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Historical Women’s Home in Italy at risk of closure

Ylenia Gostolii

At the end of a long corridor in a labyrinthine 17th century building in the heart of Rome, archivist Giovanna Olivieri is sorting through letters and documents, most of them handwritten and belonging to a certain Laura. Lombardo “Laura” Radice was a teacher and well-known anti-fascist activist during World War II, who later continued her political life with the women’s movement of the 60s and 70s.
The papers, donated by her family to the International Women’s Home, are among the hundreds of documents, photographs, magazines, posters and writings that make up the huge archive of feminist history collected there. Olivieri has been making sense of these documents, cataloguing and preserving them from these rooms, since 1985. But the International Women’s Home, which alongside the archive, is home to a consortium of around 30 women’s organisations – covering everything from psychological support for victims of domestic violence to career advice – is now at risk of closure.
“Every archive has its own history,” said Olivieri, the 70-year-old archivist in the library, which has become a national point of reference for anyone studying the Italian women’s movement. The archive features, among others, documents left by biologist Simonetta Tusi, who founded a collective in Rome in the early 70s to raise awareness of contraception, and organised abortion trips to London at a time when it was still prohibited in Italy.
The photographic archive of the magazine Noi Donne (We Women) is also stored there, and it documents the events and significant figures of those years. Copies of the black and white photographs also adorn the House’s corridors, capturing demonstrations, meetings, and theatre shows from those years. Those photographs were of great help when it came to organising the archive. With a “detective eye,” as she puts it, Olivieri would study the clothing, the shoes and the placards women held.
When she came to power two years ago, Rome’s mayor and the Five Star Movement’s Virginia Raggi inherited a debt for the city that was estimated at $15.7 billion (13.6 billion euro). Its scale was so enormous that the Wall Street Journal compared Rome to the US’s former motor city, Detroit, which filed for bankruptcy in 2013. Raggi campaigned on promises to stem the debt, as well as stomp out the mismanagement, wasteful policies, and corruption that led to it. Among her promises was to make the best of the city’s real estate assets. Italy as a whole is struggling with a debt that is 132 percent of its GDP.
Today, the House remains a hub of daily activity – aside from the organisations running services from here, there are film screenings, shows, and other cultural events. Well-known artists mobilised in support of the House after the municipality declared it bankrupt. Over twenty years, it has accrued a $ 926,918 (800,000 euro) debt of rent. It is one of the hundreds of organisations in the Italian capital that have received payment injunctions from the municipality as it attempts to optimise the use and financial return of the city’s public property.
A six-month tug-of-war between the consortium of associations that independently run the house and the municipality ended with the latter announcing last week that none of the proposals put on the table by the House were to be accepted. These included a resizing of the debt that would take into consideration the value of the services offered to the public – free of charge – estimated at $347,594 (300,000 euro) a year., as well as maintenance work carried out over the years. Many consider ironic that the move comes from an administration led by Raggi, who is the first female mayor in Rome’s history.
For her part, Raggi says she has no intention to close the House. The aim, she wrote on her Facebook page, is to “set up a working group to include a variety of voices, of different background and age, including the representatives of the Women’s House, which together with the administration, would plan a new project.” A call for tenders would then be published for organisations who wish to participate. In a press release last week, the municipality dismissed the House’s proposals but reiterated that “the administration is committed to safeguarding and revamping the project.”
Culture of legality- vs culture of rights-critics, including many artists and opposition figures ,say the municipality’s “business lens” ignores decades of work and the historical and cultural importance of the place. “You can’t put out a call for tenders for something that has authors,” said Oria Gargano, whose co-operative, Be Free, works to help victims of violence and trafficking and is part of the consortium. “You can’t call for tenders on something that we created.”
In the 17th century, the building had been a correctional facility for women who had committed “moral crimes” such as sex outside of marriage. One of its wings has preserved the original detention quarters, featuring cells lined over two floors of long corridors with high ceilings and light filtering through high, narrow windows, precluding any view of the outside world. Gargano was there when the women’s movement took over this highly symbolic space in 1985, following a deal with municipal authorities at the time, moving from another building they had occupied a decade earlier.
“There was nothing here when we came in, the place was falling apart,” Gargano recounts. “We always liked the fact that from a place of suffering, of punishment and denial of human rights, it became a place to propel human rights and women’s culture. What we’re trying to make this administration understand is that you can’t value everything in terms of money. You have to recognise the cultural, political, and social value of this place.” For thirty years, the House has been allowed to remain here and operate independently as costs were shared among members. However in the early 2000s, it was agreed that the house would pay $8,111 (7,000 euro) a month in rent to the municipality, which soon became unsustainable.
Realising they wouldn’t be able to comply with the deal, the consortium soon entered negotiations with the municipality about a reduction of the debt incurred. An agreement was eventually found but never officially approved, leaving the next administration free to scrap it. “It seems that the attitude of this administration is of closure and inflexibility towards all grassroots initiatives and social projects, which are penalised in the name of a superficial sense of legality,” said Francesca Koch, president of the council of the Women’s Home.
“They announce competitions for everything. For now, they are evicting and leaving spaces empty until they announce a call for tenders. The result is that the city is dying,” Koch added. Recently, a safe home and women’s anti-violence centre in the suburbs of Rome has also been served with an ultimatum to leave the premises, based on the fact they had been assigned to the organisation running it on a temporary basis. “The movements of 68 and 77 changed the power relations between men and women, they changed the culture profoundly,” Gargano said. “Not everything is positive, otherwise we wouldn’t have all this violence, all these femicides. But the way we talk about womanhood and manhood today has nothing to do with how it was in the 1950s and 60s. These are founding values of our society, which should be recognised. But making the municipality understand that has been difficult.”

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