This paper looks at the mobilization of women nurses, all of whom had seen service on the Alpine Front during World War I, in an irredentist project of “penetrazione patriottica fra gli Slavi” by the Opera Nazionale di Assistenza all’Italia Redenta” (ONAIR). Their initial project of socio-medical and economic assistance to the civilian population in Italy’s newly-acquired and devastated region of Venezia Guilia (which had seen some of the most punishing battles of the war) soon morphed into a project of teaching Italian to the regions tiniest citizens via a swiftly ramifying network of asilo nidi and scuole materne that were attached to infirmaries, refectories and sewing and knitting workshops, where children were looked after and taught – in Italian – while their mothers worked in for a small wage.

ONAIR’s young female schoolteachers were drawn from local Slovenian and Croatian speaking families while the trained nurses of Italia Redenta oversaw the entire project and assured medical care in the region. Each scuola thus stood at the heart of what were in fact polyvalent socio-medical and educational centres that were developed by the women of Italia Redenta. The network of schools spread swiftly through the working-class (and therefore linguistically mixed) districts of Trieste, Gorizia, Monfalcone and Duino while reaching in to the tiny towns and villages of the overwhelmingly Slovene speaking Izonso, Istria and, eventually, Dalmatia and the Adriatic Islands as well, where rural populations spoke Slovene, Croatian and Italian dialects that ONAIR activists referred to as “mistilingue”. The paper will focus on the two post-war eras (1919–1926 and 1945–1950) in order to explore the ways in which World War I fuelled the organization of a new, female-dominated profession in the Upper Adriatic while the devastation wrought by World War II in the region re-shaped dramatically the ONAIR school network without destroying it altogether. Indeed, ONAIR would continue to deliver nursery school services in post-war Italy’s autonomous province of Friuli-Venezia Giulia until 1978.


Laura Lee Downs is Professor in the Department of History and Civilization at the European University Institute, where she holds the chair in the History of Gender and Sexuality, and Directrice d’études at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, where she holds the chair “La Gestion sociale: France-Angleterre, XXe siècle”. She is the author of Manufacturing Inequality: Gender division in the French and British metalworking industries, 1914–1939 (Ithaca & London 1995), which won the Pinckney Prize for the best book in French History written by a North American; Childhood in the Promised Land: Working-class movements and the colonies de vacances in France, 1880–1960 (Durham & London 2002); Writing Gender History (3rd edition, revised and expanded, forthcoming, London 2020); Histoire des colonies de vacances de 1880 à nos jours (Paris 2009); and, with Stéphane Gerson, Why France? American Historians Reflect on their Enduring Fascination (Ithaca & London 2006). Her current research explores the shifting relationships between the social and the political in twentieth-century Europe via the comparative study of civil society mobilizations around social welfare in Italy, France and Great Britain from about 1870–1970. Recent publications in conjunction with this research include: “La piu’ serena italianizzazione?” Social action and nationalist politics in the North-eastern Adriatic borderlands (1919–1954), Acta Histriae 26/4 (December 2018), 1087–1102; “Au revoir les enfants: Wartime evacuation and the politics of childhood in France and Britain, 1939–1945”, History Workshop Journal 81/2 (fall 2016), 1–39; “And so we transform a people: Women’s Social Action and the Reconfiguration of Politics on the French Right, 1934–1947”, Past and Present, November 2014, 1–39.