In September 1944, not long after the liberation of Rome, the first issue of Mercurio (“a monthly of politics, arts, sciences”) appeared. The editor was Alba de Céspedes y Bertini, a Cuban-Italian writer whose grandfather led Cuba’s revolt for independence from Spain and then served as its first president. She had newly returned from exile in Bari and Naples, where she had gone to escape the German occupation of Rome. Mercurio, in its years of existence (it did not have a strong financial backer and in 1948 ran out of money), published not only most of the great names in Italian culture and politics—Alberto Moravia, Giorgio Bassani, Sibilla Aleramo, Giacomo Debenedetti—but non-Italians, too, such as Ernest Hemingway, Katherine Mansfield, and Jean-Paul Sartre.
The closing issue of the first year was “dedicated to the resistance of the Italian people against the German oppression” and featured poems, stories, diaries, and drawings by some seventy contributors, including the writer Natalia Ginzburg and de Céspedes herself. Mercurio’s final issue ever, a quadruple number dated March–June 1948, contained the essay “On Women” by Ginzburg. When de Céspedes first read the essay she was inspired to write a letter to Ginzburg in response, which appeared in the issue alongside it. The essay and the letter have never appeared together in English.
Ginzburg’s essay was written in a political moment in which women were considered equal before the law (they had voted for the first time just two years earlier), but not always so by their (male) fellow-citizens. In particular, whether women should be allowed to become judges was just being debated in parliament, and in the politics section of that same issue of Mercurio there was an essay by the lawyer Maria Bassino attacking the arguments of those who deemed them unfit. According to certain members of parliament, Bassino wrote, “women have a particular type of logic that does not coincide with ‘legal logic’…and are to be feared because of the arbitrariness and groundlessness of their decisions.”
In this exchange, Ginzburg and de Céspedes are not themselves, obviously, addressing the question of whether women should become judges; for both it would have been a nonissue. Their subject, rather, is the interior life of women. In her essay Ginzburg writes that women have the bad habit of falling into a well, that they can let themselves be gripped by melancholy and flounder to get back to the surface, that this can prevent them from being truly free, active participants in history. It’s an emotional attitude, a psychological experience, that makes it hard for them to forget themselves and become free beings. In her view they have to fight “tooth and nail” to keep from falling into that well. De Céspedes, too, knows about falling into a well, but she believes that “these wells are our strength”: that women emerge with a greater knowledge and understanding of themselves and others that men will never have. In June of that year, Maria Bassino, in a letter to de Céspedes that could also have been addressed to Ginzburg, wrote: “It’s not I who defend women but you who with your work defend me and women.”
On Women—by Natalia Ginzburg
The other day I happened upon an article I had written right after the liberation, and I was disappointed. It was rather stupid—for starters it was all dressed up: beautiful, well-crafted sentences and well-turned phrases. I don’t want to write like that anymore. Worse, I wrote with heat and conviction about obvious things. To be fair, this happened to everyone right after the liberation—getting all riled up only to say obvious things. In a way, it was the right thing to do, because in twenty years of fascism we had lost any sense of the most elementary values, and we had to start again, start again calling things by their name, and writing just for the sake of writing, to see if we were still alive.
