Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The skin they're in: the uneasy paradox of Italian women - Part 1

The scene: an elementary schoolyard.

Little girls run about, playing tag, leaping like free-spirited gazelles on the African savanna; they fall down and scrape knees, kick balls and climb the perimeter fence along with the boys, their hair tangled and streaming behind them like the militant flags of some young republic. They loudly and forthrightly speak their minds, bellow their desires, call raucously to their companions, and flee their mothers or nonni with great rebellious whoops. "Non mi piace!" [I don't like it!]" Quello mi fa schifo!" [That's disgusting!] "Non voglio andare!" [I don't want to go!] There is nothing here, in this crystallized moment of exuberant youth, to cause them to doubt themselves or be conscious of the gazes of others: they are pint-size packages of pure self-awareness, pure potential, pure elemental force.

If you could catch them and ask them what they want to be when they grow up, you would get these answers: zoologist, teacher, bus driver, doctor, rock star or toy store owner or dog walker (those last three being my own daughter's peripatetic career goals).

Standing all around nearby, like fixed stars in a firmament of tiny hurtling meteors, the picture of Italian womanhood changes. There are the indomitable grandmothers in sturdy shoes and silk scarves, watching their charges with hawk eyes, cringing and shouting uselessly when tiny togs get dirty. There are groups of mothers--the ones whose schedules or housewifely status allow them to be present at this hour--chatting, smoking avidly, looking decidedly less carefree than the young females around them. Many are over-tanned, with deeply-lined skin and dark circles under their eyes, yet are very carefully and self-consciously tucked into tight, stylish clothing and heels, designer sunglasses perched just so on top of smooth dark hair. Trying to make themselves heard over the general din, they squawk with the shrill-edged voices of tropical birds too long in the sun, with colorful kid backpacks dangling off their shoulders like exotic plumage--and they seem manic, stretched too tight: like the skins of drums made for the manipulative hands of others, used to beat out rhythms not of their own making. On the surface of things, they seem happy enough.  But are they? If you asked them, what would they say? Would they speak their minds as confidently as the small, schoolyard sirens all around them? 

Anna Magnani: one tired mamma

Much of Italian life is marked by paradox: Italians adore bambini but little is provided for them by State or City in terms of services or enrichment activities beyond school; the Church is everywhere and nowhere at the same time; in general Italians have very little civic sense or regard for those not of their immediate conoscenza, yet have an extraordinary capacity for empathy. Italian women and their roles are marked by the same paradoxical nature, ambiguities, contrasts, and gray areas so common to this peninsula--and are similarly bound by history and tradition, along with an oppressively patriarchal society.

Here are some of the stats:

--In 2012 Italy fell from 74th to 80th place out of 135 countries in terms of gender equality (for comparison's sake, the USA is at 22 and Ireland, another traditional Roman Catholic country, ranks 5th). Countries like China, Sri Lanka, Ghana and Botswana rank higher *

--Only 48.5 percent of Italian women are employed, a gender gap that is the second-lowest in Europe, Malta being the lowest.

--the average Italian woman has 1.4 children (in the U.S. it's 2.1, in Ireland 1.9)

--In Europe, Italian women have the greatest household workload (Swedish women the least)

Though there are encouraging signs of change, traditional gender roles persist in that many Italian men (whom I've written about here) still see domestic chores, childcare and caring for elderly parents as women's work and show little interest in becoming involved. Beyond paid maternity leave, there's not much help from the State for working mothers, such as access to affordable daycare or more flexible labor laws that better allow for part-time employment, especially when compared to other European countries. The fact that the State provides so little in terms of services for the infirm elderly also means that this burden falls squarely on the shoulders of Italian women. The battalions of nonne that are depended upon to care for grandchildren are charming on the one hand, but speak of a general lack of State support and viable options for women on the other. These are all factors contributing to the low female employment rate (as well as the low birth rate) in this country; Italian women are like butter--they can only be spread over so much bread before becoming too thin and exhausted. Indeed, in the excellent documentary film about Italy, "Girlfriend in a Coma," a female minister describes Italian women as "the only effective and existing welfare system." Is it any wonder that those in power do nothing when there's so much cheap slave labor out there?

