You might assume that being home to the Vatican, and a highly catholic country that women in Italy may have a hard time with access to things like birth control or abortion, in truth these things are more accessible than you might think. However, women in Italy were given these rights quite late in the game, and are still struggling with many issues of equality. According to the Global Gender Gap Index, in a measurement of gender equality, out of 153 countries, Italy was 76th. So in honor of Women’s History Month, I thought it was only right to share a little more on the history of women’s rights in Italy.
Women’s Rights at the start of the Kingdom of Italy
So, while we could go back for ages, I want to start at about the age of the Risorgimento. During this time of political change, some of the most influential groups and so-called salons made up of revolutionaries, and intellectuals were in fact run by women. Namely, those of Bianca Milesi Mojon, who led many uprisings of the Carbonari in Milan, Clara Maffei, who held a literary salon that Manzoni frequented (she was also a divorcee!), Cristina Trivulzio di Belgiojoso, who early on argued for women’s rights through Of Women’s Condition and of their Future (1866) and Antonietta De Pace.
Under the Kingdom of Italy, women did not have the right to vote and were excluded from political life. Only in 1874 were women allowed to enter high schools and universities, although many institutions continued to refuse them. The first woman to receive a University degree in post-unification Italy was Ernestina Puritz Manasse-Paper in 1887, yet it was not until 20 years later in 1907 that a female full professor was appointed in an Italian university.
While barred from academics, women worked many factory jobs. Women were in fact very active in the first Labor Unions under the influence of Anna Kuliscioff. In 1902 the first law to protect women’s and children’s labor rights was passed, it forbade them from working in mines and capped a 12-hour workday.
Finally in 1919 laws were adjusted and women were allowed to hold public offices.
Under Fascist Italy
Under Mussolini, the idea of women as a wife and mothers was strengthened, repressing the political activity of women, and reiterating the idea of duty. Unsurprisingly the only women to gain any political growth during this time also happened to be Mussolini’s mistresses.
The racial laws of the time also pushed women out of higher positions as many academics and public figures who happened to be female also happened to be Jewish.
The strongly female-led resistance movement led to many more women entering political life at the end of the war. In 1945 at the end of the war, women were finally able to vote. And though the new Republic constitution of 1948 said that women had equal rights, this was far from true.
In 1963 women were given the right to work in law and as judges, but they were only allowed to enter the police force in 1981, and it was not until 1993 that they could enter the army.
Until the 1970s it was expected that young women would marry their rapists to protect their honor. The idea of both these forced marriages and honour killings of women was only made entirely illegal, wit equal punishment in 1981. (Note: there may be a slight misinterpretation on my part, the first law dealing with honor killing passed in the 1930s, but from what I understand it was updated for further punishment and enforcement in 1981, I apologize but Law is difficult to start with, trying to understand it in Italian is even tougher).
The 1970s marked many changes and women finally gained a little more power in their family life. In 1970 divorce was legalized, in 1978 abortion was legalized and in 1971 the birth control pill was made available. But both Abortion and Divorce continue to be debated to this day.
Though abortion was legalized in 1978, it is limited to the first trimester, with later abortions only being allowed for serious medical concerns. Also, it is in the end, up to your specific doctor. Doctors can refuse to perform or to allow you to get an abortion due to their own moral or religious oppositions. This means depending on where you are located in Italy, you still may be totally refused an abortion.
Nearly 70% of gynecologists in Italy declare they object to abortion. As a result, the public facilities where it is possible to have an abortion are only around 50% of the total, reaching as low as only 20% of facilities in Campania and Bolzano. That’s right, it is not just a Southern issue.
Also, to get an abortion in Italy, you must meet with a pharmacist, a family planner who then gives you “permission” to get the abortion, the office of the hospital to book your abortion, the doctors who test your blood in a pre-op and the doctors and nurses right before you undergo the procedure. At any point, any of these people could tell you no, or they could take their sweet time, delaying you, and if you go over the 12 weeks… you are denied an abortion.
Originally in 1970 divorce was legalized, though technically it was mainly separation and women risked the possibility that not only would their social reputation be ruined, but they could easily lose custody of the children. In order to have an official divorce, 5 years of separation was required. During this time, children that were conceived out of wedlock, or after the divorce were considered entirely illegitimate. Finally, in 1975, children born outside of marriage were considered legitimate. This same law allowed for adultery on the part of the husband could be a reason for divorce and division of property ownership was made possible.
Adultery was only decriminalized in 1969, and in 1975 a law abolishing the legal dominance of a husband was passed to provide equality for women in their marriages.
Currently, 60% of university students are female, and 80% of female graduates go on to seek jobs. Parliament is 36% women, which is higher than the EU average rate, yet it is good to keep in mind the harassment these women are subject to.
Italy has one of the lowest rates of employment for women. It is 47.8% compared to 66.5% of men. And when hired, women are paid 1/3 less than men in Italy. Only 1 out of 4 women are able to take a high management position.
Socially, Italy still struggles to break away from the patriarchal view of women being mothers and wives, their main duty to be caring for the house, while of course, ignoring the hours and emotional labor that goes into that. According to the Ispettorato Nazionale del Lavoro, in 2019 38,000 new mothers were forced to leave their job as they were not able to balance the two. According to ISTAT, even when both parents work, the mothers are the ones who spend the majority of their free time managing the house and children.
In 2011 La Quota Rosa is passed making it so companies that are listed on the Borsa Italiana, have to have at least 1/5 women working in their “Consigli di Amministrazione”, but did it really have to be named pink?
A law forbidding firing pregnant women in Italy only passed in 2001. Before this, there was a practice of making women sign undated resignation papers as they were hired. When they became fired, the papers would be dated and they were let go with no severance package.
And it was only in 2021, that mothers can now give their last name to their children, giving it priority over the father’s name. Yet women do not usually take their husbands’ names.
One very serious problem that continues in Italy is the problem of Femicide. It was only in 2013 that gender-based violence finally was recognized in court, and punishment was regulated for crimes such as stalking, and threats against women. As of last year, 8/10 murdered women were killed by their current or previous partners. From 2000 to 2012 the total number of victims averaged to one woman was killed every 2 days, 75% by their current or past partner. And according to studies by the UN 90% of Italian women were raped or abused and never reported the crime.
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