Libreria delle Donne

Barbara Casavecchia on the Milan Women’s Bookstore Collective

By Barbara Casavecchia

Alex Martinis Roe, A story from Circolo della rosa (still), 2014, HD video, 8 min 18 sec. Courtesy the artist Claire Fontaine, Pretend to be dead, 2015 (installation view). Photo: Roberto Apa. Courtesy the artist and T293, Rome Claire Fontaine, Taci, anzi parla brickbat, 2015, brick, brick fragments, glue and archival digital print, 17 × 12 × 6 cm. Courtesy the artist and T293, Rome Alex Martinis Roe, A story from Circolo della rosa (still), 2014, HD video, 8 min 18 sec. Courtesy the artist


‘My dear, I have been searching for stories to help explain the way I see our relationship. Stories from the history of the political practice of relations. It led me to the places where women who theorised it still practise it.’ So begins A story from Circolo della rosa (2014) by Alex Martinis Roe, a film narrating the relationship between two members of the Milan Women’s Bookstore Collective. The film traces the genealogy of ‘sexual difference’ – a theory that insists on female embodiment as something other than a negative of the masculine ‘norm’ – and its influence.

A wider resurgence of interest in Italian feminism of the 1970s has lately been reflected in the artworld, where there has been a renewed attention to the writings of the author and activist Carla Lonzi, triggered by new studies by scholars Giovanna Zapperi and Ra aella Perna and reinterpreted by artists including Claire Fontaine and the late Chiara Fumai. It’s a natural association: Lonzi was an art critic whose commitment to alternative, more horizontal and freer forms of communication had emerged in ‘Autoritratto’ (‘Self-portrait’, 1969), an experimental essay that took the form of a choral conversation, for which Lonzi put questions on themes, ranging from the personal to the political, to 14 artists and then cut, pasted and mixed the questions with the answers, dissolving any hierarchies between interviewer and subject, the artist and the writer.

Language and its use, circulation, censorship, refusal or subversion is essential to old and new waves of feminism. The ‘Manifesto’ (1970) of the Rivolta Femminile – the group Lonzi founded with painter Carla Accardi and activist Elvira Banotti – proclaimed that ‘man has interpreted woman according to an image of femininity which is his own invention... Man has always spoken in the name of the human race... we consider history incomplete because it was written, always, without regarding woman as an active subject of it.’ Martinis Roe revisited the history of these feminist approaches to speaking and writing through a research and art project that included workshops, oral histories, group practices and six films shot across Milan, Paris, Utrecht, Sydney and Barcelona, culminating in the touring exhibition To Become Two (2014–17). In order to tell the story, the camera in A story from Circolo della rosa zooms in on a Milanese bookshop. So, let’s do the same.

In the week before Christmas 1974, a black-and-white leaflet circulated in Milan announcing the opening of a new bookshop, the Libreria delle Donne (Women’s Bookshop). The flier declared ‘the need to affirm the diversity of our sex and of our condition’ through the promotion of women’s work, while at the same time making an early crowdfunding appeal: ‘Six million lire is needed, we have one’. Inspired by the Librairie des Femmes in Paris, the bookshop would be run by a cooperative dedicated to the great Italian feminist writer Sibilla Aleramo and stock essays, novels, children’s books, paintings, graphic works and records by women only.

Among the first to respond to the appeal was a group of artists – Accardi, Mirella Bentivoglio, Valentina Berardinone, Tomaso Binga, Nilde Carabba, Dadamaino, Amalia Del Ponte, Grazia Varisco and Nanda Vigo – who donated their work to a special portfolio, introduced by the art critic Lea Vergine, in support of the bookshop. It was sold at a ‘political price’ in order to ensure that it would be ‘accessible to the greatest number of people, outside the traditional circuit of art galleries’. The first books to fill the shelves were retrieved from the unsold stock of publishing houses unwilling or unable to promote female writers.

The bookshop tapped into a new spirit of radical feminist publishing in Italy. Rivolta Femminile printed a regular series of ‘green books’ edited (and often written) by Lonzi, including the patriarchy-smashing Let’s Spit on Hegel (1970) and The Clitoridian Woman and the Vaginal Woman (1971), which reflected on psychoanalysis and the sexual revolution. In Rome, in 1974, Elisabetta Rasy, Manuela Fraire, Maria Caronia and Annemarie Sauzeau (then married to Alighiero Boetti) had established Edizioni delle Donne (Women’s Editions). After months of ‘epic fights’ with Lonzi about the direction of the publisher, Laura Lepetit split from the Rivolta Femminile in 1975 to start her own Milan-based press, La Tartaruga, with a women-only catalogue.

The economic model was a political statement in itself, the work voluntary and arranged in half-day shifts to avoid hierarchies and divisions of labour

In its first manifesto, the Libreria delle Donne declared its intention to operate as ‘a laboratory of political practice’ and a place where ‘the expression of creativity by some of us, and the will of liberation by all of us’ could meet. The practicalities of running an independent bookshop required, as the Italian academic Laura Grasso has written, that its founders ‘create bonds, situations and exchanges among women not based exclusively on words and including, instead, the dimension of “doing”, the relationship with money, the expression of practical activities’. The economic model was a political statement in itself: the space (with a large shopfront overlooking the street) was obtained for a small rent from the municipality of Milan, which had been tasked with allocating a portion of the space under its control to cultural purposes. The work was voluntary and arranged in half-day shifts to avoid hierarchies and class-based divisions of labour: economic independence was rare in Italy during the mid-1970s, where only one in three woman worked outside the home, and even then for salaries 30 percent lower than men.