The issues facing Italian women make for a very complex topic, embedded as they are in tradition, societal expectations and even religion (the Virgin Mary being the predominant role model), while at the same time being influenced by BerlusconiVision: the media proliferation of scantily-clad showgirls and empty-headed gold-diggers (talk about your Madonna/whore syndrome). To me, the pressures on Italian women seem enormous: for the entire trajectory of their lives they must strive to be good, obedient daughters, mothers, lovers, wives and even grandmothers. And they must always look good, too: properly turned out in the latest fashions, groomed, coiffed, manicured, svelte, and ideally stuffed into skinny jeans and mini-skirts, regardless of age or inclination. How often have I walked behind a woman with long, wavy, luscious blonde hair, in tight leopard-print trousers and stiletto boots, only to have her turn her head and reveal the face of a hag pushing seventy sucking on a cigarillo. There is such pressure to conform, to submit to the traditional female roles and the tyranny of the ever-present male gaze.

Lorella Zanardo (of "Il Corpo delle Donne" fame) talks about this tyranny in the equally excellent documentary, "Italy: Love it or Leave it". She says, "women have a fear of losing that approving masculine gaze, a fear that is so strong in Italy. We need to work on feeling sure on our own legs." I would add that this critical male gaze, and the imposition of patriarchal codes of behavior, comes not only from husbands and lovers (real or potential), but also from fathers, brothers, bosses/male co-workers, clergy. The media is saturated with it. And the weight of this collective, subtle and at times blatant pressure and expectation to conform, as well as the obsessive female hunger for male approval, seems like a chunk of blunt travertine around the neck of the Italian woman.

Good mammas

Hot mammas

Tobias Jones described Italy as "the land that feminism forgot".** While I would agree, I do think there's a lot more to it than that, and while I acknowledge the complexity of the issues facing Italian women today, I can only share my opinions and observations based on my experiences living here among them all these years.

I must say that I am rather in awe of Italian women, and also perplexed by them. They've always managed to elude my complete understanding, which I've come to believe is due to their paradoxical nature (more on this to follow). I'm in awe of them because they are surely among the strongest, hardest-working and most chic women on the planet. They seem selfless, and yet I know things are not entirely as they appear: there is that element, to be sure, but I also get the sense that they are moving within tight, rigid grooves; that they are engines set in motion by forces beyond their control, carefully-calibrated mechanisms that will eventually spend themselves, never having set their own course. I am perplexed by how they so willingly mount the burning pyre, becoming satis to tradition and expectation, over and over again.

Will they never shout BASTA! with the same fiery passion and conviction of their wild-haired, 7 year-old counterparts?

Part 2 to follow in another post...

* Source: World Economic Forum Gender Equality Index
** Also check this out this link for another good take on the subject


  1. Great insight! I share in your awe and general perplexity about Italian women. I wonder how many younger, more open-minded women (and mothers) see their roles evolving as they travel or move away from "la terra madre"...

    1. Thank you, Sarah. I'd wager that the ones who are open to moving away are probably already cut from a different cloth. I hope that women like Lorella Zanardo are able to have a real impact on the status quo here.

      Thanks again for reading :-)

  2. Anonymous11:43 PM

    Ha, when I first arrived in Florence I was very unsettled by seeing so many long-haired, skin tight clad 60-70 year old women. On the other hand, a lot of 20 and 30-something women I know abohr the old school mentality, schlep around in a tuta and no makeup and don't keep a perfectly clean apartment. Although, once, when I commented on how archaic and demeaning the Velinas and more, 'Velina competition' was on tv, one woman snapped back "You much murder and violence on tv and video games, so which is worse?" I wasn't going tit for tat, but no American woman I know had to remove their weddin ring or lie that they were fidanzata (nor asked) in a job interview. Just sayin'.

    1. Glad to hear that many younger women are breaking out of the mold. Most of the women of my acquaintance are in the 35-50 year range (and of course there are all the elderly biddies in my 'hood) and have been groomed to take up the traditional roles, more or less, though there are a few interesting exceptions.

      You bring up an interesting point about the workplace (never heard the remove-the-wedding-ring story). It is well known (and happened to a woman I know) that sometimes young women are asked to pre-sign a letter of resignation that will take effect once she becomes pregnant. Illegal, of course.

      Thanks for sharing.

