PIC INTERREG IIIA Greece - Italy 2000-2006 Axis 3.2 Project Code I3201060.



Politics is a field in which women are still rather scarce; however, the women who have participated in the political context as heads of government have left their mark to the point of being nicknamed Iron Ladies. Think of Indira Gandhi, Golda Meir, Margaret Thatcher and Angela Merkel for example, all of whom possessed great willpower and a strong sense of pragmatism. In Italy, the road to female emancipation has been long and arduous. Today women enjoy legal equality and the same rights as men, and have access to all professions and all offices, although of course it wasn’t always so.

In the Middle Ages, women had no specific place in the social structure, which was divided into knights, clerics and peasants. In general, their task was to bring up children and help their husbands in their work, not participating in social and political life. Some women however became queens, exercising complete power in place of their dead husbands or as heirs to the throne, like Eleanor of Aquitaine or Bianca of Castile. Others were abbesses, in charge of convents, and at the centre of intense economic and social activity.

Many centuries later, in the period of the Italian Risorgimento, the debate over the rights of women, their education and emancipation, was basically provincial in character, and many of the "illustrious thinkers" of those years simply repeated their support for female subordination. In the Family Code of 1865, women did not even have the right to exercise parental control over their legitimate children, or to enter public office. Married women could not manage the money they earned by their own labour, this right being given to their husbands. To donate, put up as security, or sell their own property, to obtain a mortgage, to grant loans or redeem them, to perform any transaction or initiate legal proceedings, their "husband’s authorisation" was necessary.

In terms of education, in 1874, women made their entrance into highschools and universities, while in 1914, enrolments to middle schools (including technical institutes) numbered about 100,000. Qualifications however were still no guarantee of access to the professions. However, some women managed to enter fields that until that time had been regarded as reserved for men only: in 1907 Ernestina Prola was the first Italian woman to obtain a driver’s licence, in 1908 Emma Strada graduated in engineering, in 1912 Teresa Labriola was admitted to the bar and Argentina Altobelli and Carlotta Chierici were elected to the Upper Council of Labour.

During the First World War, jobs which had been performed by men who were now fighting at the front were taken over by women, in the fields and above all in the factories. Ministerial decrees allowed up to 80% of the personnel in mechanical industries to be composed of women. The same limit was allowed for the armaments industry, reversing an earlier law of 1902 which had banned women from this sector. At the end of the war, the women were accused of stealing jobs from the veterans and they lost this opportunity.

It was only sixty years ago, in the elections to the Constituent Assembly (1946), that Italian women exercised the right to vote and the right to be elected to parliament for the first time. The following decades saw great transformations: the profound cultural and socio-economic changes affecting society and the family in the second half of the last century brought about the “female revolution”, which affected the entire western world.

Thus began a process of independence and emancipation that entailed significant modifications to legislation, confirmed in the principles of the Italian Constitution, which came into force in 1948.

The conquest of political rights for women is recent history in Europe. Only in the last century did European women gain access to national political institutions, but female political participation in EU countries is still very low, although there are some countries (especially in Scandinavia), in which, thanks to concrete measures, there is a high presence of women in the political institutions.

There are many reasons why women remain largely excluded from representative institutions: Apart from the objective difficulties, there is also a sort of self-exclusion, a reaction by women to the resistance they face, which leads them to get involved in politics through unofficial routes. The direct and indirect experience of women in local government, and their social commitment in religious, educational and voluntary organisations, can become important points of reference for the return to a more human form of politics. There are very few women candidates, and the ones that get elected rarely occupy key positions in representative bodies. Thus the under-representation of women in politics is a fact of life. While on the one hand the number of women in the institutions is very low, on the other we are seeing a progressive decline in interest in politics and its dynamics. The index of female emancipation puts Italy in 72nd place out of 154 countries, and Puglia last among the regions of Italy.

Of 36 councillors on the Provincial Council of Lecce there are only 2 women, and the council leadership has only 3 women out of 12 people. In the interviews conducted with some of the Salento’s political women, what emerges above all is the difficulty of balancing political and family commitments; help from their partners and sharing the political commitment provide significant encouragement for women involved in political activity.

However, the limited numbers of women in the institutions should not be taken as a measure of women’s freedom. It is rather an indication of how impermeable institutional politics can be to society, with the risk of it becoming poorly representative. It is not a problem of women, but of Italian politics and democracy, demonstrating that there is still a long way to go in the wake of the revolution that began sixty years ago.


Community Initiative INTERREG III 2000-2006


PIC INTERREG IIIA Greece - Italy 2000-2006 Axis 3.2 Project Code I3201060

Co-financed by the European Regional Development Fund