Female and Woman: Alice Ceresa’s feminist literature

Piccolo dizionario dell'inuguaglianza femminile


Eleonora Norcini

Eleonora Norcini

     Imagine we are in the 1960s, in a house in Rome and there is a woman… or shall I rather say a Female? It’s Alice Ceresa, and she is maniacally working on her manuscripts and constantly correcting her drafts. She is an avid smoker and a reserved writer, who prefers not to expose herself to the public and to write books that remain unpublished. Who is this lady?, Ceresa was born in Basel in 1923 and grew up moving between the Swiss cantons, before finally setting in Italy. She takes part to the Gruppo 63[1] (because of affinity and necessity), crossing both linguistic and national borders. She has always felt the urgency in writing to denounce the chauvinist and viricentric vision that permeates every social substratum. It is no coincidence that, as a teenager, she takes Annemarie Clarac-Schwarzenbach (1908-1942) as her model, given that she was an androgynous and bisexual writer and photographer who had travelled the world writing and documenting reality in Europe, Africa, Syria, India, Russia and Persia. Ceresa admires and love Clarac-Schwarzenbach’s worldview, intellectual honesty, and rebellious character, but she refuses her existential recklessness. 

Basel - view from the river

Woman and Female

Alice Ceresa considers writing about female inequality as an absolute necessity because it is not only a political and social issue, but also a cultural and linguistic one, which is “anchored in the entire worldview”[2]. According to the writer, the dominance of masculinity affects every field of knowledge and condemns who was born female, implicitly. In Piccolo dizionario dell’inuguglianza femminile (the italian for “Little dictionary of female inequality”) (Nottetempo, 2007) Ceresa collects several headwords with a single intention: to question the unnatural and prescriptive nature of patriarchy. The idea of femininity (that concerns linguistics as well) is nothing but an expression of masculinity, which wants to affirm its own connotations through its opposite.

According to Ceresa, we should distinguish between the concept of woman and the one of female: the second refers to a biological characteristic, while the first is just a cultural, artificial and misleading product, generated since ancient times by the human mind. In other words, the idea of woman is not an ontological entity, but only a human invention as well as a sort of grammatical model or a cognitive category: ‘a woman is therefore not a female, but a cultural product’[3]. That depends on the fact that men are no longer capable of distinguishing neither what is due to nature from what is artifice, nor what is instinct from what is will.

Ceresa’s look on woman’s condition

Therefore, in her works Ceresa, declines her feminism both in an explicit way (as in the Piccolo dizionario) and implicitly, as in the novels La figlia prodiga (“the prodigal daughter”) (Einaudi, 1967), Bambine (“Little girls”) (Einaudi, 1990) and La morte del padre (“the death of the father”) (Einaudi, 1979). The female characters appear voiceless and nameless, connoted mainly by the status of daughters. They remain potentially unexpressed and limited by the asphyxiating bonds of the family, which turn into a patriarchal institution. This social cage is made of missed relationships and unbridgeable incommunicability, as well as fears and rivalries. Only the death of the father (that is a figure of patriarchy) leads to the liberation and the self-assertion of females in the family. Lastly, Ceresa uses her writing to discuss the imposed social system and adopts some narrative expedients to deconstruct the novel from the inside.

The ones who maybe wish to embark on this path of awareness should not expect her books to be easy to read: Ceresa’s style is conceptual, abstract, and not very fluid. However, literature turns up to be a powerful trainer of critical sense against social prescriptions. As we need to practise awareness to make conscious changes, we write and read not only for pleasure, but also for necessity. Remember what Ceresa says in her dictionary: “to conclude: I don’t write the little dictionary for women; I write it because it has to be written”[4].

Eleonora Norcini

TIP! I suggest you read Ceresa’s published works in anti-chronological order: start with Piccolo dizionario, then go through La morte del padre and Bambine. Finally, let yourself be shocked by La figlia prodiga (…let us know if you come out intact!).


[1] Il Gruppo 63 è un movimento letterario fondato a Palermo nel 1963. Rientra nelle neoavanguardie storiche per lo stile sperimentale e la volontà di mettere in discussione le convenzioni sociali e letterarie del tempo. Tra i componenti: Alfredo Giuliani, Edoardo Sanguineti, Umberto Eco, Elio Pagliarani, Alice Ceresa, Giorgio Manganelli, Antonio Porta, Fausto Curi, Amelia Rosselli, Nanni Balestrini.

[2] A. Ceresa, Lettera a Michèle Causse, in Piccolo dizionario dell’inuguaglianza femminile, Tatiana Crivelli (a cura di), Roma, Edizioni Nottetempo, 2007, p. 14.

[3] Ibi, p. 39

[4] A. Ceresa, Lettera a Michèle Causse, in Piccolo dizionario dell’inuguaglianza femminile, Tatiana Crivelli (a cura di), Roma, Edizioni Nottetempo, 2007, p. 14.


Bosco, Alessandro, Alice (Ceresa) disambientata, «Doppiozero», 07/07/2020, consultated 18/11/2020, https://www.doppiozero.com/materiali/alice-ceresa-disambientata.

Ceresa, Alice, La figlia prodiga e altre storie, Milano, La tartaruga edizioni, 2004.

Ceresa, Alice, Piccolo dizionario dell’inuguaglianza femminile, Tatiana Crivelli (edited by), Roma, Edizioni Nottetempo, 2007.


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