  3. Anonymous10:57 AM

    Yes, hopefully with younger generations things will change regarding these gender roles and 'obligations.' I know it's terrible of me, but I really love when I see an Italian female friend's apartment in a bit of a disarray, or that they don't know how to cook, etc.
    And yes, a student/friend of mine said she removed her 'fede' before her interview at a well known (International, but we're in Italy) Pharm. company. It's really unfortunate.

  4. Hi Liz
    Responding to your call on facebook for comments. I think the reason I haven't commented and perhaps others haven't is that you have simply observed the way it is - as I have observed the same things over the years - and stated facts that we have all read in the newspapers. For me, there's rather little to say. Sadly, I can hardly get angry about this any more. It is what it is.

    Although I would say that the women all put together and made up even at age 70 is not such a bad thing - they take it to extremes, but to a certain extent paying attention to one's looks and body is positive, isn't it? I don't think it is all to retain the male gaze. Maybe for some. But I know a lot of this kind of women at the gym whom I would disdain if i saw them out there on the street with their heels and tans, but getting to know them one finds they're health-conscious moms who juggle work and personal things and bitch about the same things we find absurd in this country.

    And all my italian female friends face the work/mom dilemma (me no, I chose not to), and complain about the lack of social support for them and find a way to dump the kids on the grandparents, but when I go back to Canada I don't see better childcare options - at least not free ones - there either. Equality, job opps yes, but the kid situation... still hard to resolve.

    Boh!? I don't mean to be 'polemica' but since you asked for comments... :) Alexandra

    1. Alexandra, thanks for commenting and sharing your take on things--this is exactly the kind of thing I was hoping for. I have observed certain things in my experience here, but I know that that's not the whole picture--I wondered what others thought about it all.

      Just a reminder that this is only Part 1; in Part 2 I intend to go beyond the stats and the info that's out there and delve more into personal anecdote/experience and the idea of paradox.

      Speaking of paradox, you bring up a good point. On the one hand, taking care about one's appearance IS a very positive thing, empowering and all that, a sign of confidence, etc. But it can also be a kind of slavery, a shield that hides the true self.

      And you state the obvious: certain women's issues are universal. Childcare and reconciling work and family are problems many, many women the world over certainly face. But I wanted to talk about Italy, because I live here and it interests me. And with the recent elections, many of these issues here came to the fore again.

      In the upcoming post, I want to talk about the ways Italian women are (to me) wonderful. I continue to be impressed by them and at the same time see how tradition still shapes much of their lives--at least the women of my acquaintance. And, paradoxically, this is both a good thing and a bad thing. Depending.

      Thanks for taking the time to comment! :-)

  5. Ciao Elizabeth, Alexandra sent me the link to your interesting post and I feel that, as an Italian and a mother, I should leave a comment. Forgive me if it is too long.

    There would be so many things one should say, but it all comes down to something you seem to overlook quite remarkably: the culture-specificity of gender roles and of attitudes towards it. Of course, like we all do, you (and Alexandra and other ladies I have had a chance to talk with) filter everything through your own sensitivity, and through your own culture. But this is somewhat "impairing" in this case. At least partially.

    First of all, and believe me, Alex can confirm this, I am the worst Italian woman in many ways (sloppy in the house, out all day working, and really paying very little attention to my appearance, my bad), so, much of what you say is something that I also look at from "outside the circle of good Italian Wonderwomen". However, the first thing that came to my mind is that I am sure it is true that Italian women want to look good for men (or other women), but that is true all over the world. Then there is the cultural thing that it is not acceptable for you to pass breakfast time lingering in your pijamas or being "unpresentable". Looking nice and proper is for your own good eve if you are alone in the house. That is what our mothers teach us (mine apparently failed miserably and she still complains about it, because on occasions, close to deadlines, I won the world record medal of pijama wearing time). But still, being "a posto" is part of the daily routine just like brushing your teeth. If that involves wearing high heels and leather skin jeans (dear God, I agree - but that is fashion...), so be it.

    The fact that 70 year old women still wear teenagers' clothes, well, that is just purely sad. It is either poor personal taste, lack of mirrors or simply denial that time is passing. Do not be mistaken: we "other Italian women" see that as a ridiculous thing too (we even have a saying here in Tuscany - dietro liceo, davanti museo... I hope you can appreciate it because it is pretty funny!). But that is something women do everywhere. The whole Desperate Housewives show makes fun of that attitude, evidence that it is something you can find in other cultures too.

