In a time when what it means to be a woman politician has again become a pressing question not only of policy, but of gender identity—when the American press debates whether Hillary Clinton can be both a president and a grandmother, and when Marine Le Pen wins a majority of the French vote for the European Parliament for her father’s far-right racist Front National by offering a softer, gentler, more feminine face for xenophobia—Italy returns to its recurring historical place as a laboratory for political experiments. From Mazzini’s revolutionary republicanism to Mussolini’s fascism, from the unification of Europe to the assimilation of postcolonial refugees arriving by the thousands on boats unfit for an afternoon fishing excursion, Italy has been a frontier for new trends in Western political culture, and it is again at the forefront with a study in contrasts when it comes to gender. On the one hand, the most recent national elections in Italy brought Laura Boldrini, member of a small environmentalist party and former director of refugee policy at the U.N., to the third-highest position in the government as President of the lower house of Parliament. She is only the third woman to hold the position. At the same time, the new prime minister Matteo Renzi chose a cabinet made up of fifty percent female ministers, while the parliament as a whole reached thirty-one percent women members, both first time records. Yet both Boldrini and Cecile Kyenge, the first black minister in an Italian government, are subject to public, graphic, and repeated threats of violence and rape not only from anonymous voters but from their own parliamentary colleagues.
What’s behind this gulf between categories of femininity? It cannot just be an old-fashioned culture’s backlash against new advances by women: Italy’s 1948 constitution, written in the wake of Fascism’s collapse, guaranteed women’s equality as citizens; a provision put there explicitly by the twenty-one women elected to the Constitutional Assembly in the first election including women’s suffrage in Italy in 1946. Italian women are guaranteed fully paid maternity leave for six months and child care and nursing stations when they return to work, a law passed in 1950; they successfully fought for an equal pay law, free abortion rights, and no-fault divorce in the 1970s; they currently make up more than half of university students, more than half of judges, and much less than half of the high unemployment rate among youth since the 2008 economic crisis. Italian women inspired spectators worldwide in 2011 by staging a demonstration in thousands of piazzas across the nation in a simultaneous sing-along to Aretha Franklin’s “Respect;” yet the reason they were moved to do so was an Italian rate of sexual assault, murder, and domestic violence against women so high it has its own named criminal category, “femminicidio.” And don’t even get me started on the ubiquity of the sexualized female body as decoration on every television show and billboard. Even one channel’s “Daily Show”-style evening news program, “Striscia La Notizia,” has two “veline,” as these hostesses are known, sitting on the newsdesk and then jumping up to dance suggestively at each commercial break. While my new book The Lost Wave: Women and Democracy in Postwar Italy offers the history behind today’s experiment in gender and politics in Italy, I do not have the solution to this dichotomy. Instead I only have a prediction to make: the fallouts of Italian political experiments usually spread more globally, and we had all better start preparing for some explosive confrontations.
–Molly Tambor is Assistant Professor of History at Long Island University. She holds a Ph.D. in modern European history from Columbia University and specializes in political history and the history of women and gender. She was awarded the Rome Prize in 2002-2003 and did additional research at the University of Florence, Italy. Her new book is The Lost Wave: Women and Democracy in Postwar Italy.