Female daredevils had been present from the early days of world cinema, but only Italy’s film industry produced Astrea, a true female strongwoman. In the years immediately after World War I Italy was mad for strongmen, the most famous of which was Maciste (Bartolomeo Pagano) who first appeared in Cabiria (1914). Soon other strongmen became popular; oddly enough, female protagonists who were extremely strong also caught the Italian public’s fancy. The participation of females during the war had caused massive social shifts in the entire western world, and Italy was no different. Although little is known about Astrea (we do not even know her real name), she embodied the new spirit of female empowerment that swept Europe after 1918. Unlike other athletic heroines who used their strength and wiles to avoid peril, Astrea actively sought out danger and difficulties and used her great strength to right wrongs and protect the innocent. She is neither the beautiful sidekick of a strongman nor a willowy acrobat who uses her grace, beauty and sense of balance to get out of difficulties; Astrea is proudly independent, righteous, tough and female. In Astrea’s best film, Justitia (1919), the imposing actress performs her feats wearing trousers—another surprising fashion statement for an Italian lady at the time. Her costume thus emphasizes that her independence and her power are the equal of any man’s. Astrea’s last film was released in 1920, and she disappeared back into history. She remains to this day one of the rare examples of a strongwoman from Italy’s silent era. In the next two decades the Fascists would make sure that women remained “womanly” (at least on the screen).


David Chapman

was born in San Diego, California in 1948. He is the author of thirteen books on the history of physical culture, gender, film and sport history. In 1994 he published Sandow the Magnificent, a biography of the early bodybuilder Eugen Sandow (1867-1925). His book on female strength, Venus with Biceps (2011) was the first comprehensive history of muscular women ever published. In more recent years he... >>