    Whether it is a slavery or not, I think it is just like any habit you can have and cannot do without (be it make up, not eating carbs, or leaving the house without your cellphone).

    The other cultural-specific aspects is that here we believe that clothes should be chosen depending on whether they make you look good, even if they are not your first choice or the most comfortable. Being fat and wearing shorts when it is 40°C out there is still a no no and we look at foreigners who do that in horror. That I do to. And God knows they should drug me up real good before they can put a pair of shorts on me and send me out there. I would rather sweat my soul out!

  6. (sorry I had to split comment) Second thing (yeah, that was just one very articulate point), sharing house chores. True, most Italian men won't lift a finger. But don't be fooled: many Italian women would hate if they did (not me: and to be sure I married a Canadian guy). The world will stop before some of my friends let their hasbands mess up with their appliances or with the order they have arranged their stuff in the kitchen in. There are some spaces and some activities that won't be shared because we all know men can never be as good as us at certain stuff. Equally though, we would never pick up a brush to freshen up the terrace railings, or an axe to cut the wood, or any other tool that might break our nails (again - not mine, I bite them). So we are happily dividing chores. My mum doesn't want to know anything about the house chores that involve tools, and my dad does not want to know where the detergent cabinet is located in the house or how you operate those magic objects that clean stuff for you. If it doesn't drill, cut or make a lot of noise, it is not man stuff. And after all, a man has to be a man, and manhood involves being busy with stuff you cannot or don't want to do (e.g. hanging frames, whitewashing the house, cutting grass in the garden).

    And if you have troubles letting your husband go near that very special professional pan that he would most certainly put in the dish washer or scrape with a metal spoon, can you imagine wanting him anywhere near your kids?! No way. He can play with the children, watch tv with them, take them out on a walk (maybe - only if you can still see them from your window, because you never know what kind of danger he might put them into or what could happen to their clean clothes), but their wardrobe, dietary needs and personal igiene is stuff for mothers. Because everybody knows, la mamma è sempre la mamma, and for a reaason.

    And in this, I totally recognize myself. My husband helps a lot, provided I let him (and by necessity I often do because I am out a lot and he works from home). But boy sometimes it bothers me.

    Not having help from the state is bad and makes everything difficult. But we are lucky in that in Pisa, where we live, there are plenty of daycare centers. Still, we (read "I") decided that our son would stay home until he was older. This made our life way harder. We have a babysitter who comes three times a week, and then it is mostly on us. Crazy eh? Well, another funny cultural-specific thing is that we (read "I" again, as an Italian) believe that children need to spend as much time as possible with their parents before being launched out in the outer world if this is an option. I want to be the one who teaches him to misspronounce the "K" sound in between vowels and not to throw stuff around when he has a tantrum. If not me, then our parents, the grandparents. This might seem different again, but we think the grandparents are not just the cheapest babysitters out there, but they are a fundamental resource for our kids. And they feel bypassed if we resort to daycare or a babysitter when they are available to help.

    The same belief makes it unconceivable for us to send the elderly in a home (an unacceptable for them). That is for people who have nobody, we say. Right or wrong, that is our culture.

  7. (Last bit, I promise) We are very tired most of the time, yes. But believe it or not the biggest success for an Italian woman is when, after decades of exhaustion, your kids come back to live few kilometers far from you, and decide to stay in your country even if it offers so little because it still offers all that matters: a family made of people (both men and women) who were happy to look ridiculous to foreign eyes so that they could look good to their own people and who were happy to be exhausted if that meant they had done all they could to put the family before anything else. Because (and this comes from a woman who works - a lot - and hopes to have a career too) all that matters to most Italian women in the end is what happens when the office doors close behind her. And that is also why you have the stats you have. Opportunity, sure, in some cases, but choice too, don't be fooled.

    Sorry for this long long answer, but I thought that you really missed a piece in order to interpret "what you see" as "what it is".