That article of mine spoke of women in general, and said things we all know: that women are not much worse than men and can also accomplish something worthwhile if they try, if society helps them, and so on. But it was stupid because I didn’t bother to observe what women are truly like. The women I was writing about at the time were invented women, not at all like me or like the women I’ve met in my life; the way I spoke about them, it was really easy to lift them out of servitude and set them free. But I neglected to say something very important: that women have the bad habit, now and then, of falling into a well, of letting themselves be gripped by a terrible melancholy and drown in it, and then floundering to get back to the surface—this is the real trouble with women. Women are often embarrassed that they have this problem and pretend they have no cares at all and are free and full of energy, and they walk with bold steps down the street with large hats and beautiful dresses and painted lips and a contemptuous and strong-willed air about them. But I’ve never met a woman without soon discovering in her something painful and pitiful that doesn’t exist in men—a constant danger of falling into a deep, dark well, a danger that comes precisely from the female temperament or maybe from an age-old condition of subjugation and servitude that won’t be so easy to overcome. I’ve always discovered, particularly in the most energetic and contemptuous women, something that caused me to pity them and that I understood well—because I, too, have suffered, for many years now, and only recently did I realize that my suffering comes from the fact that I am a woman and that it will be hard for me to ever free myself. The truth is two women will understand each other thoroughly when they start to talk about the dark well they fall into, and they can exchange many impressions about wells and the absolute impossibility of communicating with others, of accomplishing something worthwhile, no matter how hard they try, and about the floundering to get back to the surface.
I have met so many women. I have met women with children and women without children—I prefer the ones with children because I always know what to talk about: how long did you breastfeed, and then what did you feed them and what are you feeding them now. Two women can speak infinitely on this subject. I have met women who could take the train, leaving their children behind for a while, without feeling terrible anxiety or a sense of doing something against nature. They could live peacefully for many days away from their children and not feel that impetuous and visceral fear that something bad had befallen them—which is what happens to me every time. And it’s not that those women didn’t love their children, they loved them as much as I love mine, they were simply more spirited. I tried to be as spirited as possible and every time I got on a train without my children I said to myself: “This time I won’t be afraid.” But fear always rose in me and what I still don’t understand is whether it’ll pass when my children are adults—I certainly hope so. And I can’t even think calmly about traveling, as I’d like to. To tell the truth, I think about it all the time, but I know perfectly well that I just can’t do it. There are some kangaroo women and some women who are not kangaroos, but there are a lot more kangaroo women.
So I’ve met a lot of women, calm women and women who are not calm, but the calm women also fall into the well: they all fall into the well now and then. I’ve met women who think they are very ugly and women who think they are very beautiful, women who travel and women who can’t, women who, now and then, have a headache and women who never have a headache, women who wash their necks and women who don’t wash their necks, women who have a large number of white linen handkerchiefs and women who never have a handkerchief or, if they do, they lose it, women who wear hats and women who don’t wear hats, women who worry they are too fat and women who worry they are too thin, women who toil all day long in a field and women who break wood over their knee and light the fire and make polenta and rock the baby and nurse him and women who are bored to death and take a class in the history of religion and women who are bored to death and take the dog for a walk and women who are bored to death and torment whoever is at hand, their husbands or children or the maid, and women who go out in the morning their hands purple with cold and a little scarf around their necks and women who go out in the morning swaying their hips and looking at their reflection in shop windows and women who’ve lost their jobs and sit on a bench in the garden at the station to eat a sandwich and women who’ve been dumped by a man and sit on a bench in the garden at the station and dab a little powder on their faces.
I’ve met so many women I am now certain I’ll soon discover in each of them something to commiserate—a large or small concern, kept more or less secret: the tendency to fall into the well and find in it the possibility of boundless suffering that men don’t know. Maybe because men are healthier or more spirited and better at forgetting themselves and identifying themselves with their work, more sure of themselves and more masters of their own bodies and their own lives and more free. Women begin in adolescence to suffer and cry in secret, in their rooms—they cry because of their nose or their mouth or some part of their bodies that’s not right or they cry because they think no one will ever love them or they cry because they’re afraid they’re stupid or because they’re afraid they’ll get bored on vacation or because they don’t have the right clothes. These are the reasons they tell themselves, but these are all just pretexts, and they’re really crying because they’ve fallen into the well and they understand that they will often fall into it all their lives and this will make it hard for them to accomplish anything worthwhile. Women think a lot about themselves and they do so in a painful and feverish way that is unknown to men. It’s very difficult for them to identify with the work they do, it’s difficult for them to rise out of the dark and painful waters of their melancholy and forget themselves.
