Dissertation

“Women on the Verge: Emotions, Authoritarianism, and the Novel in Italy and Turkey, 1922-1935”

This dissertation explores the relationship between emotions and politics in Fascist Italy and Kemalist Turkey, specifically focusing on women-authored novels as archives of history. Following the First World War, the regimes started by Benito Mussolini and Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, in 1922 and 1923 respectively, were among the first authoritarian states in the world. By analyzing women-authored novels, I present an emotional and experiential history of gendered politics under the Fascist and Kemalist regimes. Novels as a genre were historically considered sentimental and filled with emotion, heightened when written by women. In this project, I focus on novels by Sibilla Aleramo, Grazia Deledda, Suat Derviş, Halide Edip, Maria Messina, and Nezihe Muhiddin and analyze how they registered women’s responses to and critiques of authoritarian gendered politics in the interwar Mediterranean. Traditionally, these novelists are studied in biographic terms; I believe that it is essential to read their work as a collective writing in dialogue at a pivotal historical moment. My methodology combines close readings of novels and the incorporation of archival documents (letters, governmental reports, book reviews, and press clippings). Additionally, the project draws from affect theory, in particular the work of Sara Ahmed and Ann Cvetkovich; I read emotions like shame, heartbreak, or hope within the novel’s historical and political context and argue that writing these themes under authoritarian conditions is inherently political and the novel is a forum of women’s political expression.

The first chapter focuses on the psychology of the Fascist and Kemalist regimes and how Benito Mussolini and Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, patriarchal and ultimately dictatorial leaders, manipulated affect and used emotional language to promote specific views of the nation and gender. The subsequent chapters are organized around the themes of age, romance, and motherhood. In the second chapter, I consider age and analyze what it meant to be a woman at different stages of life and how did one feel about her role in society – whether a girl on the cusp of a marriageable age or as an older widow? In the third chapter on romance, I argue that Italian and Turkish men embodied characteristics of a toxic masculinity that complicates traditional notions of the Mediterranean paradigm of honor and shame. Because male love interests felt insecure or embarrassed, female characters found themselves heartbroken but ultimately became resilient. In the final chapter, since motherhood is a broad and complex theme, I prioritize scenes where female characters talk about being mothers or about their children. The authors demonstrated that women came to terms with their reproductive responsibilities and social identities in very different emotional ways, sometimes against the regimes’ prescriptions.

My project demonstrates that in authoritarian contexts, women writing about their emotional lives functioned as political commentary and as critiques of authoritarian gendered politics. My transnational study integrates an interdisciplinary approach in order to more critically reassess the politics of the Early Turkish Republic than has been done previously. While historical or literary studies traditionally focus on women authors’ political activism or their literary careers as separate entities, my research contributes to twentieth century gender history by demonstrating that women advocating for social change were multifaceted, and that their contributions span disciplines and national boundaries.

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