person who believes in the
political and economic equality of the sexes.”
Feminism is an important cultural
movement that has a rich history. When thinking about “recent trends” in Italy,
feminism was not the first thing that came to my mind. As a 21-year old,
feminism seems like something so much older and bigger than a “recent trend”.
But the first humans were living on Italian soil up to 200,000 years ago and
Rome was founded in 753 BC. So if you think about Italy in such a big picture,
feminism might seem recent.
Even so, it has a really complex and
long history, dating back to the Middle Ages. In this paper, I will explain the
history of the movement, starting from the very start, then showing how Italian
feminism has changed over the years, and ending with the Italian feminism of
today, and the problems it faces at this moment.
Writing this paper made me realize
how important this movement for women is. There has been so much that is
realized, and today it might seem that equality is here. But there are still a
lot of problems present in the patriarchy in which we still live.
Italian feminism can be traced back
all the way to the late 13th century. Renaissance
humanists were mostly antifeminist but there were some educated women who
challenged notions that women should be submissive to men. Christine de Pizan
wrote “The City of Ladies” in 1404 and in this text she stated some
controversial opinions, such as that women’s gender has no innate inferiority
to men’s. (Perry et al., 2012)
During this period, women were not
allowed to follow higher education and study at universities. Only fortunate
women who either got an education on their own or were allowed to get tutoring,
could get educated. These were not marginalized, contrary to what you could expect. Several studies focusing on the sixteenth
century have demonstrated that women writers, in fact played authoritative
roles in contemporary “salons” and “literary circles”—a defining characteristic
of which was the collaboration of male and female colleagues. (Ross, 2010)
Laura Creta was one of these great
female humanists from the fifteenth century. She defended the education of
women and objected the abuse of married women. She argued against the slavery
of women in marriage and for the rights of women to higher education. Because
of these themes, she is considered as an early feminist.
Other impressive women paved the way
for feminist thinking, and Italy continued to progressive in its feminism. The first woman in the world to receive a university
degree (in Padua in 1678) was also Italian, namely Elena Lucrezia Cornaro
Piscopia who was born in Venice in 1646.
But most women were peasants, and they
were almost always illiterate. Educated women who could read and write about
feminism’s various issues were isolated and rare. This only changed when new
print media came around in the mid-19th century. Women could now
appeal to all levels of society through mass-market books and periodicals.
One of these publications was Anna Maria
Mozzoni’s Woman and her social relationships on the occasion of the revision
of the Italian Civil Code (La donna e i suoi rapporti sociali in
occasione della revisione del codice italiano), which was published in
1864. Mozzoni’s book talked about the injustice and discrimination against
women in the law.
It was during these years that women
were granted more rights in Italy.
Examples are: legal majority for unmarried women in 1865, admittance of
women in universities in 1876 and
separate economy for married women in 1919 married women.
This progression came to halt when
Benito Mussolini came to power in 1922. Mussolini brought the start of the
fascist era in Italy, and fascism is very antifeminist. For example, fascist
ideology dictated procreation as a woman’s duty. However, in 1945 women in
Italy were allowed to vote. This was a great stride, even though Italy was one
of the last countries in Europe to grant women this right.
Second wave feminism
In the 1970s there was a new surge
of feminism. This was called ‘the second wave’, the same as in many other
The first important
collectives were the Movimento per la
liberazione della donna (MLD), founded in 1969, and Lotta Femminista (Feminist Struggle), founded in 1971. MLD’s main
objectives were divorce, abortion and non-sexist eduction. Lotta Femminista was especially active in Northern Italy and fought
for wages for housework. They believed
housework and childcare are the basis of all industrial work and thought these
very important tasks should be compensated as paid wage labour. They didn’t
only call for economic compensation for domestic work, but also called
attention to the affective labours of women, the reliance of capitalist
economies on exploitative labour practices against women, and leisure
Then as now, feminist activism in
Italy was intertwined with leftist politics and philosophy.
Carla Lonzi started Rivolta Femminile (“Women’s Revolt”) in
1970 and published a manifesto with other activists
Carla Accardi and Elvira Banotti. It was called the Manifesto di Rivolta Femminile in which, among other things, they asked
women to ‘spit on Hegel.’
