#ItalyToo?: The Complex Identity Politics of Contemporary Italy, Explained by an Outsider

In 4. Politics, Florence, The Art of Travel Spring 2018 by Tia1 Comment

TW: Harassment, cat-calling, victim shaming

“First they put out, then they whine and pretend to regret it.”  This is an October 2017 headline from Italian newspaper Libero in response to the initial wave of allegations against producer Harvey Weinstein, allegations that rocked the Western media and led to the downfall of dozens of men in entertainment, journalism, and politics.  But not in Italy.

For a country that had a very vibrant and active feminist movement in the 1960s, Italy has a very complicated relationship with gender – especially when it comes to sexual harassment.  Even before I came to Florence, I was aware of the prevalence of street harassment in Italian culture, and unfortunately, my preconceived notions that I had hoped were based on stereotypes, have thus far been accurate.  My female friends and I are hard-pressed to walk down our street without hearing “bella” or “mmm… beautiful” from men standing in doorways or working in shops – regardless of the time of day or what we wear (not that that should matter).  It is one of those awkward positions where, as a human woman with feelings, I abhore being “cat called” and treated so lowly, but likewise, feel uncomfortable with blasting another culture, especially where I am really just a tourist.

Finding a happy medium in this area to me, means educating myself about Italy’s history of gender politics.  Unsurprisingly, it is rich and extensive.  The Italian Renaissance gave birth to the country’s first feminist thinkers, like writer and artist Christine di Pizan, who argued in favour of granting women the opportunity for education.  By the late Renaissance, most wealthy women had become literate, despite the idea initially meeting a lot of backlash.  In the 19th century, even peasant women were becoming school teachers, laying the foundation for the first real feminist wave in the 1860s, spurred on by the publication of socialist writer Anna Maria Mozzoni and the fight for women’s suffrage.  Mozzoni led the fight against civil inequalities and state regulated prostitution, and for the right to vote, which was achieved in some elections in 1925, and finally fully in 1945.  The Italian feminist movement continued to grow after the Second World War with the founding of the International Women’s Collective in 1972; much of their campaigning focused on exploitative labour systems and achieving economic and political equality in Italy.

But despite the foundation of groups like these, it actually was not even until 1975 that married women were legally considered equal to their husbands.  Likewise, gender-based homocides and domestic killings have been significant (and high profile) issues for the past 30 years, with an average of one woman being murdered every three days.  Rape was not considered a criminal felony until 1996.  Finally, it is nearly impossible to discuss Italian gender politics without raising the question of Silvio Berlusconi – the former Italian Prime Minister, whose mountainous list of sex scandals includes soliciting sex from child prostitutes and escorts as well as publicly making jokes about rape. Although he was forced to resign in 2011, Berlusconi is once again running for Prime Minister in a general election culminating in 15 days – and polls suggest he is likely to secure as much as 35% of the vote.

Berlusconi is only a few points behind another worrying political force – the far-right nationalist 5Star party is projected to win a majority government on March 4.T

Whether it is the issue of gender equality and diversity or immigration, it is a remarkable reminder of the global spread of far-right politics and the manner in which backlash to progressive rhetoric has been festering for a long time.  Was Trump’s election the final nail in the coffin?  It is no secret that he has, perhaps indirectly, cultivated a significant international fan base, and that his populist political style has been closely emulated by other political factions, particularly in Eastern Europe.  Countries like France have had their own battles against the rise of the alt-right, as in their recent election, but were successfully able to keep racist candidates like Marie Le Pen at bay.  Likewise, Italian newspapers and media pundits often mock Trump, despite there being very obvious similarities between the President and their two frontrunners for office.

In 15 days, can Italians turn the tide against bigotry, or will patriarchy simply continue to be perceived as just another part of the culture?

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(Image: "We are not machines for reproduction, but women in struggle for revolution," say Italian feminists of the 1970s. Image shared by Viewpoint Magazine.; Source: Viewpoint Magazine)


  1. Tia, I’ve also experienced catcalling on the streets in Florence. The interesting thing I have noticed is they don’t seem to be nearly as offensive as the catcalls I’ve heard in NYC. Instead, they are compliments not gestures or explicit statements. The other day when I was walking with my friends a man pointed to my friend and said “See that girl?! Shes just my type.” My friends and I couldn’t stop laughing mainly because they were trying to imitate Americans and that must have been what they had been taught Americans say. I guess that isn’t necessarily a “catcall” but it has been shouted at us nonetheless. I also can relate to your not wanting to stereotype a culture because I had been told that Italian men are not nice to women (beat their wives, have no respect for them,) yet adore their mothers. Surely this is a stereotype and not every Italian man acts this way. Yet the other day, I saw a man berating a woman (assumed to be his girlfriend) on the street and making her cry. I thought someone would step in, but everyone walked past as if it were the norm!!

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