Men thought they were too dumb to pull off remarkable feats of sabotage. Ada Gobetti and others proved them wrong
Anyone who’s seen Casablanca has a sense of the fierce loyalty women could have to Resistance movements in World War II. Italy’s female partisans took risks as dangerous as the fictional Ilsa Lund did to help her freedom-fighter husband, Victor Laszlo, in the film.
Yet while popular culture has celebrated the women of French and other Resistance groups, it has largely ignored their Italian counterparts. These daring women began to flex their muscles when Italy, which had entered the war as an Axis power, switched sides after the Allies took Sicily and the Germans, hoping to halt their advance, occupied the north of the country.
All over the unliberated regions, the Italian Resistance emerged. Bands of partisans took up arms to fight the Germans and their Fascist collaborators who stayed loyal to Benito Mussolini, whom the Nazis had installed as the head of their puppet state.
The guerrillas included thousands of women who were vital to their success, perhaps none more so than a fruit merchant’s daughter from Turin whose exploits outshone those of many men.
Ada on the cover of the audio edition of her diary / Audible
Ada Gobetti had a foretaste of the brutality she and other Resistance members would face after she married Piero Gobetti, one of Italy’s most outspoken anti-Fascists. She worked with him on publishing projects in Turin until he had endured so many beatings by Mussolini’s blackshirts that the couple feared the next would kill him. Piero escaped to France where, with his health imperiled by the thuggery, he died within weeks.
At the age of 23, Ada was a widow with a six-week-old son, Paolo.
She described her efforts to avoid losing her mind from grief in her diary, which she encrypted in the hope of avoiding death if it were discovered:
“It isn’t possible. It shouldn’t be possible. Don’t think, don’t go mad.”
Ada found solace in visits to a rented summer house near the French border. There she met the philosopher Benedetto Croce and later became part of his and other liberal circles that included the author Primo Levi and Leone Ginzburg, the husband of the novelist Natalia Ginzburg.
In her mid-30s, Ada married her second husband, Ettore Marchesini, an engineer. But she didn’t share Mussolini’s belief that women had value mainly as wives and mothers, preferably of sons. Her drive, courage, and commitment to equality led to pursuits more hair-raising than her work as a teacher and translator of Aldous Huxley, James Boswell, and others.
Journalist Caroline Moorehead / Daisy Heath author photo via HarperCollins
Ada became a galvanizing force behind the staffette (“couriers”), female partisans who took on a vast range of tasks as harrowing as they were essential. Many froze in winter, went hungry amid food shortages, or embarked on hazardous missions while pregnant or after leaving young children in others’ care.
One staffetta transported guns by hiding them under a baby in a pram. Another specialized in kidnapping leading civilians and German officers to use as hostages in prisoner exchanges. With large political gatherings banned, one of Ada’s closest collaborators devised an ingenious plan for holding meetings that Caroline Moorehead describes in her gripping A House in the Mountains: The Women Who Liberated Italy From Fascism (HarperCollins, 2020):
“Since large gatherings were banned, she turned them into fake weddings, arriving herself as a bride in a wedding dress.”
Ada’s own projects went further. Riding an ancient bicycle up and down the Piedmont hills, Ada arranged for safe houses and false papers for partisans and for escaped Allied prisoners trying to reach Switzerland. She hosted meetings of an important political party she had founded. She recruited members of a movement to regain full suffrage and other rights for women the Fascists had ended. Late one night, Ada served as a lookout when two young partisans reconnoitered the track of a train they planned to derail.
Female partisans in 1944 / United States Army Signal Corps
Women’s invisibility at first protected them from enemies who assumed they were too timid or unintelligent for complex feats of subterfuge. Fascists believed that the sexes were inherently different and women were incapable of deep thought. As the partisans’ oppressors learned otherwise, the women’s secret activities became harder to pull off. Moorehead writes:
“It took some time for the Germans to realize that the laughing girls whose heavy bags they helped to carry and the bent old women to whom they gave their seats on trams were laden down not with vegetables and dirty washing but guns. The freedom to move around Turin and the valleys unmolested had made the women bolder and drew others into the movement. But once the Germans understood they were being duped, the mood turned sour.”
The partisan women, when arrested, were roughed up and taken to Fascist or German interrogation sites, where they were questioned and, often, raped or otherwise tortured.
The executed Vera and Libera Arduino / Public domain via Working Class History
Ada and her collaborators lived with the ever present possibility of capture and death. As the Allies advanced toward northern Italian cities, the Germans stepped up their attacks on Piedmont valleys that might once have provided safer retreats for the Allies and the Italian Resistance.
By early 1945 the partisans had been opposing the Nazi occupation and Fascist tyranny for nearly two years. But their enemies’ brutality persisted.
In March, Fascist paramilitaries in Turin abducted two teenage sisters, Vera and Libera Arduino, and executed them with a bullet to the back of the neck along with others who had helped the Resistance. More than two thousand women turned out for their funerals.
Ada stayed away from the gatherings on instructions from the Resistance leadership. She was too valuable to risk losing if the Fascists engaged in further reprisals.
But she wouldn’t be out of sight for long. A few weeks later, the Germans were driven out of Italy, an event the country celebrates annually on April 25, National Liberation Day. An umbrella organization for resistance groups made Ada the vice mayor of Turin, a city of about 800,000 people, and women regained full suffrage.
Left out of victory parades
Most of the women of the Resistance were left out of victory parades, and their contributions to freedom faded from memory as the country focused on postwar rebuilding. Ada kept working as a translator and started a center for the study of the Resistance movement and a journal on children’s development.
The Second Wave of feminism brought a measure of redemption. The first biography of Ada appeared in 2017, a few years after the publication of her journals, Partisan Diary: A Woman’s Life in the Italian Resistance (Oxford University Press, 2014). More recently Moorehead’s A House in the Mountains has done full justice to the heroism of the female partisans, showing how they turned their second-class citizenship into a first-class advantage in wartime.
The belated honors make clear that the women of the Italian Resistance have never received the acclaim they deserved, especially outside Italy. But their work has gained fresh relevance as far-right movements have gained momentum across Europe and the world the 21st century. One of its lessons, as Moorehead describes it, still rings true:
“The war, Ada said, had taught them about friendship, about how much women have in common with each other, and what they can achieve when they work together.”