Dissertations, Theses, and Capstone Projects

Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





Mary Gibson

Committee Members

Dagmar Herzog

Stanislao Pugliese

Blanche Cook

Subject Categories

European History | Women's History


Italy, Sexuality, Feminism, Legal history, Catholicism


Two questions guide this study: why was contraception legalized in Italy in 1971? How was this legalization achieved? In 1930, the fascist regime instituted a new legal code that introduced a number of repressive measures, including the ban on disseminating any information “meant to impede procreation.” Violators could be charged with heavy fines and/or imprisoned. Following the fascist regime’s collapse and the end of World War II, a tiny group of activists would spend the next three decades attempting to overturn this ban. Although historians have focused overwhelmingly on the legalization of divorce and abortion, the fight for freely accessible contraception was among the most charged and contentious battles in Italy’s 20th-century history, whose implications reached far beyond fertility regulation.

This work relies on a wide range of sources, such as relevant newspaper and magazine articles, sociological studies of the time, opinion polls, parliamentary documents, court decisions, feminist pamphlets, Catholic Church material such as encyclicals, and documentaries. From these sources, changes in attitudes and behaviors regarding contraception (and by extension sexuality and gender roles) are measured and analyzed.

What becomes apparent, in a nation steeped in Catholic religious tradition and a fascist past, is that the legalization of contraception in Italy occurred through the bold initiatives of variously independent, secular, and radically-minded activists and intellectuals. Ideological and financial support from international collaborators, especially by pro-birth control advocates from the United States, were also important to the Italian birth control cause. Other factors contributing to the eventual acceptance of contraception were the advent of the birth control pill, which set off even more spectacular debates on sexuality and demography, the rise in the standard of living, and the feminist movement of the late 1960s and 1970s. When in 1971 Italy’s Constitutional Court legalized contraception, the decision reflected liberal attitudes and cultural reconsiderations on sexuality and the function of contraception. While it took several more years for the new law to take practical effect, the 1971 Court decision was nevertheless a milestone for reproductive rights in Italy.

This work is embargoed and will be available for download on Monday, September 30, 2024

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