Sexism and politics in Italy: Will anything change?

in Commentary , Tagged Sexism, Politics, Populism, Gender equality policies, Five Star Movement, League, Italy, Matteo Salvini, Laura Boldrini.
  • Feo Francesca

    Francesca Feo

    Francesca Feo is a PhD Student in Political Science and Sociology at Scuola Normale Superiore in Firenze. Her research focuses on the effects of political party regulations on parties’ organisational change in Western and Southern Europe.


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Earlier this year, not one, but two populist parties won the elections in Italy. Both winning parties - the anti-establishment Five Star Movement founded by comedian Bebbe Grillo and web-strategist Gianroberto Casaleggio, and Matteo Salvini's far-right party League - gained support with their eurosceptic slogans, contempt for political elites, and consequently, promises of 'direct democracy'. 

In 2016, Salvini made headlines around the world when he compared Laura Boldrini, the former president of the Italian Chamber of Deputies, to a blow-up sex doll. The new government has promised to revolutionise politics and 'to improve the quality of life of all Italians'. But what exactly does this mean for women? 

Today on BroadAgenda, Francesca Feo takes a look at the gender politics of the 'government of change', and argues that in terms of the gender discrimination still rife in Italy, very little can be expected to change.

Italy has a brand new populist government; a self-proclaimed ‘government of change’. While the new government has built its public image in the spirit of great discontinuity with the past, it does not stand out for its willingness to actively address the many forms of gender discriminations that still exist in the Italian society, cross-cutting both the public and the private sphere.

The anti-establishment ‘Five Star Movement’, and the xenophobic party the 'League' – the undisputed winners of the last parliamentary elections held in March – took nearly three months to find an agreement on the conditions for being coalition partners. This 88-day-long political impasse hypnotised, tired, frustrated - and ultimately either delighted or horrified Italians.

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Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte

Finally, on the first of June, and just after a false start, the new Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte – a little-known law professor, whom Italian commentators consider to be a pawn in the hands of the two parties’ leaders – was sworn in by Sergio Mattarella, President of the Republic. In his first public speech, Conte proclaimed: “We will work hard to reach the objectives included in the government contract and to improve the quality of life of all Italians”.

The new parliament has the highest percentage of women deputies in the history of the Republic, and for the first time overcomes 35 per cent. In contrast, out of the 18 ministers in the new government, only five are women. Out of the five, only Ms. Elisabetta Trenta and Ms. Giulia Grillo have been appointed to a minister with portfolio – Defence and Health respectively.

The 40-page-long contract almost completely ignores gender policies, making no references to addressing gender discrimination

The numbers provide a rough idea of the government’s commitment to achieve gender parity – or more accurately lack thereof. However, the perspective becomes even gloomier when we direct our gaze to the government agenda. The 40-page-long contract resulted from the alchemical merging of rather different political manifestoes, and almost completely ignores gender policies, making no references to addressing gender discrimination.

Women’s employment rate in Italy is below 50 per cent – with the lowest peak recorded in Southern Italy, where it drops below 30 per cent. The labour market itself resembles a hurdle course for women: Wage gap is still the norm, and part-time jobs are more widespread amongst women, being often the only option for those wanting to reconcile paid work with family responsibilities.

Naturally, these discriminatory attitudes in the public sphere do not occur in a vacuum. Sexism begins when the society believes that women are inferior or inadequate in some way, and therefore must be treated differently. Generally speaking, gender roles are still part of the primary socialisation in Italy.

The proposal strengthens family welfare by providing for free access to nursery school based on household income - but only for ‘Italian families’

In the ‘contract of change’, references to women are largely limited to the ‘family and birth policies’ section. The proposal strengthens family welfare by providing for free access to nursery school based on household income - but only for ‘Italian families’, a clear homage to the xenophobic, exclusionary character of the League.

And while increasing the amount of maternity benefit may be viewed as a positive measure, it however continues to exclude women who hold atypical work contracts, and even more strikingly, all male parents and homosexual couples. Once more, it seems that Italy is one of the laggards within the European Union with respect to the provision of paternity leave and shared parenthood.

The first ‘institutional’ steps of the new families minister Lorenzo Fontana – loyal and committed member of the League in the last 20 years, and well-known for his connections to the far-right and Catholic fundamentalist movements in Verona, aptly demonstrates the new government’s stance on women’s and minorities’ rights.

Right after his appointment to the ministry, Fontana declared that he would strengthen counselling services in order to dissuade women from having abortion

Right after his appointment to the ministry he declared that he would strengthen counselling services in order to dissuade women from having abortion. Referencing his traditional Catholic values, he noted that the government would only support ‘natural’ families where ‘children must have a mother and a father’. Furthermore, at the annual meeting of the (Northern) League, he declared that “any attempts to outroot our community and our tradition will not be allowed”, bringing the discussions on women's and LGBTQ rights back to the 50s.

The standard of the public debate has not given much cause for celebration either. The outspoken party leader and now minister of the Interior, Matteo Salvini, has become known for his fierce, sexist speeches. Recently, he made headlines across Europe for comparing Laura Boldrini, the former speaker of the lower house of the parliament, to an inflatable sex doll. On the 5 Star Movement side, the founding father Beppe Grillo has also often referred to Ms. Boldrini with sexist, misogynist comments. The movement on the other hand has never taken a clear position, scared by the possibility of losing the support of some of its electorate.

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Despite receiving numerous rape and death threats, Laura Boldrini continues to advocate for equal rights

As such, it seems that very little attention will be devoted to fight the significant discrimination that women in Italy suffer within the labour market as well as outside of it. In addition, it seems clear that, once more, the dominant conception of women’s position and role within the society is linked to the traditional family context, where each and every act of care work is taken for granted.

The fact that sexist comments in political discourse in Italy are treated as ‘normal’ is the result of a deeply misogynist culture

Perhaps we should not be surprised. The League – a populist radical right party – has never hidden its conservative positions on issues such as same-sex unions, child adoptions by same sex couples, and abortion, which over the last couple of years have acquired a central position within the party agenda. Also, the fact that sexist comments in political discourse in Italy are treated as ‘normal’, or worse, not even acknowledged as such, is the result of a deeply misogynist culture, which has now received even greater official sanction after entering the public political debate. To a certain extent, some might attribute the 20 years under the stars of Berlusconi to have a degree of responsibility for the situation today.

What this amounts to, is that we should not expect too much change by the so-called ‘government of change’. And now more than ever, we need to keep the pressure on to achieve a less patriarchal, less discriminatory, and more equal society.

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  • Sonia Palmieri 03/08/2018 5:38pm (24 months ago)

    Well written and researched, Francesca. The fight for gender equality in Italy requires continued solidarity!

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