Women in Italy

In northern Europe the proportion of women who work is around two-thirds. In Italy it is less than half and in the south of the country it is not much more than one third. There's a long way to go, but you should see how it used to be. Some incredible stories

Milan Fashion Week not quite the same as feminism
Tim Hedges
On 9 March 2015 08:45

I confess that before I came to Italy, in the last gasp of the 20th century, I had never heard of International Women’s Day. Mothers Day (15th March) yes; Lady Day (25th March) yes; but this other thing, not at all.

I discovered to my surprise that it is not an American creation like Mother’s Day but stems more from the Eastern European Socialist tradition, which might explain why it never really crossed the channel. In Italy it is an institution.

It has been hijacked, of course, by the United Nations, which awards a theme to it each year. This year it is ‘Empowering Women, empowering humanity: Picture It!’ which seems certain to make a lot of people feel a lot warmer.

There is a social media hashtag ‘#Make it happen’, which, too, is empowering.

In Italy, the beautiful bright yellow mimosa plant is in blossom at this time of year and it makes a delightful symbol of the Festa della Donna. Most restaurants and shops have a sprig in the window. The day is marked joyously, there is festivity, there is eating and drinking. However, that is about where it stops.

The politicians make speeches confirming their devotion to the concept and bemoaning Italy’s lack of progress. In northern Europe the proportion of women who work is around two-thirds. In Italy it is less than half and in the south of the country it is not much more than one third.

The causes of this stem from traditions which are difficult to change, and particularly difficult during a recession. In rural areas the school bus drops the children off home for lunch and collects them an hour later to take them back to school.

And this is a country where a ham sandwich and a chocolate bar in the lunchbox is not regarded as a meal. A woman can work if there are hands-on grandparents.

And the lack of a culture of women’s working means that jobs are often not offered them, outside what is regarded as ‘women’s work’. In Italy the proportion of women entrepreneurs and self-employed is one of the lowest in Europe at about 15 percent.

On the social front, in the last couple of years the Italian press has published a large number of distressing cases of violence against women. I don’t think this means that it is on the increase, rather that it is being reported more, which is a positive step.

But again in this area Italy is the victim  of its traditions. It was as late as 1965 that Franca Viola caused outrage by refusing to marry the man who had kidnapped and raped her.

Such marriage was the norm, and was thought to expunge the crime: the rapist would be absolved on marrying his victim. This is something only removed from the statute book in 1981.

There is the celebrated case in 1999 when the Court of Cassation, the highest court, declared that it could not be rape if a woman was wearing tight jeans, because they could not be removed without her consent. This judgment was only overturned in 2008, after a spirited protest of jean-wearing female parliamentarians. .

And as recently as 2006 a man who raped his 14 year old stepdaughter was given leave to appeal the sentence because she was already sexually active.

Italy has been run by a male centred papacy, a male centred fascist regime, male centred Christian Democrats and Silvio Berlusconi, a name to be conjured with in feminist circles. It still has even its broadsheet newspapers discussing showgirls’ bottoms, and its television game shows with scantily dressed starlets. Perhaps it always will.

But things are changing in practical terms. Violence against women is being brought out into the open, a prerequisite to doing something about it, and indications are that it is reducing.

On the jobs front, Matteo Renzi has taken the lead and made fifty percent of his cabinet women. He has appointed women to top posts in industry where the government has patronage and there are plans to push more women into the academic world.

By next February 8th, though, Mr. Renzi needs to have taken another few tentative steps in this direction. He will find that women don’t just constitute half the potential workforce, they are also half the electorate.

Tim Hedges, The Commentator's Italy Correspondent, had a career in corporate finance before moving to Rome where he works as a freelance writer, novelist, and farmer. You can read more of his articles about Italy here

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