Sex Scandals in Italy Fuel Discontent of Women
By ELISABETTA POVOLEDO and RACHEL DONADIO
Published: February 2, 2011
ROME — Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi of Italy has said he is laughing off his latest sex scandal, in which prosecutors are investigating whether he compensated a number of attractive young women, including a 17-year-old nicknamed “Ruby Heart-Stealer,” for sex.
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But as this seemingly intractable scandal unfolds, filling media with images of scores of young women in his orbit, Mr. Berlusconi finds for the first time in his long career that a growing number of Italians are not laughing along: women.
Female discontent is increasingly pushing up against Italy’s traditionally byzantine, male-dominated politics.
About 73,500 people signed a petition on the Web site of the left-wing newspaper L’Unità asking Italian women to say “enough already” to Mr. Berlusconi. A demonstration in Milan on Saturday drew thousands of protesters, and a nationwide protest promoted by women is scheduled for Feb. 13.
“Another Italy exists,” proclaimed Emma Marcegaglia — the first woman to lead Confindustria, an association of major industries, and one of only a handful of Italian women with any significant political clout — in a widely noticed television interview last month.
Today, long-simmering anger is rising among those who say they simply do not see themselves in the dominant images of women in Italy: the so-called veline, hot-bodied showgirls who since the 1980s have been the hallmark of Mr. Berlusconi’s television networks.
The latest scandal has underscored frustration about the seemingly narrow range of roles touted as available to women today. “In Italy, women are suffering because they see themselves caught between two images, that of the happy housewife or the ‘velina,’ ” said Danda Santini, the editor in chief of the Italian edition of Elle. “Little else is represented on television.”
Italy significantly trails European Union counterparts on equality indicators like employment of women or women in leadership positions, and indignant women say the latest scandal highlights a troubling message: the way for a woman to get ahead in Italy is to sell her soul, if not her body, to powerful men.
“I don’t feel it’s a model that mirrors me in any way,” said Martina Priori, 25, a saleswoman in a shoe store in downtown Rome. “The real world is different.”
Getting ahead at work, however, is difficult. Although more Italian women than men have university degrees, only 46 percent of Italian women are employed, compared with an average of 59 percent in the 27-member European Union.
At the same time, Italy has one of the lowest birthrates in the European Union, at 1.4 per woman, and spends only 1.1 percent of its gross domestic product on child care and other family incentives, according to Eurostat, the union’s statistics agency.
France, in contrast, spends 2.4 percent of its gross domestic product on family incentives, and its birthrate is 2.1 per woman.
By some lights, Italian women have come far in a country whose most entrenched power structures — the Roman Catholic Church and organized crime — remain male and secretive.
For the first time, women now lead the industrialists’ association and Italy’s largest labor union. (“It took them nearly 100 years to appoint a woman, and they chose the worst economic moment,” Ms. Marcegaglia recently said about herself.)
But on the whole, in a country known for lacking meritocracy, Italian women face an uphill battle.
Decades after a feminist movement helped bring significant changes, including legal abortion and divorce, some argue that Italian women are worse off today than in the past. “It’s as if we’ve gone backwards since the ’70s,” said Antonella Giacobbe, 55, as she attended a recent meeting in Rome of Filomena, a women’s advocacy group.
The handful of women who have risen to top corporate posts in Italy often come from powerful families. Ms. Marcegaglia is the heiress of a steel fortune. Marina Berlusconi, chairwoman of the Fininvest holding company and the Mondadori publishing group, is Mr. Berlusconi’s daughter.
In familycentric Italy, women are expected to be caregivers and housekeepers, and they are often discriminated against in the workplace, experts say, because employers believe that they will place family above job.
“In Italy, you either work or have children, because so far legislation hasn’t placed women in a condition where they can work,” said Alisa Del Re, who teaches on gender policies at the University of Padua.
In a country where grandparents often become child care, fewer than 10 percent of toddlers have access to preschool nurseries — and 27 percent of women quit work after having a child, according to a study by Alessandra Casarico and Paola Profeta, professors at Bocconi University in Milan.
“It seems that everything works against women: family, society, how work is organized,” and often the women give up, said Caterina Soffici, author of a book on the gender gap in Italy.
Yet the Bank of Italy estimates that if female employment rose to 60 percent, gross domestic product would rise 7 percent. “In a country where growth is at 1 percent, that’s something to keep in mind,” said Anna Maria Tarantola, the bank’s deputy director general.
A central question being debated today is how much Mr. Berlusconi has been responsible for molding the image of women during his 30 years as head of the country’s largest private broadcasting empire.
Girls once dreamed of being on television; now they “think that being an escort is the fastest way to becoming someone, by having access to important men and successful politicians,” said Candida Morvillo, the editor in chief of the glossy gossip weekly Novella 2000 and author of the 2003 book “La Repubblica Delle Veline,” or “Republic of Showgirls.”
Over the years, Mr. Berlusconi has blurred the line between show business and politics, choosing women from his television shows as candidates for the Italian and European Parliaments. One former showgirl, Mara Carfagna, is now equal opportunities minister — and has won plaudits even from critics for promoting gay rights. She is one of 5 women in the 23-member Berlusconi cabinet; 3 are without portfolio and few are seen as setting the agenda.
Many believe that change will come from the media rather than Parliament. Loredana Lipperini, a journalist and author, said she hoped that younger Italian women would be shaped by the Internet rather than the showgirl culture on television. “I’m comforted by this, because most young people are getting or will get their main information on the Internet,” she said.
For her part, Susanna Camusso, the first woman to be secretary general of C.G.I.L., Italy’s largest trade union, predicted that the Berlusconi era would eventually be seen “as an accident of history — not a mirror of the country.”