What happened to Italian feminism?

Once a leader, now lagging behind

Michelle Tarnopolsky
May 5, 2011

Renaissance humanist Laura Cereta must be rolling in her grave. More than 500 years after the Brescia native helped lay the groundwork for modern feminism by championing women's right to education, Italy ranks among the lowest in the EU for gender equality.


The numbers are grim. Only 45 percent of Italian women work outside the home-well below the European average. Last year, Italy placed 74th in the World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap Report, behind countries like Kazakhstan and Malawi, marking a two-point drop from 2009 (Anglo countries all ranked within the top 23). While in Italy university-educated women exceed men by 10 percent (and the rest of Europe by 2 percent), once these women enter the workforce they earn on average half the amount of their male counterparts and only 7 percent of them occupy managerial positions. This percentage increases in the political arena, but not by much: Italian women occupy 11.5 percent of the seats in the lower house and 8.9 percent in the Senate, thus placing Italy 89th in the Inter-Parliamentary Union's global classification of women in parliament.


Certainly, the seeds of Italian feminism augured a vastly different future. As Sarah Gwyneth Ross argues in her 2009 book The Birth of Feminism, fifteenth-century Italian female intellectuals such as Cereta did nothing short of pave the way for the modern women's movement. The first woman in the world to receive a university degree (in Padua in 1678) was also Italian, the Venice-born Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia (1646-1684).


However, by the time the western world was riding the first wave of feminism at the turn of the twentieth century, Italy had fallen pitifully far behind. Despite the efforts of suffragette and pioneer Italian feminist Anna Maria Mozzoni (1837-1920), women in Italy were among the last in Europe to be granted the right to vote, on February 1, 1945.


Italian women got some of their feminist groove back during la seconda ondata of the 1960s and 70s. Then as now, feminist activism in Italy was intertwined with leftist politics and philosophy. Indeed, key early collectives include the Movimento per la liberazione della donna, established in 1969 in association with the Radical Party, and Lotta femminista, founded in 1971 with ties to the student movement and Marxism.


In 1970, prominent activists Carla Lonzi, Carla Accardi and Elvira Banotti drafted the Manifesto di Rivolta Femminile in which, among other things, they invited women to join them in ‘spitting on Hegel.' Not surprisingly, the rallying cry of second-wave feminists in this most Catholic of countries revolved primarily around divorce and abortion, which were legalized in 1974 and 1981, respectively, thanks to their struggles. While the personal became political in Italy, its ‘trade-union feminism' set it apart from Anglo countries, as did the focus on the differences between the sexes.


The movement virtually disappeared by the early 1980s according to Bianca Beccalli, author of the 1994 essay ‘The Modern Women's Movement in Italy.' By that time, however, another group had emerged around the Milanese Libreria delle Donne, founded by Luisa Muraro and Lia Cigarini. Carrying forward the banner of gender differentiation, this woman-centered publishing initiative has remained synonymous with Italian feminism ever since.


Today, 30 years after their Big Victory, the legalization of abortion, Italian feminists find themselves in what journalist Caterina Soffici calls ‘the most sexist country in Europe' in the subtitle of her 2010 book Ma le donne no; and what Newsweek has nicknamed ‘Bunga-Bunga Nation,' in reference to the misogynist antics of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, currently on trial for paying an underage prostitute for sex.


How did they get here? Many share the opinion of Nicoletta Dentico, one of the organizers of the Se non ora quando protests of February 13. As she told www.Slate.fr, while Berlusconi has certainly played a major role, older Italian feminists are also to blame for ‘closing themselves off in separatism' and failing to involve new generations. In fact, one thing young Italian women share with their Anglo sisters is the stereotypical view of feminists as humourless, man-hating hags. However, one glaring difference overshadows such a similarity: most girls in the US or the UK don't dream of becoming television showgirls when they grow up.


It's as though female progress in Italy were frozen in the early 1980s. Sure, Italian women are free to divorce, access contraception, get a legal abortion and at least try to follow their chosen career path. Perhaps journalist Marina Terragni was right to criticize politician and fellow feminist Emma Bonino for lumping Italy together with third world countries at the recent Women in the World Summit in New York. On the other hand, what other first world nation would fail to include a single woman among 42 discussion-table participants for its upcoming World Expo Milan 2015 whose theme is feeding the planet?


One thing that could be holding Italian feminism back is the same thing afflicting the Left in Italy: a woeful lack of unity. Everyone agrees on the problems: the overwhelming concentration of power in the hands of old men and a media that has muted women's voices. The solutions are another story.


From the outside, the February 13 protests, for which 1 million marchers turned out in Italy alone, finally seemed to have awoken the ‘sleeping dragon of Italian feminism,' not to mention attracting new legions of male supporters in the process. Yet even this ostensibly unifying and successful event has split Italian feminist opinion. Some, like femminista storica Lea Melandri, believe the protests marked a hopeful turning point by bringing women's issues back into the Italian media.

Others, like Lorella Zanardo, the creator of the book, film and blog Il corpo delle donne, are not so convinced. ‘I must say there was an amazing energy at the protest ,' she says. ‘But two months have passed, and nothing has happened. In the 70s, we had the satisfaction of knowing that political parties listened to our critiques and made changes. Today, despite a million people expressing their dissatisfaction, the PD has done nothing. Personally, I no longer expect a thing.'


Instead, Zanardo is concentrating on one thing Italy has long done well: educating its women. As a former member of that lucky 7 percent-she has worked as a manager for various multinationals-she now devotes herself to teaching young Italian women how to increase their self-esteem. ‘I am seeing so much energy in the schools. The girls and boys of today are different; they're better. So I am working for them.' At least about this, Laura Cereta would be proud.



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