Alfonsina Strada became the first woman to ride the Giro d’Italia, and in turn a national hero.
In 1932 an Academy was launched for women in Orvieto. Trained in housework, health, hygiene, home economics and social discipline, graduates were similarly sent to schools across the country. Considered important preparation for motherhood, sport and physical exercise were included among their disciplines, even if Fascism was torn between directing women towards childbirth and its fear of international sporting embarrassment. This was one of the regime’s toughest dilemmas: how to reconcile the idealized woman with the modern female athlete.
Convinced that size equalled domestic and international power, Mussolini demanded a large population. Financial assistance and tax reductions encouraged men to marry early and father numerous children, with taxes imposed upon bachelors. With motherhood of national importance, women became heroic Fascist figures, awarded medals of honour and incrementally increasing cash prizes from the fifth to the twentieth child. Unsurprisingly, Fascism’s idealized woman was round, rural, and prolifically fertile.
The regime’s initially liberal approach to female sport is therefore surprising. With sport considered solely an expression of male strength and virility, those few female athletes who competed at international level received no financial support whatsoever. Despite this discrimination, it was impossible to completely exclude them. Pavia’s young gymnasts won a higly impressive silver medal at the 1928 Antwerp Olympic Games, after Alfonsina Strada had provided a striking example of a woman bucking the trend, in 1924, by completing the Giro d’Italia. Competing in road races and time trials since 1910, Strada experienced suspicion, misunderstanding and insults. An apparition from heaven or hell, a woman on a bicycle, in shorts, couldn’t fail to draw attention. As the 1923 Almanac for the Italian Woman clarified: ‘Sport… must be nourished solely to preserve, improve and perfect and not to “force” the body to dangerous excesses and ridiculous exaggerations.’
Cycling was one of the few sports to continue during the First World War, with the 1917 Tour of Lombardy even running a few days after the calamitous defeat at Caporetto. A ‘show of the country’s calm and serenity’, according to La Gazzetta, the predominance of amateurs in what had been an entirely professional race, indicated how Italy’s war was going. Intuitively sensing extra publicity for the event, race director Armando Cougnet welcomed Strada’s request to ride. She completed the 204-kilometre tour, one-and-a-half hours after the Belgian winner Philippe Thys.
Despite finishing the race again in 1918, just one week after the end of the war when entrants were again minimal, Strada’s big break didn’t come until 1924, when she became the first woman to complete the Giro d’Italia. But while her entry was significant, the decision was purely commercial, with Cougnet and La Gazzetta’s editor Emilio Colombo exploiting her appeal after a number of bicycle manufacturers had withdrawn from the race following a dispute with the paper. Either a genuine mistake or a deliberate attempt to disguise Strada’s entry in the hope of creating even more attention, few eyebrows were raised by the unknown amateur Alfonsin Strada of Milan. The missing ‘a’ on the end of her name would have established her gender immediately and helped the Bolognese newspaper Il Resto del Carlino avoid listing her as male competitor Alfonsino.
Beginning on 10 May 1924, Silvio Zambaldi noted ‘a lively little woman’ in the pack:
with a short baby-haircut and even shorter shorts, from which the hems of her jumper impertinently protruded. She pedalled with self-confidence and cheer, like a schoolboy playing truant. The public that lined the streets in the passing villages immediately noted her with exclamations of wonder, the women in particular, perhaps scandalized to see her like this… hardly representing their sex.
Ending almost three weeks later on 1 June, the race covered 3,613 km along terrible roads, over 12 stages, in which time La Gazzetta’s publicity around the foreign body grew. ‘In only two stages this little lady’s popularity has become greater than all the missing champions put together.’ Intrigued observers awaited her often considerably late arrival, to applaud, encourage and insult her bare legs, which were banned by several prefectural orders under normal circumstances but permissible in the name of sport.
Travelling deep into southern Italy, the riders encountered pot-holed, rock strewn roads and a passionate public that was increasingly enamoured by Strada. At the departure of the Rome–Naples stage: There was the usual hullaballoo around Alfonsina who arrived at the checkpoint in a new, bright outfit. This woman is becoming… famous. Yesterday some receptions were held in her honour. The good Romans gave her flowers, a new jersey and even a pair of earrings. She is radiant. Following that gruelling fourth stage, the heat, dust, and terrible roads worsened as the race went further south.
Planning to retire due to physical stress following her 15-hour completion of the Foggia–L’Aquila mountain stage, on 22 May, Strada was visited by Colombo, who gave her the small fortune of 500 lire, an apparent contribution from her fans.76 Having persuaded her to continue, race rules were bent to avoid her disqualification for exceeding the maximum time allowed on one stage. From there onwards, such was her value to the paper that Colombo personally met Strada’s hotel bills and provided her with a masseur. Of the 90 riders that started, only 30 officially finished, plus three that had exceeded the maximum time limit, including Strada, who arrived 28 hours behind the winner. It was a feat never previously attempted by a woman. Collecting cups, medals and donations, Strada is estimated to have earned up to 50,000 lire, plus the affection of a previously hostile press.
In addition to a proposed meeting with Mussolini and an official communication from King Victor Emmanuel III, Strada was fêted by the Italian public and foreign journalists. The fruits of her labour, however, amounted to little more than some decent earnings and short-lived fame. Considering herself a ‘professional’ cyclist, Strada mistakenly believed that her success would secure her entry into other races. In 1925, with the dispute between the bicycle manufacturers and La Gazzetta dello Sport resolved, there was no need for publicity stunts. Colombo personally refused Strada’s entry. So much for the paper’s bold support the previous year:
Alfonsina doesn’t challenge anybody for victory, she just wants to show that even the weak sex can do the same as the strong sex. Might she be a vanguard for feminism that demonstrates its stronger capacity to demand the rights to vote in local or national elections? ■
Simon Martin is the author of Football and Fascism: The National Game under Mussolini and Sport Italia: The Italian Love Affair With Sport, which have both been awarded the Lord Aberdare Literary Prize for Sports History. He currently lives in Rome where he teaches at the American University of Rome, and often writes for the Guardian.
This article is an edited extract from Sport Italia.