slight frame, the forty-year-old Ravera was often called the maestrina (“little teacher”). Such a diminutive name didn’t suit her at all; behind her unthreatening appearance and frail voice was a steely character. This was a woman who took on the burden of keeping the Communist Party together when it was under constant attack from the Fascist police. A party that would have disappeared if not for the tenacity of its leadership group: Palmiro Togliatti, Umberto Terracini, Alfonso Leonetti, Felice Platone, and Camilla Ravera, who became segretaria — the top job in the PCd’I — in 1927.

Already over the previous year, faced with the banning of the party and the arrest of Antonio Gramsci, Ravera had displayed her great gifts as an organizer. In this period, the PCd’I’s situation seemed absolutely desperate — so much so that the right wing of the party headed by Angelo Tasca even suggested it should dissolve and encourage militants to retreat into their own private lives. Yet, this “liquidationist” tendency immediately encountered Ravera’s resistance.

She instead began to reorganize the contacts between the leadership group and the party’s outlying branches, interrupted by the Fascist regime. In this work she made use of her so-called “flamingos,” little-known militants unlikely to attract police suspicion who carried documents and messages across the various regions of Italy. In this same period, Ravera organized the party’s central HQ in a small country house outside Genoa, working to rebuild its various agencies and working groups around the secretariat. This house thus became the site of constant comings and goings by clandestine communists; the writer Ignazio Silone would baptize it “the hotel of the poor.”

Clandestine Years

This was a crucial phase in the Communist Party’s existence. Thanks to the laborious work Ravera did “in the dark” in these years, the PCd’I managed to survive the harsh repression the labor movement faced during the consolidation of Mussolini’s regime. Perhaps only later, with the leading role the party played in building the anti-fascist Resistance of 1943–45, would it be possible fully to appreciate the value of this organizational continuity — and of the Communist leaders’ tenacity in defending the need to keep the party alive.

This was doubtless exhausting work. Ravera had to travel constantly to build and re-build the dense web of relations holding the party together. This meant ensuring the distribution of a clandestine press; underground meetings around Italy; journeying to Paris to communicate with other leaders in exile; and even taking part in the Sixth Congress of the Comintern (the Communist International) in Moscow in 1928. There, she was offered a permanent move to the Soviet capital to work for the International Women’s Secretariat. But even given this opportunity to free herself from clandestine work on Italian soil, Ravera declined — instead directing her activism against the Fascist regime.

Her return from the Soviet Union highlighted the perils of this continued underground work; after an informer told the police of the PCd’I’s clandestine base near Genoa, Ravera was forced to hurriedly move its operations across the border to Switzerland. Yet, this Swiss period was bound to be a brief one, for Ravera was convinced that the party must exploit every possibility of operating within Italy itself. She thus headed back across the border in May 1930, only to be arrested two months later near Lake Maggiore.

There followed a fifteen-year sentence — a time of intense ordeals, felt on her own skin. Ravera spent the rest of the Fascist period being moved from one jail to another in appalling conditions. These terrible times would culminate in August 1939 in a tragic break with her comrades — her expulsion from the party in confino (internal exile) in Ventotene — because of her differences with the other interned Communists over the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. For Ravera, this was the harshest of blows — a deep humiliation erased only in 1945 when she was finally readmitted to party ranks.

This welcome back into the party was movingly relayed by the journalist Miriam Mafai, who recounted the moment when Togliatti — at this point the party’s general secretary, and indeed its unquestioned leader — reached the party’s Turin HQ. Surrounded by comrades and partisans celebrating the fall of Fascism, he looked around and asked, innocently:

“And where is Ravera?” Someone replied, embarrassed, that she wasn’t around, that she couldn’t be as she was no longer in the party. And Togliatti replied: “You must be joking… Bring Ravera here and let there be no more talk of this foolishness.”

“For us, it was a moving encounter,” Ravera reminisced, “we embraced one another in silence. We hadn’t seen each other for over 13 years.” Without debate or any hubbub, Ravera was immediately rehabilitated. She was invited to rejoin the party’s Central Committee, before she was elected to parliament in 1948.

