By Tom Gill
On February 13 Italian women took the political establishment by surprise when they staged mass nationwide protests for dignity and respect. A million donne and their male supporters succeeded, for a day, in highlighting how far their country – once with a thriving feminist movement and now with a prime minister facing charges of sex with an underage prostitute – had descended.
Since then, they have been organising. They have established some 120 women’s committees along the length and breadth of the country. Women from all walks of life – students, workers, unemployed, pensioners, nuns, judges, artists and writers – are getting active, for example, developing the momentum and turning out for the June referendums on nuclear energy, water privatisations and immunity of politicians. Finally, they played a high profile role in local elections, such as Milan and Naples, which were a major defeat for Silvio Berlusconi, the man whose personal behaviour, sexist language and multi-billion pound businesses most potently symbolises the challenges Italian women face.
This weekend a 1000-plus women, from the far north and south, will be meeting in the Tuscan town of Siena to discuss progress and how to take forward their movement. The key themes will be corpo, maternita, lavoro and rappresentazione della donna (body, maternity, employment and women’s representation).
For sure, the task the movement faces is huge. Italy is 74th in the World Economic Forum’s 2010 Global Gender Gap Index, behind Botswana and Kyrgy Republic. It scores 97th on the index’s economic participation and opportunity category, which measures outcomes on salaries, participation levels and access to high-skilled employment, 49th on educational attainment, 9th on health and life expectancy and 54th on political empowerment.
Political empowerment is indeed a hot issue – women make up a handful of ministers, out of 21, and 193 parliamentarians out of 952 in the lower and upper houses.
And despite Emma Marcegalia, the outspoken daughter of an industrialist heading up the employers association, in business women have barely moved on since the early 1900s. In 1913, eight out of the top 200 companies were run by women. Now the figure is just 11.
Low birth rates may have once been an indicator of liberation from the Catholic Church. But the fact that this is still the case today – Italy has the lowest in western European after Spain – just indicates how high the barriers in the workplace are for women who want families too. Some figures show only 8% manage to pursue a career after having children.
Among the hottest debates will be the impact of the recession and spending cuts. 800,000 women have lost their jobs in the past 18-24 months, and as illustrated by a scandalous move by one Italian company to dismiss only female employees, women are bearing the brunt of it. The axing of key welfare protections, health services and a rise in pension age, announced this week, are adding to the misery. “Young people and women have felt the economic crisis the most,” remarked Enrico Giovanni, President of Istat, Italy’s official statistics agency, when releasing figures in May showing not only a widening divide between rich and poor, but also between the genders.
The onslaught in the world of culture, continues unabated meanwhile. For Berlusconi does not only monopolise TV, with its fare of chat shows and bimbos. He is also very influential, through his Medusa distribution company, in the large screen. Italian cinema used to project strong, complex and very real women characters, like Roman actress Anna Magnani who once told her make-up artist not to conceal the lines and wrinkles on her face: She said: “Leave them all there…I spent a lifetime earning them.” This has been replaced with cardboard long-legged stereotypes in the mind-numbing Vacanze di Natale (Christmas Holiday) series.
It is perhaps no coincidence that the prime minister’s rise started in the early 1980s – part of a wave of vulgar commercialism centred in the northern financial capital of Milan – which was also when the feminist movement of the previous two decades was running out of steam.
Could that historical cycle be turning again?
One indicator is that the CGIL is now led by Susanna Camusso, a first in the (100) year history of the modern labour movement. And her election as general secretary of the country’s largest trade union central is part of broader rise of women in the organisation. Camusso, and and colleagues Vera Lamonica and Serena Sorrentino in the national leadership will be a key participants in at events today and tomorrow.
The swing back to the left in local elections in May is also an indicator as well as a bringer of advances for gender equality. One of the first announcements of Milan’s new mayor, Giuliano Pisapia (ironically replacing a women, Berlusconi ally Letizia Moratti whose policies were anything but favourable to her sex) was that there would be a 50:50 gender split in his administration and his deputy was to be Maria Grazia Guida, a 56 year old former social and charity worker.
Pisapia genuinely believes in equality. But chances are he wouldn’t be mayor without the many women, including a great deal of young people, rallying in support of his campaign. Now he’s returning the favour. Just one more example of how in Italy, women are getting organised.