How Maria Montessori Defied Mussolini and Changed the World

Men were no match for Maria Montessori.

By: Tony Traficante, ISDA Contributing Editor

Maria, a beautiful and young Italian woman, stood at the doorway of her future — one of Italy’s medical schools — eagerly waiting to enter, only to be greeted by unfriendly students and professors, muttering, “Che vergogna,” for shame!

Why the fuss? Well, it was once an all-male school, and now it was not! For young Maria Montessori, it was such an unexpected situation. All she wanted was the opportunity to be a doctor. Little did anyone realize that, in time, she would be internationally recognized for her renowned Montessori educational process and schools.

Maria was born August 31, 1870, in the town of Chiaravalle, Le Marche, Italia, to parents Alessandro and Renilde Stoppani-Montessori. It was not until Maria was 7 years old that Italy permitted females to attend public schools. Up until then, fathers and the Catholic Church decided the educational needs of Italian women. And, as it was, Maria’s father did not favor her attending public school, let alone the higher educational institutions. But headstrong Maria, “Con una testa dura” was not about to capitulate to the educational limitations imposed on Italian women, by Italian men.

Maria’s determination to get an education began at age 13 when she enrolled in an all-boys technical school, where she had hoped to start her training as an Engineer.

She was not an extraordinary student, but did well in the sciences, especially with mathematics. However, by the time Maria completed the secondary level of schools, she decided she wanted to be a medical doctor.

Continuing (and about to break more barriers), Maria applied to the University of Rome Medical School. Unfortunately, she failed the entrance exams on the first attempt but succeeded in the second go around.There are reports that the Pope at the time, most likely Pope Leo XIII, had a hand in Maria’s acceptance into medical school.

One of the problems Maria faced with the male medical faculty and students was no one wanted her beside them when having to work on a naked cadaver! “Mamma mia, senzapudore” does she not have any shame, they whispered to one another. However, the enterprising Maria was not to be sidetracked from getting a medical degree, so she solved the problem by agreeing to do her dissections of naked cadavers, after regular class hours. Dr. Montessori was one of Italy’s first female physicians when she graduated medical school in 1896 and a trailblazer for other Italian women to pursue the same.

Maria’s early medical practice focused on psychiatry, specializing in working mostly with special needs children. Disturbed by the learning difficulties suffered by these special children, Maria set out to improve their learning capabilities. She established the first of her Montessori schools, in a ghetto of Rome, on January 6, 1907. “La Casa dei Bambini,” the Children’s Home, became the foundation of her Montessori educational system. So successful was the Montessori system, it spread worldwide. Later, Maria included regular students as well as the special needs children in the school system. Dr. Montessori gave up her medical practice to devote all her time to educational endeavors.

As the Montessori educational method grew in popularity, it attracted the attention of no other than Benito Mussolini. Mussolini became so enthused with the Montessori system, he agreed to serve as Honorary President of the Montessori Society of Italy. With the approval of Mussolini, Maria opened a teacher’s training college and a wide range of Montessori institutions throughout Italy. As the years went by, Dr. Montessori’s ideological viewpoints, mainly as a pacifist, clashed with the Fascist administration and her mutual relationship with Mussolini ended. The situation became particularly worse in 1931 when Maria refused to order her teachers to take the fascist loyalty oaths, as all teachers, government employees and professionals were ordered to do. Furious, Mussolini closed the Montessori schools, and by 1934 Maria fled Italy to escape political surveillance and harassment.

Maria Montessori lived through some tough times, but was a very determined, ambitious lady. She was teaching in India when Italy and Great Britain became embroiled in war. Then, in 1940, Britain ordered the internment of all Italian nationals in the United Kingdom and its colonies. India refused to confine Maria but limited her movements to the area of the Theosophical Society compound where she was teaching. Not able to return to Italy, Maria lived in exile, in India, for the remainder of the war.

In the United States, many Montessori schools are privately owned, and some are part of the public school systems, allowing more children to attend, regardless of the family economic status.

Former alumni of the Montessori schools include Larry Page and Sergey Brin (founders of Google), Jeff Bezos (founder of Amazon), George Clooney, Helen Hunt, Peter Drucker (Management Guru), Jackie Kennedy Onassis, Julia Child, and Princes William and Harry of England.

Dr. Montessori was an exceptional person. She has the honor and distinction of being the only Italian woman to appear on an Italian banknote.

Maria spent her final days, living with friends in Amsterdam, Netherland. She died on May 6, 1952, at the age of 81.

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