Comrade Ravera Asks to Speak

But let’s take a step back. Born in 1889, Ravera’s revolutionary stance had distant roots in an attitude which had colored her whole family. Like for many of her generation, the spur to political action was the tragic consequences of World War I; one brother, Giuseppe, died at the front, while another, Francesco, was poisoned by gas. In 1918 a third brother, Cesare, was conscripted and sent to the trenches. A member of the Italian Socialist Party, Cesare entrusted Camilla with going to the Turin branch office to pay his monthly subs to support the party. This was how Ravera got close to socialist circles; she soon herself signed up, and began to devote evermore time to socialist activism.

In an era when it was almost impossible for women to participate actively in political and social life, Ravera nonetheless made her breakthrough. She quickly became a protagonist of the hotbed of theoretical elaboration and political activity that was Turin in the period of L’Ordine Nuovo — the weekly newspaper founded by a young Antonio Gramsci amidst the post-World War I factory occupations and the rise of Fascism. Camilla’s rise was hardly easy, given her shy disposition. She recalled that she was long unable to speak in public, out of embarrassment — the first time she did address a rally it was because a male comrade lied and declared to the audience “comrade Ravera has asked to speak.”

But — as we were saying — Ravera’s political journey had deep roots in her family life. In many later writings Ravera would identify her political “baptism” with an episode from her childhood. At just eight years old, she was walking with her mother through the streets of a town in Piedmont when she found herself face-to-face with an enormous phalanx of women, marching behind a man holding a large red flag. It was a march by striking workers, and little Camilla was scared by their shouted slogans:

Realizing I was frightened, my mum told me that these women were gold-polishers protesting that they couldn’t afford to eat even when they worked twelve-hour days and that their hands were being destroyed by the acid they used to polish the gold. She told me I shouldn’t be afraid of striking workers and that I’d often have cause to encounter them.  I asked where they were going and why that man was leading them. She replied she didn’t know where they were going, but that the gentleman clutching the red flag was Filippo Turati, founder of the Italian Socialist Party.

This “messianic” counter with Turati and the strikers was, in Ravera’s memoirs, the starting point for her whole political journey. For her, this was a life marked by her urgent need to “always be among the working class” — never losing direct contact with real political movements. In the decades to come, Ravera insisted that it was precisely this heartfelt feeling that set her along her first career path, as a teacher.

Moving to teach in Turin, Camilla’s writings soon attracted the attentions of Antonio Gramsci, who proved decisive in directing her toward a leadership role in the newly born Communist Party. He first entrusted her with the responsibility for La Tribuna delle donne (a famous section in L’Ordine Nuovo, by and for women) and then, in July 1921, invited her to join the newspaper’s editorial team. The moment she was asked onto the editorial board often recurs in Ravera’s writings, like a medal pinned to her chest:

Gramsci and I chatted a little and toward the end of the conversation — during which he had addressed me as lei [the formal version of “you,” rather than tu] he told me that he wanted me to participate in the editorial team’s work. Shy as I was, I tried to bring up trivial reasons for not accepting. Family, school, inexperience were my excuses; but after patiently listening to my nonsense, he said, “I’m formally asking you to join l’Ordine Nuovo’s editorial board.”

Faced with such a request from Antonio Gramsci, no one could have said no. When Ravera accepted, she knew that this editorial job would draw her away from teaching — but, most importantly, that this was an all-embracing life choice, that would turn her into a full-time militant.

Gramsci hadn’t picked Ravera just for her “devotion.” Rather, he appointed her because of her temperament, her organizing abilities, and her authority — something which was owed, in part, to traits they both shared. Ravera and Gramsci each showed a rare capacity to listen, and a sincere desire to understand the moods and aspirations of the working class. This meant a determination to give organized form to struggles — one based not on an intellectual’s own preferences, but rather on the workers’ own desire and capacity to liberate themselves.

