Read the earlier parts of this series
The 5 documents images are taken from:
Milano, Archivio di Stato di Milano,
Prefettura di Milano, Gabinetto, Carteggio fino al 1937 – serie I.
These images are published on the permission by Ministero dei Beni e le Attività Culturali.
Any reproduction of images is forbidden.
As we’ve already seen in the first two parts, a male-dominated public archive such as the Prefettura fond of the Milan Archivio di Stato hides some interesting sources for the history of women’s sports: in fact, while these brave women were breaking prejudices on the field, men acting as judges, journalists, sports managers and also the Prefetto were deciding their fate. Often we’re so much influenced by the sexist prejudices we can still read in newspapers and sports magazines, that we tend to forget that women’s sports are also a question of managing power: the male power to decide if the women are permitted to compete.
As SISS historian Sergio Giuntini says his 2017 Storia agonistica, sociale e politica dell’atletica leggera italiana (pp. 99-107), just a year before Mussolini took power with the Marcia su Roma coup d’état (1922), the gymnastic society Pro Patria et Libertate (‘for the Country and the Freedom’), located in Busto Arsizio – an industrial centre between the Maggiore Lake and Milan, near where the International Airport of Malpensa is today – sent some athletes to the first-ever international women’s athletics games, the Olympiades Féminines held in Monte Carlo in late March 1921. The Women’s Olympiad was organized by Alice Milliat in response to the IOC decision not to include female athletes in the upcoming 1924 Olympic Games: France, Italy, Switzerland, United Kingdom, and probably Norway sent their representatives to Monte Carlo – they competed in the gardens of the Casino!
The Wikipedia page about this 1921 Women’s Olympiad [read HERE) says that the number of Italian participants is unknown, and none of them was able to win a medal. Thanks to Giuntini, we know that the women from Busto Arsizio only competed in the events on 25 March 1921, being all eliminated in the preliminary heats. They were all very young (12 to 18-years old), it was their first ever international experience, and they were so naïve with their footwear. They didn’t even know how to start correctly during the running events, because no women in Italy were taught this skill.
Pro Patria was not the only case of a private sports club competing as the national team, such as this Woolwich & Regent Street Polytechnics athletes photo, taken during the 1921 Olympiad opening ceremony, note both the sign and the British flag on the girls’ uniform.
Further photos shared on Twitter by the University of Greenwich Archive account tell us more about the “poli girls” … As we’ve already seen in Grazia’s Barcellona’s series (see https://www.playingpasts.co.uk/articles/gender-and-sport/flipping-through-grazias-photo-albums-flashbacks-from-the-career-of-a-1940s-1950s-italian-figure-ice-skating-champion-part-1/ ), building up a photo album seems to be the most common way to preserve the memory of sportswomen all over Europe!
The English sprinter Mary Lines, winner of 60m, 250m and long jump, was the star of the 1921 Oympiad, as seen by the several photos depicting her.
Some of the wonderful photos from the Gallica database show us that the athletics event took place in the garden of the famous Casinò …
Pictures taken from another prospective show that on the other part of the gardens there was … a banister, and then the sea!
Despite these frustrating results, the trip to Monaco was important because only after that the first-ever Italian national athletics meeting was held in Busto Arsizio in September 1921. While the women were competing, the (male) leaders of their sports clubs and the La Gazzetta dello Sport journalist Luigi Ferrario organized a meeting to discuss the development of women’s sports in Italy.
In the following months, the PE teacher Anita Podestà Vivarelli founded another centre for the development of women’s sport in her club, the Forza e Coraggio, located in Milan: for this reason, the first-ever National women’s Athletics Federation, the Federazione Italiana di Atletica Femminile (FIAF), was founded in Milan on 6 May 1923, and not in Busto Arsizio. 15 sports clubs were among the founders, and 7 of them (Unione Sportiva Milanese, Sport Club Italia, Forza e Coraggio, Costanza, Sport Club Pirelli, Ricreatori Laici, Libertà e Umanità) were from Milan! On the board of FIAF there were not only Luigi Bosisio (USM President) and Luigi Ferrario, but also a woman, the Pro Patria trainer Matilde Candiani. During the same time, the first official Italian Women’s Athletics National Championship was held in the Forza e Coraggio sports centre, and the Pro Patria athlete Maria Piantanida was the woman of the day: taking the the 80m, 83m hurdles, long jump, two-hands javelin throw and 4x75m relay gold medals!
The first source from the Archivio di Stato was written on January 1925 by the FIAF Secretary (Luigi Ferrario himself) to the Prefetto. The journalist first remembers that “our federation is the only one who tries to spread out women’s sport in the country”, in order to develop among women the “love for sports” (please note the absence of any reference to an international result). Then Ferrario announces that in February the 2nd edition of the national women’s basketball national championship to be held in Milan – in fact, at that time basketball wasn’t an independent sport, but it was always practiced by Italian women with gymnastics and/or athletics. Finally, Ferrario asks the Prefetto to donate some prizes, writing that athletes would work hard to gain them. As we’ve already seen in Part 2 (see https://www.playingpasts.co.uk/articles/football/historical-treasures-from-milan-archivio-di-stato-part-2/ ), a lot of people wrote to the Prefetto or to other dignitaries requesting prizes. In this particular case, Ferrario is quite ambiguous: on one hand, he describes the female athletes as ‘little girls’ eagerly staring at the medals; on the other hand, we should remember that in 1920s Italy, talking about female competitiveness was a very ‘open-minded’ issue, because females were taught not to be competitive – which was and still is a keystone of the patriarchy.
