The history of women emancipation in Italy has been long and not always simple, but some may wonder why talking about women emancipation is important still today: in the end, Italy is a country where women enjoy equal rights and opportunities as men, just as in the rest of the Western world. 

Gender equality remains, in 2019, a hot topic and a difficult one to tackle. There are still places in the world where, for culture, habits and traditions, women  are considered socially inferior to men, their bodies and minds mere commodities belonging to the dominant males in their lives: fathers, brothers, husbands.

In this article, we’d like to take a brief walk through the history of women emancipation in Italy, a history that mirrors, in so many ways, that of feminist movements in other countries, but in others remains profoundly and uniquely Italian. Read on, and  let us know what you think!

La Liseuse by Auguste Renoir
La Liseuse by Auguste Renoir

Italian Women during the Risorgimento

We are all familiar with what Risorgimento is, the time in Italian history that led to the Unification and includes the first couple of decades of Italy’s life as one country. 

Many important women marked this period, but life wasn’t simple for the “fair sex” then.

In the 1865 Codice di Famiglia, the document regulating family law in the Kingdom of Italy, women had very little rights: they could not be guardians of their children nor could they work for the state.

If they had a job and were married, they were not allowed to manage their earnings, which legally belonged to their husbands. Any time they wished or needed to do something with their money or property, they had to ask for their husband’s legal consent to do so. 

Funnily — or should we say tragically, considering the situation — enough, they needed their husband’s authorization even to separate. And if they were caught cheating on him, they could face up to two years in jail, something that was common in other countries, too. However, a man cheating on his wife wouldn’t be legally punished, unless he actually lived with his lover. 

Even Italy’s most illuminated thinkers didn’t see women as equal to men. Vincenzo Gioberti, patriot and philosopher, would state that “women are to men, somehow, what the plant is to the animal, or the parasitic plant to the one it latches on for sustenance.” 

Pretty awful words, to today’s standards. 

Women had no political rights and, of course, they could not vote. In other words: there was still a lot to do in term of emancipation of women in Italy, at the time of the country’s unification. 

The Early 20th Century 

Things didn’t change much with the beginning of the 20th century, when women’s socio-economic condition remained profoundly unequal to that of men. Working women earned half their male counterparts and, often, their labor wasn’t even considered “work” so they wouldn’t get paid at all. 

Because their lower wages were seen as unfair competition, in 1902 the Government passed a law imposing a minimum wage for women workers. However, the law didn’t improve much their condition, because it also made it illegal to employ women in a vast array of jobs, deemed inappropriate: gone was the possibility to work in factories, as well as in a series of agricultural jobs. 

And education?

Women had been allowed to go to high school and university only in 1874. This didn’t mean there were many enrolling, also because a vast majority of their applications were refused. 

Female Emancipation In Italy
Women working at the Post Office during World War I

Slowly but surely, the emancipation process begins 

1903 saw the birth of the Consiglio Nazionale delle Donne Italianewhich was part of the International Council of Women. This was a first step that led to the creation of other, similar associations all dedicated to rise awareness about women rights and their safeguarding.

There was no political side: both conservative and socialist women worked towards the same aim, as the creation of a Catholic women’s association — UDACI, Unione Donne di Azione Cattolica Italiana — and a socialist one — the Unione Nazionale delle Donne Socialiste — proves. 

A very active figure in the early fights for the emancipation of women in Italy was MD and pioneering pedagogue Maria Montessori, who incited Italian women to get involved into politics, as it had been happening in the US. 

In the meanwhile, in 1907, Ernestina Prola became the first Italian woman to obtain a driving license. In 1908 Emma Strada was the first woman to get an engineering degree and in 1912, Teresa Labriola was the first to pass the Bar in Italy. Always in 1912, Argentina Altobelli and Carlotta Chierici were elected to the Higher Council for Work. 

In 1908, the Queen of Italy, Elena, supported the First Congresso delle Donne Italiane, where she gave a speech endorsing the creation of a financial support and pension system for women, as well as pregnancy healthcare. 

The Role of the First World War

While Italian women had been fighting to achieve emancipation, the tragedy of the Great War hit the world and Italy with all its violence. With a large majority of working age men sent to the front, women took over their jobs in fields and factories. This made it clear that women could hold the same working positions as men, making the discussion about  universal suffrage all the more relevant.

Also thanks to the political action of the Partito Popolare founded by Don Sturzo, the lower chamber of the Italian Parliament approved women’s right to vote in 1919; however, the law wasn’t passed because the Government fell before the Senate could approve it. The same happened in 1922, because of the Marcia su Roma led by Fascist leader Benito Mussolini. 

Italian Women Emancipation and the Fascist Regime

The Fascist party gave partial voting rights to specific categories of women through the Legge Acerbo. However, we were far from universal women suffrage, as only specific categories of women could vote — those who could read and write, those who had completed 5th grade, those who were sole guardians of their children, those who had lost a son during the First World War and those who paid at least 30 liras in taxes — and only for administrative elections. 

Shortly after, however, the Fascist Party got rid of administrative elections, virtually voiding the Legge Acerbo.

If anything, the Fascist era exacerbated  the subordinate social position of women to men: they were considered mainly as mothers and wives, whose only important duty  was to procreate healthy, strong Italian babies for the well being of the country and the regime. 

For those who worked, Fascist laws set back their wages to half of what men would earn: Italian women had, all of a sudden, lost most of what they had achieved in the previous 25 years. 