Women have children, and when they have their first child a new kind of sadness begins, made of fatigue and fear, and it’s always there, even in the healthiest and calmest women. It’s the fear that their child will get sick or the fear of not having enough money to buy everything the child needs or the fear of having milk that’s too fat or milk that’s too liquid, it’s the feeling of no longer being able to travel if that’s what they did before, or the feeling of no longer being able to engage in politics or the feeling of not being able to write or of not being able to paint as they used to or of not being able to hike in the mountains as before, because of the child, it’s the feeling of not being able to make decisions about their own lives, it’s the stress of having to defend themselves from illness and from death because a woman’s health and life are necessary to her child.
And there are women who don’t have children, and this is a misfortune, the worst misfortune for women, because at some point all the things they used to do with ardor—writing and painting and politics and sports—become wasteland and boredom and saturation, those things turn to ashes in their hands and, consciously or unconsciously, women are ashamed of not having had children and start to travel, but even traveling is difficult for women, because they’re cold or because their shoes hurt or because they have a run in their stockings or because people are surprised to see a woman traveling and sticking her nose in everywhere. And all this can be overcome, but then there’s the melancholy and the ashes in their hands and the jealousy of seeing lighted windows in foreign cities; and maybe for a long time they manage to overcome the melancholy and walk alone in the sun with bold steps and make love and earn money, and they feel strong and intelligent and beautiful, not too fat, not too thin, and buy themselves strange hats with a velvet knot and read books and write books, but then at some point they fall back into the well with fear and shame and self-disgust and can’t write books, or read them, they aren’t interested in anything other than their own troubles, which so often they can’t explain and everyone gives them a different name, ugly nose, ugly mouth, ugly legs, boredom, ashes, children no children.
And then women start to age and they look for white hairs in order to tear them out and they look at the fine lines under their eyes, and they have to start wearing large corsets with two stays on the front and two on the rear and they feel squeezed and suffocated in them and every morning and every evening they observe how their faces and their bodies are slowly transforming into something new and pitiful that will soon be good for nothing, not for making love or traveling or playing sports, and which they instead will have to serve, with hot water and massages and creams, or allow to be devastated and withered by the rain and the sun, and forget the time when they were beautiful and young.
Women are of an unfortunate and unhappy stock with many centuries of servitude on their backs, and what they need to do is defend themselves tooth and nail from their unhealthy habit of falling into the well now and then, because free beings hardly ever fall into a well and don’t always think about themselves but are occupied with important, serious things in the world and occupied with themselves only in an effort to be more free every day. I am the first who has to learn to do this because otherwise I won’t be able to accomplish anything worthwhile and the world will never get better as long as it is populated by a group of beings who are not free.
To Natalia Ginzburg, from Alba de Céspedes
I wanted to write you a note as soon as I finished reading your article. It’s so beautiful and sincere that every woman, seeing herself mirrored in it, will feel an icy tingling in her spine. Nevertheless, for a moment I thought I shouldn’t publish it, fearing that revealing this secret would be indiscreet. Further, I thought men would read it distractedly, in an ironic vein, without intuiting the heartfelt desperation and the desperate vigor in your words, and they would have yet another reason not to understand women and to push them even more often into the well. But then I thought that, after all, men should try to understand women’s problems, just as we, for centuries, have been willing to try to understand theirs. I’ll tell you that in publishing your essay I had to overcome an instinctive sense of modesty: the same sense, surely, that you must have overcome in writing it. For I, too, like you and like all women, have a great and ancient experience with wells: I often fall in and I fall in with a crash, precisely because everyone thinks I’m a strong woman—as do I, the moment I’m back out of the well.