As usual, before answering, the Prefetto ordered one of his assistants to undertake some enquiries: in the second document, we can read what the Questore wrote to the Prefetto on 30 January 1925. The FIAF located in Corso di Porta Nuova (La Gazzetta dello Sport headquarters) is described as the federation of 22 women’s sports clubs: their members are female PE teachers, high schools students and teachers, office workers (quite the same social milieu of the 1933 calciatrici …). The Questore writes that 6 teams will compete in the basketball tournament, which is described as an “interesting event”; the Municipality of Milan, and the Provincia of Milan had already given prizes: the Prefetto wouldn’t be the only dignitary supporting the event.
One year later, the Prefettura’s attitude towards FIAF got worse, maybe because, despite the generous help, the federation struggled with reaching its goals. In a letter written in Rome on 27 February 1926, a groom of the Bedchamber of Princess Giovanna of Savoy (King Vittorio Emanuele III’s daughter) asks the Prefetto about FIAF, which had requested that a prize but named after the Princess during an athletics event to be held in Milan. The groom would like to be informed about the FIAF, the event and the good name of FIAF among Milanese citizens.
On 2 April 1926 the Questore wrote to the Prefetto, with the requested information, so the latter would be able to reply to the groom. The Federation, composed of 20 women’s sports clubs, was eager to raise funds to build up an Italian National Team to send to Gothenburg, where the 2nd edition of Women’s World Games was to be held in late August. For these reasons, FIAF decided to organize a number of athletics meetings, but there’s still a definitive program. Only the Milan Provincia gave a prize: the Municipality of Milan refused to give one and so no one else did either. The conclusion is clear
“this sporting event is new and it was impossible to make any predictions about it’s success; the public opinion is very little interested in it. So I think the best would be not to grant up to now a prize: it is an event of very little interest, and not yet organized”.
In 1930 Luigi Ferrario wrote an article for the La Gazzetta dello Sport readers about the upcoming 3rd edition of the Women’s World Games, to be held in Prague: it was going to be the debut for the Italian team, because ‘in 1922 the women’s sport was taking its first steps in our country, and in 1922 we didn’t went to the Gothenburg Games because the funds failed on the very last moment’.
In 1926 Emilio Brambilla was elected as new FIAF President, while Luigi Ferrario joined the IAAF Committee for the development of women’s athletics. In 1927 the FIAF was able to organize the National team, which on 11 September 1927 debuted in its first-ever international meeting, held of course at the Forza e Coraggio sports center. The Italian women were of course defeated by their French opponents (27 to 54), yet the point was that, finally, Italy had its own National team: a fact that was very important, in the country which had meanwhile fallen under the fascist regime. The following year, the 1928 Summer Olympics Games were held in Amsterdam, and the new Mussolini’s Italy, which finally decided to send some female athletes to the Olympics for the first time, could bear no international debacle.
The fact was that the Italian girls who were sent to the Netherlands had disappointing results in the athletics events: they were all eliminated in the preliminary heats, and Pierina Borsani was 13th in the discus throw!
A video about women’s athletics events at the 1928 Amsterdam Olympic Games
The 16-years old Elizabeth Robinson (USA), winner of 100m gold medal.
The best result was 6th place in the 4x100m relay, which was however a humiliating one. Luigia Bonfanti, Giannina Marchini, Derna Polazzo and Vittorina Vivenza tried to do their best, but while the Canadians established a new world record (48” 4/10), the Italians were last almost 4 seconds behind the team in 5th! Thanks to the left-hand side of this video https://twitter.com/Olympics/status/1032689678304997379 , we can see the light-blue shirt of the Italians just during the first change …
The best female results for Italy were in gymnastics: the team composed of very young gymnasts from Pavia won a silver medal!
After the Olympic Games, there was a public debate about the utility of FIAF, which was seen as responsible for the Italian fiasco. In September 1928 Luigi Ferrario wrote an article published by La Gazzetta dello Sport: in his opinion, the FIAF should remain an independent federation; its dismal results were caused by the lack of funding. In order to avoid the possible incorporation of FIAF into FIDAL (the male athletics federation), Ferrario invoked the ghost of promiscuity, which was an important issue for the Italian public opinion.
The 1928 National Women’s Athletics Championships, held in Bologna in October 1928, were the last ones organized by the FIAF, which was dissolved by the regime in the very last days of that year. On 30 December 1928, the Secretary of National Fascist Party and President of the CONI (Italian Olympics Committee) Augusto Turati decreed that ‘The FIAF shall no more be an independent federation: it will be integrated onto the FIDAL’.
To read Part 4 – click HERE
Article © of Marco Giani
For more details about the Sports History funds at the Milan Archivio di Stato, and the transcription of all sources quoted in this article, see:
For more images about Italian 1920s’/1940s’ women’s athletics, see: