* From her earliest days at the university Montessori identified as a feminist and a socialist. She became secretary of the Association for Women, a group that lobbied for community education, female suffrage, a law for the determination of paternity, and equal pay for men and women, all issues that would come to impinge dramatically on her own life. When she began a relationship with a young psychiatrist named Giuseppe Montesano in 1895, Montessori laid down some nonnegotiable ground rules: her medical career came first, she would never marry, and their attachment must be kept private. It was the type of unsanctioned and voluntary arrangement that the pioneering “new women” of the 1890s were trying out around the world, from Moscow to New York.
Motherhood, however, has a way of disrupting even the most high-minded and equitable arrangements. In the summer of 1897 Montessori became pregnant. In an extraordinary inversion of the usual script, Montesano was happy to offer marriage, while Renilde insisted that her twenty-eight-year-old daughter consider no such thing. A family story repeated as late as the 1990s by Maria’s granddaughter has Renilde declaring, “You have done what no other woman has ever done in Italy. You are a scientist, a doctor, you are everything, now because of a baby you could lose everything.” At her mother’s insistence, Montessori gave birth in great secrecy, with the paperwork stating that both the mother and father of her baby son were “unknown.” In time-honored fashion, the infant, named Mario, was put into the care of a country wet nurse. Montessori, the antithesis of a modern madonna, contented herself with visits to her child whenever her busy working schedule allowed.
* Rita Kramer, who was able to interview Mario for her 1976 biography of Maria:
“Mario Montessori’s memory is of a spring day in 1913 when he was about fifteen, seeing on a school outing the lady whose visits have punctuated his childhood and been explained in his fantasies. A car stopped where he was resting; she got out and he went up to her and said simply, “I know you are my mother,” and told her he wanted to go with her. She made no objection, he got into the car with her.”
* One former elementary school teacher who had always been impressed by the Montessori method, which he had encountered as a member of the Humanitarian Society, was Benito Mussolini. In 1924 he donated 10,000 lire of his own money to help found the Opera Montessori, an agency with public and private funding to promote the system. Il Duce saw the advantage of Montessori’s method for producing industrious, disciplined, and literate future citizens. The Dottoressa was naturally delighted—here at last was the official support that she had long wanted. There would be training courses, a journal, a whole Montessori ecosystem that, with any luck, would provide a living for her beloved Mario, who by now had joined her in the family business.
De Stefano is scrupulous about not underplaying Montessori’s dalliance with Mussolini. In 1931 she wrote to him:
“In sum, my method can collaborate with fascism so that it will realize the possibilities to construct great spiritual energies; create a real mental hygiene that, when applied to our race, can enhance its enormous powers that—I am certain—outstrip the powers of all the other races.”