During the war, women became prominent part of the Italian Resistenza, the anti-Fascist movement that helped the Allies fight against Mussolini and Hitler. According to data, 75.000 Italian women were part of the Resistenza’s Defense Groups and 35.000 were active fighters, or partigiane, a good 20% of the force. 

1945: the year of Formal Equality

On the  1st of February 1945, towards the end of the Second World War, voting rights were finally given to Italian women. In the same year, women voted for the first time in the national administrative elections called by the Government. The first, nationwide occasion when Italian women exercised their right to vote was the 1946 Referendum to choose between Republic and Monarchy (of course, as we all know, the Republic won). 

When, on the first of January 1948, the Italian Republic’s Constitution was enforced, women finally were guaranteed equality — at least formally — with men, although nothing changed for them when it came to family and penal law. 

Women Emancipation in Italy
Women on the road to Emancipation in Italy, Image by Paolo Monti

The ’50s and the ’60s: years of change

The 1950s were pivotal in the march of Italian women towards full emancipation: in 1951, Angela Cigolani became the first Italian woman to be part of the Government and, famously, the Legge Merlin, which outlawed brothels, was enforced in 1958.

In 1959, the Women Italian Police Corp was created. Only two years later, in 1961, Italian women were allowed to become diplomats and judges. 

And so, we enter the  1960s, an age of cultural and social upheaval everywhere in the world. In many a way, Italy remained on the sidelines of the great contestations that characterized places like the US and France. We were too busy fighting for our own thing: more rights for women. 

In Italy, the first modern feminist groups were a result of the 1968’s student movement.

The ’70s: when great reforms were finally obtained

However, it was during the 1970s that women movements finally began reaching essential goals for emancipation: in 1970 divorce became legal, a choice confirmed in 1974 after the failure of the referendum that asked for its  abolition.

Always in the early 1970s, the Movimento di Liberazione della Donna (MLD) was created. One of their first aims was that of allowing women to finally manage their own sexual life by legalizing the pill, abortion and by supporting the creation of kindergartens where children could be left when their mothers worked. 

In 1974, the Movement campaigned to call a referendum to legalize abortion. While this first attempt  wasn’t successful, their continuous work, symbolized by the figure of Italian politician Emma Bonino, brought to the creation of the law, in 1977, that legalized abortion in the country. 

In 1975, a huge family law achievement was also reached: the legal equality of husband and wife.

In 1981, one of the most obsolete and disturbing tenets of Italy’s family law was finally abolished: we are talking about the delitto d’onore, or honor killing. 

A lot has been achieved, but there’s still plenty to do

Italian women, at least  legally, are today equal to their male counterparts. Yet, there’s still a lot to do in practice. While there are many women with outstanding professional careers, their number in managerial positions remains low and, even when they do achieve them, they often hit the infamous glass ceiling: they do not receive the same salary as men.

This is a worldwide trend, unfortunately, mirror of a male-oriented attitude towards the  professionalism and actual ability of women to reach the same competences and abilities as men. 

The attitude towards women in  carriera is also something to consider: in Italy (once again, as in most of the world), an assertive, educated woman who is in charge is viewed either as “as good as a man” when complimented, or “in need of having a man,”  when denigrated. 

Equality may have been reached legally, but there’s still a lot of work to do to change many people’s mind. 

New forms of abuse

A quick look at Italy’s crime reports shows we are a country where violence against women is bitterly escalating. Il Sole 24 Ore reported that, every week, an average of three women are victim of femminicidiothat is, they are killed by a male partner or relative. While it appears that convictions are increasing, the number of violent homicides and, more in general, of violent acts against women are always the same.  

The media, along with specialists in the fields of psychology, sociology and criminology, have been trying  to identify the reasons  behind such a trend: some say that, quite simply, today  we “hear more about it” than ever  before, and that’s why we perceive gender oriented violence as escalating.  But the issue seems to be much deeper and darker than that. 

What if it is a matter of attitude towards women, of men who fail to  recognize the difference between possession and love? Is it because of the way women have been portrayed in the past 30 years — increasingly objectified and sexualized, in spite of the great achievements obtained in society — that some men feel they have a right to stalk, harass and be violent against their partners, mothers, daughters and sisters? 

Some argues it is the very inability of modern men to adjust to sharing their existence with increasingly free and independent partners that lies behind the rise in violence. Others blame society, its vacuity, the desensitizing nature of the world surrounding us.  

Truth  is, this is  a complex issue, one that couldn’t be tackled like this, at the end of a short article. There is plenty to reflect about, however: about the way we, as parents, rise boys, on the way the female body has been commodified and rendered an object and how this could, in a weak mind, lacking the right level of moral education and understanding, bring to believe violence against an  assertive partner is justified.

Where is the answer, we ask, and what’s the solution?

Women emancipation in Italy: we are still working 

Of course, Italian women are emancipated: they are free to vote, they have equal rights to men, they can pursue a career, be mothers or have both; they choose any profession and they have the right to manage their bodies, their pregnancies and show their opinions.

Yet, so much work still needs to be done, but not only when it comes to women emancipation in Italy, but everywhere around the world. 

And not only in countries where women lack the most basic of rights (although these, certainly, are the first where changes should be made quickly), but also in all other Western, cultured, friendly, emancipated countries, where women are still judged on the way they look and they are asked, maybe almost as a joke, sexual favors in change of a pay rise or a promotion; places where they are not taken seriously if they are beautiful and they are berated if they are not; where they are called “bitter” if they choose to be single and “easy” if they have an open personal life. 

And so, in spite of  all the immense achievements of the past 100 years, it seems there  is still a lot to do, when it comes to emancipation. A lot to fight for.    

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