The movement launched a drive for
social change. This was not immediately met with glee. The first time Italian feminists
came out in the open, they were met with hostility and violence. An example is
the MLD’s first Conference in Rome, in February 1971. A number of male experts turned up, who
expected to read papers on women’s issues. When the men in the audience
realized that they were being asked to listen to women and not to pass
judgement on them, chaos ensued. In this instance however the attacks on the
women participants were limited to verbal abuse and obscenities. But at many
other instances, for example at a national meeting of feminist groups in Rome
in November 1971, and at a demonstration for abortion in March 1972, the women
were met with violence by disgruntled men. These violent reactions to women’s
protests only created greater solidarity amongst the women. The movement
started to grow very fast.
Asides from the collectives such as
MLD, Lotta Femminista and Rivolta Femminile, there were also feminist groups
within trade unions. This was what set the Italian feminism very much apart
from the Anglo countires. The first worker women groups started organizing in
Milan, Torino and Rome in 1975. Soon these spread all over the country. There
were some national coordinations created, the most notable the FLM (the workers
for the metal and mechanics industry). These women wanted to make a place where
they could take political action, but in a different way than the conflicts
integral to the trade unions. In 1976 and 1977 almost every large office or
factory had a feminist group. They had some specific objectives: one of the
most important to them was the organization of 150 hours courses; 150 hours
courses were courses organized by public authorities. Workers could attend
these classes during working hours for a total of 150 hours a year. The feminists
even succeeded in having these courses opened to housewives. Most women were
most interested in health issues. This turned to be a place that allowed them
to speak about sexuality and motherhood.
were many collectives, but the great majority of the movement worked in small,
informal groups on a local level. National issues like divorce, abortion, and
violence were not ignored. But the most important thing for these local women’s
groups were related to the conditions in which these women lived. There was no
central, national leadership. Women took decisions together, and concepts like
hierarchy, power and delegation were even dismissed and rejected as products of
patriarchy and male culture. A profound feeling of community united the
different women working in different local settings. There was a feeling of
sisterhood, of sharing a common struggle and a common discovery. There are no
exact numbers on how many groups there were (and still are) active in the
entirety of Italy. But in every small city in Italy, there was a feminist group
active at one point in time, sometimes only made up of a handful of women.
National rallies always gathered more than 50,000 women. The women had no
centralized structure, but they always managed to have a lot of informal
obvious that there were many different feminist groups that each had their own
objectives and all focused on different issues. The only nationwide issue where
all different groups were active was abortion. They organized rallies, but also
organized flights to London to have abortions there, and illegal abortions were
organized with the suction method. Feminists opened the first
consultori–medical centres where women could get information on contraception
and on their health problems. Only much later, in February 1976, was the law on
consultori passed. And even then, women kept lobbying the authorities so the consultori
opened and functioned in the way that they wanted. Later many women’s centres were opened. And in
1978 the law for regulating abortion was at last approved.
this time of second wave feminism, many laws were approved in Parliament. In
1975, the family law was reformed. This meant that adultery was now no longer a
crime, and husband and wife now were considered equal by the law. In 1970 the
law for divorce was passed, which was –like abortion- a very big achievement
for the Italian feminists who lived in the very religious landscape of Italy.
other mind-blowingly sexist laws were repealed, such as the law about honour
killings. Until this law was repealed in 1981 a wife’s affair could be
considered an extenuating circumstance for her murder. In 1996, Italy amended
its rape laws, and sexual assault was reclassified as a criminal felony, before
then it was only a moral offense.
though these two laws were revolutional, the feminist movement was at a very
low level during the 80s and early 90s in Italy. However, another group has
emerged at that time around the Milanese Libreria delle Donne. The founders
Luisa Muraro and Lia Cigarini carried forward the message about gender equality
and sexual difference. They have been active ever since.