But—unlike you—I think that these wells are our strength. Because every time we fall in the well we descend to the deepest roots of our being human, and in returning to the surface we carry inside us the kinds of experiences that allow us to understand everything that men—who never fall into the well—will never understand. This is men’s flaw, in my opinion: that they don’t know how to abandon themselves completely, let themselves fall into the well. So at times I think with affectionate compassion of the fact that they don’t have wells to fall into and therefore can never come into immediate contact with weakness, dreams, melancholy, aspirations, basically all those feelings that shape and improve the human spirit and that—unconsciously, however, owing to a series of ignored traps—weigh even on the man who conforms most closely to the manly model. All the painful and sublime truths about love are in the well, too; indeed, they’re in the deepest depths of every well, but women, all the women you speak of, fall in so heavily that they can touch them. And we are often unhappy in love precisely because we would like to find a man who also, at times, falls into the well and, resurfacing, knows what we know. This is impossible, right, dear Natalia? And therefore it’s impossible for us to be truly happy in love. But when we fall into the well we also know that being happy isn’t that important: it’s important to know everything we know when we come up from the well.
After all—you don’t say this, but surely you think it—it’s always men who push us into the well, unwittingly, perhaps. Did you ever fall into the well because of a woman? If you exclude women who might make us suffer because of a man, you’ll see that, in all honesty, you have to say no. Women can make us fall into anger, meanness, jealousy, but they can never make us fall into the well. In fact, since in the well we receive all human suffering, which is made up, primarily, of the suffering of women, we are compassionate toward women, understanding, affectionate. Every woman is ready to welcome and comfort another woman who has fallen into the well: even if she is an enemy. Because it’s precisely at the cost of this pitiful understanding of human pain that we slowly lift ourselves up and manage to get out of the well. Yes, you have to admit, it’s men who push us into the well. Because sons, too, become men, and brothers, fathers; and all of them, with their words, and even more with their silences, encourage us to fall into the forgotten well where they cannot reach us and where we can be alone with ourselves.
You see, dear Natalia, it’s exactly because of these wells that I was so insistent that Maria Bassino, one of the foremost Italian criminal lawyers, make her case for women’s right to become judges in this same issue of the magazine. Because often it’s at the bottom of the well that women kill, steal, carry out, in short, all those acts that are humiliating, especially because they go against the natural respect every woman owes herself. And not only do men ignore the existence of these wells, and everything we learn when we fall into them, they’re also unaware that they’re the ones who push women into them with such ruthless innocence. Judges are also unaware of all this—precisely because judges are men. And it’s not fair for women to be judged by those who do not know what they’re really like, and why they act one way rather than another, while men are always judged by those who, because they have the same nature, are most suited to understanding them.
Men and women, you say, aren’t made of the same stock. But which of the two is better? Those who fall into the well—for instance—know mercy. And how can we live, act, govern justly without knowing mercy? Besides, women make up at least half the world’s population. And it’s not fair that at least half the beings who inhabit the earth live in a state of subjugation owing to the incomprehension of the other half, the very half that acts, decides, and governs. You say that women aren’t free: and I think we have only to become aware of the virtues of that well and spread the light of the experiences gained at the bottom, which constitute the foundation of solidarity—secret and instinctive today, conscious and manifest tomorrow—among women who may not even know each other. After all, is being free from pain, from human misery, really a privilege? A woman’s superiority lies precisely in the possibility of ending up on a bench, as you say, in a public garden, even if she’s wealthy, even if she writes or paints, even if she has beautiful eyes, beautiful legs, a gorgeous mouth. Even if she’s twenty years old. Because not even youth grants women the confidence that men so often possess, and that is only ignorance of the true human condition.
Sorry, my dear, for this long letter. But I wanted to tell you that, in my opinion, women are free. And, besides, they voluntarily let themselves be pushed into the well; I would like to speak to you at length about the suffering they experience in the well, because all suffering is in a woman’s life; but then, to be perfectly honest, I should also talk to you about all the joy they find there.
But I can’t talk to you about that today because I find myself—as is so often the case—in the well.
I hug you, my dear.
—Translated from the Italian by Alessandra Bastagli