The damage Silvio Berlusconi has done to Italian politics and society is so overwhelmingly enormous it is very difficult as a citizen of that country (I have dual US/Italian citizenship) to feel anything but cynical and hopeless. For female Italian citizens, the situation is even more dire. Berlusconi’s blatant and public disdain for women both in his personal conduct and his political appointments has made me so depressed that I have even found myself hankering for the days of Cicciolina,
the Italian porn star who was elected to parliament in 1987. By comparison, he makes her career look admirable. Things haven’t been too good for women in other spheres of Italian life either.
There’s the Vatican’s persistent exclusion and oppression of women which goes hand in hand with their endless sex scandals; and then there’s the repulsively sexist treatment by the Italian judiciary and press of Amanda Knox, whose acquittal has recently been overturned, her retrial immanent. But there is the more quotidian fact that despite Italy’s robust feminist movement in the 1970s, the conditions today for working women at all levels of the workforce are among the worst in the West. The situation is further exacerbated by the fact that over the past two decades Berlusconi’s private media empire along with the state-owned broadcasters under his political purview have routinely and almost exclusively portrayed women as scantily-clad sex toys whose purpose in life is for male pleasure, allowing misogynistic attitudes to flourish.
Then, on April 28th Enrico Letta, Italy’s new Prime Minister, albeit the head of a questionable and unstable new government, appointed SEVEN women to his cabinet–a third of its members. Obama has FOUR. In the U.K. David Cameron has FOUR. (Germany has seven but they comprise fewer than a third. France’s cabinet is fully half women.) From one day to the next, my feelings of defeatism and embarrassment about Italy’s political future have transformed into giddiness and excitement. I want to break out into song, and the lyric that comes most readily to mind is Sam Cooke’s famous “a change is gonna come.” Of course, it’s early days and I’ve lived with Berlusconi long enough to know that things can and will get worse, but the fact that those seven women have been appointed sets a precedent in Italy that will remain for all time. The message is loud and clear: Italians, and especially Italian women, have had enough of their systematic disenfranchisement and want to do something about it.
The most crucial appointment of the seven is Anna Maria Cancellieri–former interior minister–as Minister of Justice. The Italian courts are in massive need of reform. But Cancellieri has most notably been given the incredibly tricky task of dealing with the legal entanglements of Berlusconi who is under four current indictments. Berlusconi has the power to bring this government down at any moment and if he doesn’t like what Cancellieri does, it’s all over. Emma Bonino, a veteran politician, former member of the European parliament, fierce defender of human and civil rights, is now the Minister of Foreign Affairs. Maria Chiara Carrozza, a scientist and academic, will take over the Ministry of Education. Two of Berlusconi’s lawmakers have been given the junior posts of health and agriculture. Josefa Idem, an Olympic gold medalist, will be responsible for sport, youth, and equal opportunity. Last, but by no means least, Cécile Kyenge, born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, is the Minister for Integration. Kyenge’s appointment is a huge step forward for Italy whose struggle with racism has a long, fraught history. In fact, her assignment has already been viciously attacked most audibly from the anti-immigrant, radical right Northern League.
On the international stage Italy has long been the well-deserved subject of ridicule and derision. For once, instead of hanging my head in shame over the shenanigans of my adoptive country, I can proudly honor and celebrate something the Italian government has done not only for its own citizens but symbolically for all the world’s citizens. Who knows what will happen in the coming weeks, but in the meantime I’ll be singing Italy’s praises at the top of my lungs for this magnificent seven.