Feminism in the 21st century
Even though the Second Wave feminists had fought and struggled so hard
and long for more rights for women, Italy is not considered a particularly
feminist country. Italy is ranked among the lowest in the EU for gender
equality, and is called by some as ‘the most sexist country in Europe’. (Suffici, 2010)
Feminists made slim to
no progress since the 1980s. Italian women can get a divorce, access
contraception, get a legal abortion and choose their own career path. But for
example: not a single woman was included when there was a discussion table
about feeding the world-hungry for the World Expo in Milan, but 42 men were
invited. There have been many instances where it has become obvious that Italy
is still not as emancipated as expected. 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. Today,
Italy has the lowest percentage of working women in Europe. Only 2 percent of
top management positions are held by women — that’s even behind Kuwait — and
only 17 percent of the members of parliament are women — less than in Rwanda
Most obvious of this fact has been the former Primer Minster Silvio
Berlusconi. He was on trial for paying an underage prostitute for sex, was
known to enjoy sex parties with young women while he was in office and
regularly makes sexist comments. Berlusconi is actually making a political
comeback right now, and their isn’t even any serious discussion of his record
While Berlusconi has certainly played a major role, some also point the finger to older
Italian feminists. They are said to have ‘closed themselves off in separatism’
and thus failed to involve new generations. An old stereotypical view of
feminists is, like in Anglo countries, the image of a humourless, man-hating,
not-shaving hag. What is different
however, is that a lot of girls in Italy of becoming television showgirls when
they grow up. They are raised in a world where the images of women in
media are heavily controlled by old men. They are used to extreme objectification of women in national television shows
and politics. This is also somewhat the case in Anglo countries, but in Italy
it is decidedly worse. Unsurprising maybe that Berlusconi is also a media tycoon.
Gula Soncini says that in Italy, “those who call
themselves feminists treat what is supposed to be a fundamental component of
one’s worldview as a sort of battle between high-school cliques: I will fight
for your rights — as long as we’re friends. Our sympathies are determined not
by who has suffered but by who has invited us to her dinner parties”. Soncini writes this off to a competiteveness
with Italian women, stimulated by the public image, and also to the Italian
history with the Mafia. She says “It’s a variation on “the devil you know”: The
patriarchy you know will always be more appealing than a triumphant feminism in
which none of your acquaintances are involved.”
Is there no such thing as Italian
feminism anymore then? There is definitely, if you look at the February 13 protests. Many thought this
to be the awakening of a new brand of Italian feminism. More than a million
protestors, mostly women, came out onto the streets of Italy. They were joined
by fellow women from all over the world. There were teenagers and grandmothers,
rich bourgeoisie women next to cleaning ladies. The protests were a reaction to
the accusations of Berlusconi sleeping with an underage prostitute. The words
of one of the protesters are very clear of what they were thinking: “Women in
this country are denigrated by the repeated, indecent and ostentatious
representation of them as naked sexual objects on offer in newspapers,
televisions and advertising. It’s intolerable.” The protestors wore a white
scarf to show solidarity.
Many saw these
protests as an awakening, a revival of the feminism of the 70s. A growing
number of women are angry and want more women in positions of power, end sexist
portrayal of women in the media, and for male leaders to face up their wrongs.
New feminist groups are being formed. One of them is Sexyshock in Bologna, a
young feminist network. Another movement, though not strictly feminist in
nature, is the 5 Stelle movement (5 Stars). The leader of the group, Beppe
Grillo, pursues the same goals as many Italian women’s movements. They are
Eurosceptic, ecologist, anti-austerity, anti-corruption and loudly pro-women. Another
important advocate is Licia Ronzulli. She is an Italian MEP who brought her
new-born daughter to sessions in the European Parliament as a support for
With a new quota
imposed by the Italian government, which says that 33% of people in a boardroom
should be women, many have high hopes that there will be a cultural change.
Female entrepreneurship has also grown steadily in recent years, despite the
recession aftermath. Women control or own almost a quarter of Italian companies
now, according to Italian Chamers of Commerce figures.
In a society where
motherhood is seen as so important, more and more Italian women are choosing
not to marry or have children. They see this often as the only way to secure
their independence and a career. Italy now has one of the lowest birth rates in
Things are definitely
changing in Italy, and one thing that has played a very important part in this
change has been social media. Through Facebook and Twitter many young girls are
able to communicate and talk to each other about the issues they’re facing.
Through this connection, they’re able to educate themselves and spark a new
fire into the feminism of Italy.
Italian feminism today
Feminism has been back on the rise,
but in 2017 a new scandal has emerged. All over the world there have been women
coming forward with stories of abuse and harassment. They shared their
experiences through social media, and the accused men were everywhere: in show
business, politics, sport world, … A lot of women felt encouraged to share
their story after the Harvey Weinstein-drama unfolded. Harvey Weinstein is an
American movie producer who has recently been fired from his own company after
countless allegations were made of harassment, abuse and even rape.
Among one of the first women who
bravely came forward about Weinstein, was the Italian actress Asia Argenta. She
told the New Yorker magazine how Weinstein had forcibly performed oral sex on
her. But her allegations weren’t met with applause for being brave, but in a
lot of the Italian media, it was met with scepticism and laughter.
