Women

   The history of women in contemporary Italy can be defined as the glacial acquisition of basic political and economic rights. Even more than most Western nations, Italy has been highly resistant to giving women formal legal and political equality. Until 1874, women were all but excluded from advanced education, and it was not until after 1900 that women began to frequent liceiand university faculties in any numbers. There were only 250 female university students in the whole country in 1900, and no woman obtained a degree in engineering until 1908 (Emma Strada). Professional albe(guilds) were no more willing to admit women. The first female lawyer called to the bar was Teresa Labriola, in 1912.
   The cause of votes for women was promoted by a national suffragettes’committee but met a good deal of unexpected opposition from the Partito Socialista Italiano/Italian Socialist party (PSI), whose leaders feared that women would vote for conservatives. In 1912, however, Filippo Turati, perhaps pushed by his formidable companion Anna Kuliscioff, was one of several prominent socialists who argued for the inclusion of women’s suffrage in the electoral law of that year (the conservative Sidney Sonnino also supported the proposal). Giovanni Giolitti described the idea as a “leap in the dark.” Women continued to rank alongside certified idiots, bankrupts, and imprisoned criminals in not possessing the suffrage.
   Women would in fact vote for the first time in free national elections only in June 1946. A law extending the vote to women was passed in September 1919, but Parliament was dissolved before the law was approved by the Senate. When Fascism took power in October 1922, women were given the vote in local and provincial elections, subject to certain restrictions, but such elections were abolished after 1926 in any case. The vital and courageous role played by many women in the resistance was a crucial factor in winning them the vote.
   Fascism was in general a nightmare for women, who were portrayed in the regime’s ideology and propaganda as breeding machines. One of the best-known Fascist slogans was “maternity means to a woman what war means to a man,” and failure to have large families was regarded as treachery toward the Italian “race.” Birth control was rigorously forbidden. Women were forbidden to take many jobs (they could not be teachers of literatureor philosophy at a liceo, for instance), and their wages were fixed at lower rates than men doing the same job. The aim of these policies was to drive women out of the labor market and back to the home.
   The modern women’s rights movement was born in the 1960s and early 1970s. In part, it was a reaction against anachronistic restrictions on divorce, contraception, and, to a lesser extent, abortion, but it was also a rejection of the sexism of the revolutionary and radical groups of the left. Lotta Continua for instance, was a notoriously sexist organization. Led by the Partito Radicale/Radical Party (PR) and the Movimento di Liberazione della Donna/Women’s Liberation Movement (MLD), women campaigned for the free distribution of contraceptives, the legalization of abortion, and the creation of nursery schools and other social services that were in short supply. Emma Bonino is just one leading contemporary politician whose career began in the 1970s feminist movement. Women in Italy today are more equal with men than ever before. It remains true, however, that the level of female participation in the workforce is the lowest in Europe, and there are remarkably few women deputies or senators even today. In 2005, an attempt by the Forza Italia minister for equal opportunities, Stefania Prestagiacomo, to introduce quote rose (“pink quotas”) to ensure that a guaranteed proportion of parliamentary candidates were women, was defeated—by some ridiculed—in Parliament.

Historical Dictionary of Modern Italy. . 2007.

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