In its short history, the Republic of Italy has only once almost had a
woman prime minister. That woman was Leonilde Iotti, or Nilde, as everyone
called her, who, in 1987, was given a mandate by the then president of the
Republic, Francesco Cossiga, to form a government. She was also the first
member of the Italian Communist Party (PCI) to be asked to do so
Unable to reach a consensus, her attempt failed. Again,
in 1992, she was the Left’s candidate for president of the Republic, Italy’s
highest constitutional position. Once again she lost. Nonetheless, she was the
first women to be given the prestigious post of speaker of the Chamber of
Deputies for three consecutive legislatures, from 1979 until 1992. She was
often called the ‘Czarina’ or the ‘Red Queen’ of the lower house. Massimo
D’Alema, a fellow party member and former prime minister, in recalling her role
as speaker said, ‘One word from her was enough to bring Parliament to heel’.
Iotti was born the daughter of a railway worker and
Socialist trade unionist on April 10, 1920 in Italy’s politically ‘red’
heartland of Reggio Emilia. Following her graduation from the Catholic
University of Milan, where she took a degree in letters, she taught briefly
before the outbreak of World War II at the technical institute in her hometown.
Strongly anti-Fascist, she became an active member of the Resistance during the
war. After the partisan-led revolt of April 25, 1945 against Nazi occupation
and Mussolini’s Republic of Salò, she became leader of the Unione Donne
Italiane (Union of Italian Women), an association founded in Rome in
1944 mainly by female militants among the Socialists and Communists in order to
improve the living and working conditions of women.
In January 1945, the Council of Ministers under prime
minister Ivanoe Bonomi enacted a decree that finally gave women the right to
vote, at last recognising universal suffrage in Italy. Women exercised this
right for the first time on June 2, 1946, by voting in the referendum that
decided Italy would become a Republic instead of retaining the monarchy, and in
the election for a Constituent Assembly. Iotti was one of the 21 women voted
into the Constituent Assembly, where she became a member of the Commission of
75, entrusted with writing the new Italian Constitution. She served without
interruption for the next 13 legislatures.
Arriving in Rome to take her seat in Parliament, Iotti,
a tall and rather plump young woman of 26, met Palmiro Togliatti, the charismatic
and powerful leader of the Communist Party in the lift at Montecitorio. It was
love at first sight. The only problem was that Togliatti was 53, married and
had a son. In an epoch when there was no divorce in Italy, their love story
provoked a scandal not only among their conservative Catholic political
adversaries but also within the Communist Party itself, which took a moralistic
and bigoted view of their affair. Their relationship was initially kept secret,
but it became common knowledge after Togliatti was shot three times at close
range outside Parliament on July 14, 1948. The reaction of the public was cold.
Iotti had been with him at the time and never left his side, not even when his
wife arrived at the hospital. In 1950, the couple adopted a daughter, Marisa
Malagoli Togliatti, the sister of a worker killed by police during a strike in
Modena, who is today an esteemed psychologist. Although they continued to live
together until Togliatti’s death in 1964, the press, highlighting the hypocrisy
of the day, simply reported that Iotti, like many other members of Parliament,
was present at his funeral.
Predictably, throughout her political life Iotti
campaigned strongly for social reforms involving women’s rights, especially for
divorce and abortion. A convinced Europeanist, she also became a member of the
European Parliament from 1969 until 1979 and, in 1997, was elected the vice
president of the Council of Europe. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, she was
one of the first and most influential Communist Party officials to back
renaming the party as the Democrats of the Left (PDS) and to support removing
the hammer and sickle as its symbols.
In ill health, she resigned from
Parliament just two weeks before she died of a heart attack on December 4,
1999. She is buried in the non-Catholic section of the Verano cemetery in Rome,
alongside Togliatti and other important leaders of the old Italian Communist
Party, in the tomb owned by the party.