How to translate words into action was – and is – a key issue for the women’s movement. But equally crucial was the reflection on oppressive language structures (shaped in Italy, particularly, by the patriarchies of Fascism and Catholicism), on how to invent new gendered forms of expression and with whom to share them. The groups who practised autocoscienza (consciousness-raising) during the early 1970s were also the first to organise self-help associations and pro-choice independent clinics. Divorce was legalised in Italy in 1970, after hundreds of demonstrations, and four years later a referendum to recriminalise it was unsuccessful.

In 1975 the reform of family law finally granted equal rights to both spouses, while abortion was ratified in 1978. The public debates that preceded the decriminalisation of ‘the interruption of pregnancy’ granted mainstream visibility to many feminist issues, but they also highlighted how the vocabulary of the ‘thought of difference’ promoted by Lonzi and her peers had moved on from emancipation to self-determination. In 1976, after the first mass pro-abortion protest in Milan, the Libreria delle Donne sent a vibrant letter of dissent to Il Corriere della Sera, in which Pier Paolo Pasolini had published a provocative article titled ‘I am against abortion’ a year earlier, prompting ripostes from Natalia Ginzburg and Italo Calvino. After sending Rivolta’s own response, ‘Female Sexuality and Abortion’, which Il Corriere declined to publish, Lonzi wrote directly, and affectionately, to Pasolini, who did not answer. The text voiced the group’s uneasiness towards the reductive identification of women with a socially oppressed group, whose forms of resistance could be described as reproductions of the mechanisms of masculine politics, arguing that their goals could not be reduced to the restitution of denied rights. In doing so, the Libreria rejected the male caricature of feminism propagated by the media. The Libreria’s research into an alternative genealogy of culture resulted in the publication of Le madri di tutte noi (Catalogo giallo) (The Mothers of Us All [Yellow Catalogue], 1982), an anthology of female writers – Jane Austen, Sylvia Plath, the Brontës, Elsa Morante, Gertrude Stein, Anna Kavan, Ingeborg Bachmann, Virginia Woolf and Ivy Compton-Burnett – selected collectively and after long discussion. In 1987 came Non credere di avere dei diritti (forthcoming in a new translation by London’s Silver Press as Don’t Think You Have Any Rights), which recapitulates the decades on either side of the opening of the Libreria, written as a collective history, an analysis and a weaving together of individual voices and tales.

The practice of autocoscienza, started in the US and amplified in Europe by the French group Psychanalyse et politique before being taken up by Rivolta Femminile and others, was an attempt to look closely at the relationships between women and men, women and women, mothers and daughters, and to overcome aggression, mutism and recrimination by finding new words to voice one’s self. ‘Autocoscienza is not something you learn,’ the group wrote. ‘It’s a discovery. It’s a birth, you feel as if you have found the key to solve all your knots, to walk differently in life... You have to come to terms with your own fragility, the needs you didn’t acknowledge, the difficulty of facing the world differently, without masks. And if you don’t do it, you go backwards. You can’t stand still, you know, so it’s either ahead or backwards, with the main difference that now you know it.’

Lonzi didn’t feel able to speak freely, as the other members were deferring to her words and because she rejected the hierarchies this seemed to entail

Let’s take a step backwards. When in 1970 Serena Castaldi, who had recently relocated to Milan from New York, initiated the collective Anabasi, the first meetings of women focused on affectivity and reciprocity, intimacy and the quality of communication. In 1972 Lonzi left the group that she had helped to catalyse because she didn’t feel able to speak freely, as the other members were deferring to her words – which they treated too reverently – and because she rejected the hierarchies this seemed to entail. She continued to edit the books published by Rivolta Femminile, which in 1978 released her famous Taci, anzi parla. Diario di una femminista (Shut up, or rather speak. Diary of a feminist), an extended, deeply personal reflection upon subjectivity, speaking up, being silenced, choosing silence as opposition and the radical powers of language.

The issue of ‘cutting ties’ was recursive. As Lia Cigarini explains in an interview with Chiara Marcucci about her involvement with the Libreria, ‘A few used the expression “exodus”. Carla Lonzi stopped being an art critic; Carla Accardi, who was an important painter, for a while stopped participating in exhibitions; Daniela Pellegrini resigned from her managerial position. Then there was the exodus from the extraparliamentary groups: women left Lotta Continua, Il Manifesto, and others left Potere Operaio. There was a famous headline in the newspaper Il Manifesto: “And the feminist walks out”. It can’t be ignored that, in order to affirm female practice, it was necessary to sever ties with male politics. See, I think this is still an interesting position, even nowadays.’ 

A step forward, now. The Libreria delle Donne, relocated to Milan’s Via Pietro Calvi, is still open, and has expanded its spaces and fields of operation: it is a bookshop with more than 7,500 works by 3,700 women writers, a publisher and a library, while the Circolo della Rosa next door hosts meetings, readings and a canteen. In 2001, Corrado Levi proposed that one of the windows on the street be dedicated to visual art. The programme was coordinated by Donatella Franchi from 2006 to 2015, when a new cycle curated by Francesca Pasini began: contemporary female artists were invited to use the showcase to express their relationship to art, books, women and ideas.

In the meantime, feminism has continued to evolve towards intersectionality, witches are back in fashion and #MeToo recently repositioned sexuality, gendered and transgendered bodies, violence and the social construction of guilt and power structures at the core of mainstream communication. If retrograde words, attitudes and forms of aggression keep seeming to return from the past to the present, then so too can the lessons of the Libreria delle Donne. As Lonzi has written, ‘Man always postponed the solution to an ideal future of humanity, but it does not exist. Instead we can reveal present humanity, that is, ourselves.’

From the April 2018 issue of ArtReview