    1. Gloria, thank you so much for sharing so much of your own personal experiences and views on this subject--it is very valuable to me (and hopefully to my readers). I really, really appreciate it :-)

      I apologize if I was vague, but I took it for granted that what I was discussing was "cultural-specific", meaning, the post is about women in Italy. (Although, obviously, many gender-issues are fluid in that they are cross-cultural or near-universal).

      Also, please remember that this is only Part 1 of a two or three part post. As you can see by the length of your comment, I can hardly say everything I want to say in one short blog post ;-) But seriously, and I reiterate, in mentioning "paradox" (as I intend it) I want to discuss this precise thing that you bring up: that there are two sides to nearly every aspect of women's roles/issues in Italy, at least to me. One of them you mention (and one I intended to bring up myself because it's so damn obvious): that Italian women may "slave" for their families but they for the most part seem to get profound satisfaction from it and this is a very good thing, a wonderful thing. And there's much satisfaction all round in terms of caring for elderly parents, too--I mean, c'mon--who wants to be dumped (or dump one's parent) in a nursing home??? The whole concept of family in this country is a deep vein of gold.

      And the whole cultural emphasis on aesthetics and beauty here--well, that's a given, no? I'm sorry if I didn't allude to that specifically but I'm only a part-time blogger trying to squeeze in posts while being the mother to my two children ;-) But *certainly* that contributes to much of how Italian women choose to present themselves and I like that (God how I wish I could be more like them in this respect!--most of the time I feel like a schlubb). However, there's always a cloudy area when it comes to female modes of dress in general: is asserting one's femininity and sex appeal empowering or enslaving?

      So please wait for Part 2 before raking me over the coals ;-) And know that, as I wrote, I don't pretend that what I see is *the way it is*. It is only what I see as someone who has lived here for a time, and I know that it is by its very nature an incomplete picture. Thanks for trying to make the picture more complete!

    2. Gloria, what do you think, then, of Lorella Zanardo and women's movements in Italy that are looking to change the status quo? Obviously they must share some of your experiences and cultural-specific viewpoint and yet they seem to feel there's a lot of work to be done. I have read Zanardo's book and watched some of her videos wherein she talks to young people--I wasn't discussing my own personal opinions exclusively in some of the things I touched in in my post, btw.

    3. and here I go matching your three comments with three of my own, Gloria... ;-) Dang this topic is fulsome!

      Actually, when you speak of what grandmothers and mothers teach their girls in terms of "always being presentable" etc. ... of course it is entirely cultural and, well, that's exactly what I meant in terms of pressure to conform. (And I get it that the use of the word "pressure" is opinionated, my bad :-) ). It's being ingrained; women are being groomed into certain "types". Of course it's not universal--you yourself are an example of that. And there are many like you; I know some myself. But on the other hand there are many who fit the mold--I know a lot of them, too. And "fitting the mold" is not *inherently* a bad thing. But it can be--see what I mean about cloudy, gray areas?

      And what does it mean when ads for employment--clearly targeted at women--specify things like "must be no older than 23", "submit photo" and "bella presenza [attractive appearance required]"? (No mention of prior experience or customer service skills, mind you). Is this not a kind of pressure? A kind of oppression? Can a young woman, clean and dressed simply/unimaginatively/unfashionably, with a big ol' wart on her nose, hope to get the job, even if she merits it? Do we put this down merely to the Italian cultural love of and appreciation for aesthetics or does it indicate something far more insidious?

      Again, I really appreciate this dialog with you and the fact that you took so much time to share your perspective.

    4. ...and forgive me if my argumentative side now rears its Medusa head, but...

      "The biggest success for an Italian woman is, after decades of exhaustion, your kids come to live a few kilometers far from you, and decide to stay in your country even if it offers so little". While, I repeat, I understand and appreciate the importance of family in Italy, is this all about filial love or can it also speak of filial dependence?

      "Because (and this comes from a woman who works - a lot - and hopes to have a career too) all that matters to most Italian women in the end is what happens when the office doors close behind her. And that is also why you have the stats you have." Really? This is why Italy ranks 84th in terms of gender equality? This is why Italy makes such a poor showing in terms of the percentage of women in the work force? Surely this can't be the only reason.

      Is choosing family over career merely a case of priorities (one which I would admire and completely understand, btw, and to a certain extent subscribe to myself) or is it yet another instance of cultural conditioning? Is the fact that "family is all that really matters" another example of something both good and bad that's bred into Italian women, something that gives them great satisfaction and yet something that keeps them firmly in their place and perpetuates the cycle?

