The story of the Mondine

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October is the month for harvesting rice, staple ingredient of many fall recipes as well as the quintessential Milanese dish, Milanese saffron Risotto.

In the collective memory of our country, work in the rice plantations is associated with the Mondine, female seasonal workers who provided labor before the mechanization of agricultural work, leaving their families for 40 days to devote themselves to the “monda,” -cleaning the rice and tearing out the “giaveno”, a particularly hard and infesting weed.

All day bent over and knee-deep in water, the mondine wore a skirt or rolled-up short pants. To protect their limbs from mosquito bites they wore long cotton socks and muffs in which they often hid frogs that they would then fry for dinner. To protect their heads from the sun and rain they used the characteristic straw hat.

The work of the mondine was extremely hard. They worked for twelve hours a day and in all weather conditions, including heavy rain. It was not possible to stop: physiological needs were performed by moving a few steps away, and every now and then the foreman would pass by with a ladle of water to quench the workers’ thirst. Rice grows in swampy soil, so the women shared their space with frogs, mice, snakes and leeches. One could fall ill from rheumatism and respiratory diseases, from malaria, due to infections caused by the bite of some insect or from the so-called rice fever, an infectious disease that gave very high fever.

The story of the mondine has primarily been one of exploitation and disease. However, it was from these tireless workers that one of the first feminist movements originated, which resulted in bitter union battles that not even Fascism was able to dampen, which translated-first in Italy-in the right to the 8-hour workday.

Today, in the songs with which the lifted their spirits during the long work hours, which were handed down from mother to daughter, one can identify verses that incite class struggle, proletarian power and women’s rights. These songs, which have become part of the folklore of northern Italy, are jealously guarded, in memory of those strong, fierce women who defied the master’s authority and patriarchal society.

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