For example Vittorio
Feltri, the author of an Italian rightwing newspaper, said in response to her
claim, “That’s a little lick… and a little lick is always pleasurable”. This
was one of the most crude and dismissive of the comments made.
A lot of people were gentler and
more compassionate, but it was notable that a lot of the Italian media, and
even more, Italians on social media, were rude and dismissed Argenta’s tragedy
This was unique in the unfolding of
the events in late 2017, because all over the world, the women who came forward
were applauded. Why was this different in Italy? Italy has suffered for a long
time with men and their macho behaviour, but a lot of people point the finger
to Argenta when thinking about the reason for this reaction.
Argenta was always seen in Italy as
sort of a wild child. She has
appeared in most movies scantily dressed and oftentimes as sex workers. The
reactions would probably be different if, say, a more pious actress had come
Nonetheless, the first negative
backlash was astounding, but a lot changed when Giulia Blasi wrote an
interesting article. Blasi is an Italian feminist author who writes for…… In
her article she says that Argento was belittled, insulted and called a
prostitute when she came forward. She says it reminded her of her own
harassment and how very few believed women in similar situations. That’s why
she started a hashtag on Twitter: “quella volte che”. She urged women and men
to share stories of their harassment, assaults, molesting, … Quella volte che
means “that time when” in Italian, so people are just sharing events saying:
that time when this person did this or that person did that. The Twitter
hashtag went viral. The amount of women who shared a story and told about
horrifying things was astounding. It was a wonderful thing to show. “Asia
Argento is one of us,” says Blasi, and indeed she is. She also had a story to
tell, about ‘that time when’.
and feminism in Italy.
And other new problem with feminism in Italy is
immigrant women. Italy used to be a country of emigration. The country has a
long history as a nation that sent emigrants around the world and even
experienced large movements of people within their own country. The total
volume of Italian emigration from 1876 tot the early 1980s was more than 26
million, with a corresponding flow of returnees of just under 9 million from
1905 to 1981. Aside from this emigration flow, there has also been a big
movement of people migrating within the country itself. Southern Italians who
migrated north are also described as “immigrant”. (Bonifazi et al., 2009)
Lately the country has shifted, and Italy has now
become a country of immigration. Due to the unrest and destabilization the
Syrian war causes, hundreds of thousands of people are fleeing their native
countries. They are in search for a better life in various European countries,
such as Italy.
Now, this might not seem as the most obvious fact, but
immigration is definitely a feminist issue. Most immigrants in Europe are
women. The stereotypic idea of a Muslim
man, coming alone to a new country to try his chances is completely false.
Loads of the refugees are women and children. Feminist theorizers are saying that providing for the
basic needs of individuals, rather than focusing solely on the security of a
state’s borders, is of the utmost importance. When the refugee crisis is looked
at under the feminist perspective, it shows that what would benefit refugees
most would be to have their most basic human needs met, as well as making their
mental and emotional well-being a priority, rather than having states’ decision
makers immediately relegate refugees to the status of ‘threat’ and deny them
these fundamental necessities.
immigrants face hazards that are different from men immigrants. There are a lot
of problems that come with being undocumented and accessing safe productive
care, the reality of domestic abuse and the danger of sexual assault. Another
problem is finding a job. When applying for an employment visa, the traditionally
gendered female forms of labor (mostly domestic labor) are a lot less likely to
qualify people for employment visas. The immigrant women that do find a way,
are likely to be unemployed, and work without pay at home. They care for
children, do household administration, provide home maintenance and repair.
Because of this precarious situation, undocumented women are highly vulnerable
to abuse and exploitation either by their employers or their family sponsor.
There is also
a rhetoric of male, Muslim refugees as a threat to the safety of young western
women. Islamophopbia and cultural fundamentalism make it so that
There is a
dire need for a better immigration process that treats women fairly and humanely.
Italian feminism is a broad and large subject. It has a long history of
women trying to better their (and each others) circumstances. When Laura Creta
fought for more education for women in the 14th century, she might not believe
that 500 years later Italian women are one the most educated in the world.
Yes, there are many issues that could still be better. Feminism in Italy
is not perfect – as it is no country. It’s a growing and ever changing movement
that tries to fight for a more equal world. But Italian women are strong and
have hope for a better, brighter, and above all: more equal future.