      Food for thought.

    5. Forgive me for not replying sooner. I have had a few hectic days at work. I am one of those lucky ones who does have a job! :)

      First of all let me tell you that I did not mean my comments as a criticism, but only as a discussion. I truly love your blog. Just in case this was not clear! :)

      I still don't see how the aesthetic part is only Italian. Women are like that everywhere, and I have troubles believing there is a place where they dress and behave the way they do regardless of what other people (men too) think of their look. That's a basic instinct I think. Instead of walking with tails up like cats, we dress nicely! LOL Men do the same more and more.

      But the "double side" of fashion is universal, not Italian. It might be more surprising to you because the style is not what you would choose (or that I would, for that matter... I don't think I own a pair of shoes with heels!).

      As to L. Zanardo, she is a lovely lady, and the movement has been going since the 60's. Like everywhere else. Noble, and hopefully effective too. I do not believe in gender equality, though. Not in the sense that we should have different rights, don't misunderstand me. The fact that we should be allowed to do the same things does not mean we should feel obliged to. I do not want to have to do what men do. I am happy to be a woman who does womanly things. It is (or would be) nice to have the same rights and opportunities, sure, but there will always be things we are better at and things men are better at. It's nature and pretending that is not so is only going to be a source of frustration for everybody.

      As for "fitting the mold", well that is the whole concept of education... isn't it? it is the same everywhere. Every culture passes on certain habits and values. Of course it is pressure, but that is how cultures are recognizable and different from one another (and preserved), there is no other way. The best thing one can do is to pass on the values one believes in, be open to change, and hope that one's children also develop a sensibility of their own so that culture can evolve. Again, I don't think it is any different here than anywhere else.

      As for pressure for good looks in certain positions, I believe it is equally huge for men and women. the age thing is for taxes, though, not because they want young people... you can avoid paying certain taxes if you hire with a special contract people under 25. Good looks are the sad reality of our world (or probably of the human species). Unfortunately good looking people sell more, and psychological studies have revealed that people trust them more. So, sad as it is, certain jobs will always be for good looking people (and also sadly, we all notice ugly people in jobs usually occupied by good looking people - don't tell me it is not true - think of people reading the news). Now, it is important to avoid certain requests to be purely sexist, of course. But really would you want to see a clean woman or man with a huge wart on his / her nose reading the news or selling cosmetics? I am not sure I would. And again, are you telling me this is any different in other countries?

      I have a very anthropologic view of human beings...

      The other thing is that other than in positions where you have to convince people of something, I see ugly people all the time. The academia is full of them! LOL

    6. I am not sure what you mean by filial dependence. The fact that they cannot afford to leave? Don't be fooled, many do not want to leave. I know plenty. However, it is hard to make a life of your own in this country. But what I meant was that even when we can, we chose to go live near the parents rather than far from them.

      As for the last comment, I think my English didn't help! LOL I didn't mean that the fact that women care more for what is outside the office than what is inside is the only reason for the stats. I meant to say that that is one of the reasons. So I totally agree it is not the only reason, of course. But I believe it is quite true that many women (more in Italy than elsewhere) would be happy stay home if they could afford it (not sure why... I would die).

      Last and then I will stop boring you, I promise,

      "Is the fact that "family is all that really matters" another example of something both good and bad that's bred into Italian women, something that gives them great satisfaction and yet something that keeps them firmly in their place and perpetuates the cycle?"

      No, family is all that really matters because when you are left with nothing tangible, all you have and cannot do without is the love and support of those around you. And Italy is a country where having nothing but the love of your family has been the natural condition on more than one occasion.

      "This is why Italy ranks 84th in terms of gender equality?"

      I would like to understand well what this gender equality is. Being able to join the army? Being able to be a priest? What is that women would like to do that they cannot do? I have never been discriminated for being a woman at work. But maybe I have been very lucky.