A Woman Communist

From this point on, Ravera’s life was a succession of increasingly important roles, including international-level responsibilities like attending the Comintern’s Fourth Congress in November 1922 as a PCd’I delegate. During these many trips abroad, Ravera got to know some of the most important figures of the international workers’ movement.

These ranged from Clara Zetkin — an early feminist and close collaborator of Rosa Luxemburg — to Khristo Kabakchiev — the Bulgarian Comintern representative who led the toast to the “Italian Bolsheviks” upon the PCd’I’s foundation — the “ever quiet, polite” Stalin, and Lenin. Ravera recalled not only the lectures the latter gave at the party school but also his biting comments on the issue of women’s emancipation: “‘on the women’s question,’ Lenin told me, ‘scratch a communist and there, too, you’ll find a reactionary.’

Telling of this relationship between gender questions and her days at the legendary L’Ordine Nuovo was one of Ravera’s most interesting anecdotes of her time as a militant in Turin. In the period just before Mussolini’s Fascists took over the government, blackshirts stepped up their attacks on union halls and the workers’ parties — and everyone at L’Ordine Nuovo also feared the possibility of an armed raid on their offices. One day, a colleague came over to Ravera and said:

“Gramsci thinks it’s maybe best you go home.”

“Why,” I said, “Has something happened to my parents?”

“No, but word’s going around that the Fascists are homing in. It’s better if we put you at a safe distance — who knows what could happen here.”

“Are you leaving, then?” I replied.

“No, I have to stay here.”

“Excuse me, then, but why should I leave? I don’t follow. Go to Gramsci and tell him you need an explanation.”

A little later Antonio Gramsci arrived, visibly embarrassed, and said “I understand. Stay here. We were wrong.”

In addition to leading by example by being a woman communist in a mostly male-led party, Ravera concentrated much of her political efforts on gender questions. She never called herself a “feminist” but always — and only — “an attentive observer of women’s living conditions.” Fighting with all her energy against discrimination in society, she was inevitably drawn to the particular situation of women. She waged this battle in La Tribuna delle donne, trying to give direct voice to women’s demands.

Despite her great determination, it was often difficult for Ravera to get women comrades to write. They were glad to talk about the themes she proposed, but were intimidated by the paper, by the printed press — things they had always considered to stand outside their own experience. Faced with these objective barriers, Ravera and Gramsci began to pose the problem (and this was truly revolutionary, for the Italy of the time) on how to organize a movement which, though attached to the framework of labor struggles, would not be made up of women communists alone,

but rather of women, not asked what party or religion they belonged to, and even of those women who had no intention of organizing in a party, but as women who have shared problems, in one party like another and in one class like another.

The attempts to organize a women’s movement would continue even into the early years of Mussolini’s rule; in 1924 Ravera was entrusted with running the fortnightly La compagna (“Woman comrade”). Yet what is true is that after the Fascists’ March on Rome in late 1922, the Communist Party’s priorities were rather more a matter of survival than of open struggle. In a political situation rapidly turning toward a dictatorship which sought the acquiescence of the Catholic Church hierarchy, the spaces for women’s demands narrowed to the point of disappearance.

Only after World War II could Ravera’s work on the women’s question resume. Now having become an MP, she put her name to numerous bills mainly focused on the protection of mothers and equal wages for women as for men. The first postwar years would prove to be Ravera’s last as a truly politically active figure — in 1958 she retired into her private life. But she made a late return to the national political scene in 1982, as former partisan Sandro Pertini — now Italy’s first socialist president — nominated her the first woman to be senator for life. Only in a sense was this a surprising choice. As Christian-Democrat Giulio Andreotti put it in Parliament:

The dominant note in Pertini’s choice was an intransigent opposition toward the dictatorship. To those who proposed as lifetime Senator an illustrious banker, irreproachable in all regards, Pertini replied “He wasn’t with me when we were fighting against Fascism.” So, he chose Camilla Ravera.

Ravera had, indeed, always been there in the fight against Fascism; she was the woman who kept the Communist Party alive in its darkest hour.