International reporter Nina Cerasuolo’s article provides context on which to analyze Giorgia Meloni’s ascent to becoming the first woman prime minister in Italian republican history.
Rome, October 22, 2022. Giorgia Meloni, Prime Minister of the Italian Republic’s 19th government, stands next to President Sergio Mattarella. At her side, in two orderly lines, stand the 24 ministers nominated by Meloni, who all assume office starting today. On October 21, the Prime Minister presented her nominees to the press, which are all members of the right-wing parliamentary majority (237\400 deputies and 115\200 senators) resulting from the political elections held on September 25. Out of the 24 ministers named by Italy’s first woman Head of Government, six are women; two less than in the previous government, led by former European Central Bank President Mario Draghi.
However, the significant lack of gender diversity in Meloni’s government is everything but an exception in Italian politics. Throughout its republican history, in fact, Italy has only had three woman presidents of the Chamber of Deputies (Nilde Iotti, Irene Pivetti and Laura Boldrini) – whose work covered five legislatures in total – and one woman President of the Senate (Maria Elisabetta Alberti Casellati). Men have always been overrepresented in Parliament, despite affirmative action laws forcing each gender (interpreted by Italian law as dichotomous and binary) to be represented in candidate lists by a minimum of 40%. This time, however, with Meloni being a woman herself, the lack of women in government assumes novel significance, posing unprecedented questions.
During her year-long campaign, Meloni pushed heavily against “gender ideology”, which is the idea that gender is a cultural construct distinct from biological sex. However, her own gender was always central in Meloni’s campaigning strategy, as shown by her slogan: “I’m Giorgia, I’m a woman, I’m a mother, I’m a Christian” (first said during an anti-LGBT+ rally) even leading to the title of her autobiography: “I am Giorgia”. Motherhood has often been at the center of Meloni’s – and more generally, Italian conservative – campaigning, which, in the view of Euronews, might have contributed to Meloni’s success: motherhood is frequently connoted as signifying a reassuring and reliable personality. More broadly, Meloni’s gender has contributed to her being perceived as a breath of fresh air by a large portion of the citizens who enthusiastically chose to vote for her party.
In her first speech to the Chamber of Deputies on October 25, Meloni stressed how important it is for her to be the first woman Prime Minister in Italian history. She proceeded to list several women who have been pivotal in Italian history, calling them by their first names only. This garnered both criticism, in that the erasure of last names is often seen as a way to infantilize and dehistoricize women, and appreciation, as the choice was seen as showing more closeness and familiarity.
During her first week in office, Meloni also communicated via official government statements that she wishes to be called “il presidente” (rather than “la presidente”), employing a masculine article that she deems undetachable from the role of Prime Minister itself. When met with criticism, the Prime Minister distanced herself from the debate, highlighting her dedication to practical matters such as “bills, taxes, work”, rather than to what she sarcastically called “the huge theme of what to call the first woman Prime Minister”. Meloni’s pragmatic reaction received the appreciation of mainstream right-wing press, in line with a widespread perception of the Italian left’s focus on language and definitions as distant from the public’s needs and priorities.
Meloni’s adherence to masculine standards has been highlighted by Euronews as useful in facilitating her political rise while maintaining the male-dominated status quo. The political opposition and feminist associations criticize her actions as overtly anti-feminist rather than as a neutral preference; Meloni did use feminine articles when referring to the President of the EU Commission Ursula Von der Leyen and to the President of the European Parliament Roberta Metsola. Interestingly, Meloni’s linguistic choice was not supported by Italian public broadcaster Rai, whose directive stated that it is a “dangerous step-back” that will not be employed by Rai journalists.
Indeed, this is only the latest outbreak of sexism-related criticism towards Meloni and her party Fratelli d’Italia coming from feminist associations, activists and politicians. For example, it has often been noted how, in the regions governed by Fratelli d’Italia, women’s right to access abortion has been severely impaired, with gynecologists refusing to perform up to 70% of abortions in certain central regions. Meloni’s renaming of the former Ministry of Equal Opportunities and Family into the current Ministry of Family, Natality and Equal Opportunities has thus been seen as alarming and condemned by several civil and political actors. Minister Eugenia Roccella, who has stated that “feminism has taught [her] that abortion is not a right”, as well as Meloni herself, have often repeated that the current law on abortion will not be abolished. Both Meloni and Roccella have frequently underlined that the new government will strive for the law’s full implementation, focusing on providing alternatives to abortion and protecting motherhood. In practice, this would be achieved by the intervention of anti-abortion activist groups that have now gained legal access to public hospitals and planning clinics. Again, this has received backlash both from civil activists and from important political figures, such as the +Europa party’s leader Emma Bonino. The main feminist association in Italy, Non Una Di Meno, organized a national assembly on October 29 that focused on Meloni’s stances in terms of civil rights and gender equality, which the association deems problematic.
“This time, however, with Meloni being a woman herself, the lack of women in government assumes novel significance, posing unprecedented questions.”