    7. Dear Gloria,

      So good to have you back! Please know I didn't take your comments as criticism; I was only jokin' with ya. I am very honored and pleased to have you as the cornerstone of this discussion :-)

      You are absolutely right--women everywhere are concerned with aesthetics and personal appearance to some degree. I just think there's a fine line between personal choice and cultural/societal pressure to look "just right". For instance, my SIL will make a point to change from her "house clothes" into something "decent" just to walk two doors down to the local alimentari to buy a loaf of bread (which is run by a toothless man, btw) ;-)

      I appreciate your views on feminism and to a degree I agree--I have no problem acknowledging that men and women have differences that should be celebrated (vive la différence! and all that :-) ). But in terms of, say, the workplace and politics I think there should be equal opportunity.

      As for discrimination in terms of looks/age, your anthropological views are probably correct--most cultures discriminate, at least on a covert level. But there is a difference, I think, in subtle and unsubtle forms of discrimination; hidden and obvious.

      Okay--I had to laugh at your comments about academia ;-)

      If you read Part 2, I do talk about the positives of caring about family. It is a wonderful, wonderful trait and shows that Italians have their priorities straight. In the end, it is our relationships to others that matter--I heartily believe this and thus, as a mother and wife, pour my heart into my own little family.

      The Gender Inequality Index bases its findings on three criteria: reproductive health, empowerment, and labor market participation. It is these two latter areas, I'd wager, that account for Italy's lower ranking. And again, I think there are subtle and unsubtle forms of discrimination at work here. One reader commented that her friend takes off her wedding ring or lies about having a boyfriend in order to be a more appealing candidate for the job, for instance.

      I agree that women have their work cut out for them in terms of fighting for greater equality or more equal opportunities pretty much everywhere (though the Scandinavian countries sure seem to be in the forefront on equalizing things), but I'd like to keep this discussion focused on Italy.

      Grazie mille, bella, for sharing so much and for such an intelligent, perceptive and gracious dialogue. You rock :-)

  8. My goodness, what a conversation! I was actually the first person to comment here and only just realized it never actually went through. However, after reading the comments that have followed, I'm kind of glad I'm only wading in now, considering how close to my heart this topic is. In my initial comment I said that I was happy to report to you that, as a feminist living in Italy with my ear to the ground so to speak, there ARE lots of Italian women saying basta. The more I follow this, the more excited I get to see, for example, a new film like Alina Marazzi's amazing take on ambivalence and Italian motherhood, Tutto parla di te. Or to discover the fact, as I'm researching a post on slut-shaming in Italy, that a SlutWalk has actually taken place here (2 weeks ago in Rome)! Or the incredibly exciting Toponomastica Femminile initiative in Pistoia mentioned by Molly on the Facebook page. Or the workshop series on women's leadership organized by the US consul and Assessore Giachi at the Palazzo Vecchio...
    Your post Elizabeth I think is right on the money. And thankfully, as these new grassroots initiatives show, the situation as you describe is NOT "just the way it is," as someone commented resignedly on the FB page. I also really appreciate Gloria's incredibly well articulated perspective. It really does always always come back to the paradoxes. That's what makes observing and living among Italians such rich food for thought :) I return often to observe the paradox in myself as a feminist who can totally derive joy from mastering certain domestic chores or taking some care in my appearance or relying on my husband to fix the television. And I wholeheartedly agree there is something amazing about having grandparents so close when you're raising kids. The problem is, not everyone does, and the dark side of the family-focused culture is that it shuts out and punishes those who don't have family they can depend on. As for Italian women themselves, I think they are pretty amazing, not to mention gorgeous -- I've always said they are so much more attractive than Italian men. How great would it be to be a lesbian here? I say this in all seriousness, since far too many Italian men, summed them up beautifully in your counterpart post. I also, OF COURSE, agree you should always be careful not to generalize. As you Elizabeth keep saying in fact, it's all about teasing out and analyzing all the grey areas, THAT's where the important work of respectful cultural commentary is done.

    1. Michelle,

      Thanks so much for bringing news of all these positive initiatives to the discussion--they are wonderful and certainly indicated a growing level of awareness in terms of issues relevant to women (and to society at large).

      And you make a good point: not everyone has the luxury of family and the situation can be pretty fraught for those that don't. I think at some point in "Italy: Love it or Leave it" there's a comment about the family taking on the role that the State should in terms of concrete assistance to families/working mothers/children.

      Yes, on many levels Italian women rock :-) They are very strong, very resilient. That's why--along with the country's youth--it seems like so much wasted potential in that there aren't more of them in the workforce, exerting their influence in positions of power, etc.

      Thank you for sharing your observations! :-)

  9. Most of my Italian female friends are in the late 20s-mid 30s range, without kids. It seems that they're all fairly happy, independent, and successful career-wise. I think the change (in terms of career) is definitely after having kids. However, I think the sexism is very common in the U.S. as well, albeit more subtle, and there is also little to no support for working mothers.

    As for looking good, I know many retired women who do care about their appearance but they don't try to look younger than their age. I actually think it's quite nice to care about appearance sometimes, and many Italian men feel that pressure to look good, too!

    1. I think that using the U.S. as a benchmark in terms of social welfare programs isn't very useful. Better to think in terms of European standards.

      Having kids always changes the game, true.

      I don't think Italian men feel the same kind of "pressure" to look good; I think it has more to do with the overall aesthetics of fashion and preening peacock thing. Of course, for these same reasons many Italian women like to look good, too. And that certainly makes Italians very stylish and enjoyable to look at :-)

      One just has to consider how women are portrayed in the media here vs. how men are portrayed. I don't see scantily clad men taking on-stage showers, or being "hung" on hooks next to haunches of prosciutto (almost literally being shown as pieces of meat) and having their asses stamped for approval.

      For what it's worth, this article came out a while back. I tend to take these things with a grain of salt, feeling they fail to tell the whole story, but here it is:

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

    2. Now you find me in total agreement here. But again, I am always surprised to see so many of my friends have no problem with that. Truth be told there are more and more ads with men portrayed as sexual objects.

  10. I'm really interested in reading part 2 of this article. I'm living as a Canadian in Italy and raising what I hope will one-day become a well-adjusted Italian woman.
    There are some days I fall victim to the same pressures of the Italian woman, but my natural-born instinct tends to prevail (like when I burn my ear severely with the curling iron and remember that there are other things in life than perfect waves and nails). I am also currently voluntarily unemployed because of the double standard on wages in Italy. I'm fortunate enough to not need a double income in my family, and was not willing to settle for 900euros a month when my male colleagues were being paid double. Especially when daycare costs 700euros in Milan...

    I wanted to let you know I've nominated you for a Liebster award check it out and maybe nominate some more blogs that you know of!

    1. Thanks for nominating me and thank you for leaving a comment :-)

      Interesting what you have to say about your earning potential vs. that of your male colleagues... and yes, daycare is so expensive that one's salary essentially goes to paying for it. That's what one commentor meant when she said the system punishes you if you don't have family to rely on (in this case a nonna willing to babysit).

      I'm sure your daughter will be well-adjusted--she has a very self-aware mother :-)

  11. Anonymous2:11 PM

    I read this and your blog about italian men, and i wonder why are you actually living there? You clearly think that America and american values are superior- so why are you there? I am realy irked by the way that you talk about italian men and or women as if they are all the same as each other and all completely different in a devalued way to whatever your own norms are. Some of what you say may in fact be true, but, lets look at statistics of domestic violence, street crime, mental health problems, drug and ALCOHOL problems- Hey while we are at it and bringing up the scantily clad women of the previous PM, how about what the American presidents get up to in human rights abuses? Its not that i dont think that its relevant to discuss feminism in Italian culture, or lack there of, but you just sound so bloody negative and really quit high and mighty. Your writing style is easy to read, but you leave me with a bitter taste in my mouth. I think you could use your writing and observation skills in more uplifting and encouraging ways. The rest of the world is sick of Americans thinking that they set the standard and comparing the rest of us to them.

    1. I am mystified as to your assumption of American superiority on my part. Nowhere do I make such comparisons. If I were to write about these issues in American terms, I would indeed have plenty to say, however you seem to have entirely missed the point: I am writing about ITALY, and specifically my experience of Italy. Your comments are not on topic.

      If you disagree with my (admittedly opinionated) take on the issues of men and women in Italy, it would be much more constructive if you were to share your experience and opinions, instead of denigrating those of others.

      I stand by my opinions in terms of the general cast of male and female roles in Italy, and--if you had read closely you would have caught this--I reiterate my joy and relief that certainly not all Italians are like this and that there are faint rumblings of change afoot.


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