Being a Woman in Italy: It’s Complicated

being a woman in italy


You may have noticed that everyone at the Italy Blogging Roundtable is female. This wasn’t by design, but it has led us to this month’s blogging topic: WOMEN.

being a woman in italy
Milan 2007 | photo by Jessica Spiegel & may not be used without permission

Being a woman in Italy is – to put it in Facebook status terms – complicated.

There are things about being a woman in Italy that I rather like, actually. The old-fashioned notion of chivalry is nowhere near old-fashioned in Italy – it’s alive and well. And it’s refreshing, in a way, to assume that nearly everyone is on the same page with regard to what might be called “chivalrous acts.”

For instance, in the U.S., if I reach the door first and open it, I expect any man I’m with to go through the door I’m holding open. I’ll even get a little irritated if he refuses, propping open the door above my head as if I’m not perfectly capable of continuing to hold it for the both of us. In Italy, I don’t expect any man to walk through the door first, so I don’t get annoyed when men hold the door for me.

Does this make perfect sense? Of course not. Like I said – it’s complicated.

In many ways, calling Italy “old-fashioned” feels so obvious as to be unnecessary. It is, after all, a country we visit in droves for its ancient ruins, cobblestone streets, and the sorts of dishes, views, and traditions we like to describe as “unchanged by time.” We’ve been known to lament modernization, wishing the things we love most about Italy would stay forever as they are. We’re eager to put Italy in a bottle, hit the pause button, and not let time destroy all the things we adore about the country.

What we forget, however, are the Italians who live there long after we’ve gone back home.

It can’t be easy to try to live a modern life in a country probably best known for all sorts of very old things that the outside world would prefer remain unchanged, particularly when what appears to visitors on the surface of Italy to be “charming” or “atmospheric” often has a more complicated story behind it.

Those buildings we love in Venice, so photographable with their brickwork showing through peeling layers of who-knows-what on the outside, they’re so pleasingly dilapidated, aren’t they? Never mind that the owner may well be an absentee landlord who bought a Venetian palazzo as an investment and now rents out apartments to vacationers and maybe some of the few residents left in the city. “Pleasingly dilapidated” feels entirely different when you’re living in a leaky building you don’t have the authority (or funds) to repair.

How many of us have in our Italy photo archives a photo (or twelve) of laundry strung between buildings on the narrow lanes of an Italian town? We’re charmed by the sight, taking it in as part of the scenery, not realizing that the incredibly high cost of electricity in Italy means that having a dryer is a luxury most Italians can’t afford.

Being “old-fashioned” in Italy means both good and bad things, sometimes simultaneously.

Which brings me back to the topic of women. It’s easy for me to say that my personal experiences of being female in Italy are overwhelmingly positive. I’m convinced that one of the main reasons for this is very simple: I do not live in Italy.

My relationship with Italy is that of an outsider. Even when I was working on the assumption I would one day live in Italy, I knew I would continue to see the country through the lens of a visitor – my role as the writer of an Italy travel guide compelled me to do so.

This isn’t to say I’m ignorant of the trials and tribulations of being a woman in Italy. I have expat girlfriends there who talk about the surprised looks they get when they tell Italians they have a job outside the home, and others who have left the country entirely, fed up with trying to get anywhere professionally as a woman in an Italian business. I have watched with disgust as Silvio Berlusconi has made a mockery of women by (for instance) giving a showgirl and former nude model the cabinet position of “Minister for Equal Opportunity” and repeatedly treating the German prime minister with juvenile disrespect (not to mention those so-called “bunga bunga” parties Berlusconi is now infamous for throwing) – and then with further disgust as he rises to power time and again, supporters brushing off his dalliances as unimportant.

My mother raised me to be a proud feminist, and that is what I am. I bristle at the way so many Italians seem to accept as par for the course behavior I have long thought of as incredibly sexist. I’m sure I would find it even more frustrating if I lived there – especially since I’m a woman with a career and (this may even be worse) one who has never wanted children. To me, Italy’s old-fashioned attitudes toward gender roles are nothing short of maddening.

And yet? I can’t say that being a woman in Italy doesn’t have its perks, too, some of which stem directly from those old-fashioned attitudes.

There is really no way to simplify the conversation about “being a woman in Italy,” unless you believe the status quo is perfectly fine and needs no adjustment whatsoever. (In which case, let’s assume we won’t be very good friends.) Let’s face it: being a woman just about anywhere on this planet is challenging.* Living in a place that throws additional road blocks in the way of half the population for “cultural reasons” makes it even more so.

At the moment, being a woman in Italy is complicated. I hope it won’t always be.

* Don’t believe me? Give “Half the Sky” a read.

Other Voices at the Italy Roundtable

Are you as intrigued as I am to find out what the rest of the Italy Roundtable has to say about WOMEN IN ITALY? Let’s find out. Click along with me through to the following links to read each of their posts – and please leave comments, share them with your friends, and tune in next month for another Italy Blogging Roundtable topic!

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8 comments on “Being a Woman in Italy: It’s Complicated

  1. I know in Italy and in North America, you can’t hold doors open for men. They can easily get irritated and bitchy because they want to be the ones holding the doors open first. Being female in both America and Italy are difficult.

  2. Jessica, I’m delighted to discover another self-proclaimed feminist who is also an italophile through this fantastic round table. I devote much of my own blog to this very topic, so I’m over the moon to see it discussed by all you smart women. Yours and Alexandra’s comments on the challenges of being child-free are especially poignant and are inspiring me to dedicate a future post to this. Yes, I write about motherhood in Italy, but as someone who also fervently supports women who choose not to have kids. Sadly, I felt more accepted as a foreigner than ever before once I gave birth here. Though I was grateful for that, I think it’s absurd that non-mothers can’t get equal respect. It speaks volumes to how maddeningly one-dimensional women are in the eyes of this culture. And then there is the bitter irony of lauding mothers while doing so little to support them, so you end up with the paradox (one of so many in Italy) of a mother-loving country with remarkably low birth rate. Great post.

    1. Oh, thank you so much for the comment & insights! There are just so many layers to this issue, it’s like an onion with no center…

  3. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head by saying that being a woman *anywhere* in the world is complicated. Italy doesn’t have the monopoly – and isn’t even anywhere near the most difficult, I don’t think.

    What I’ve learnt from being here for the past four years, though (and this doesn’t just apply to female-related issues) is that railing against the things I can’t change doesn’t help. Once I learnt to go with the flow I became much happier. Doesn’t mean that I won’t do what I can to change things for the future, but I know that it’s not going to happen *right now*. I also know fine well that I’m treated differently as a straniera. We may see ourselves as independent, enlightened, forward-thinking women, but a lot of people here see us as troie and threats precisely because of that mindset.

    Like you say: complicated …

    1. Yeah, I figure even if I lived there for a long time, I would always be treated differently as a non-native – forgiven for being “uppity,” since I came from an “uppity” culture, or whatever. On the other hand (says someone who majored in sociology), we’ve got the ability to continue to see something from an outside perspective, even while being inside it. It’s endlessly fascinating (albeit often frustrating).

  4. Hi Jessica, good job- i was wondering how the knights who don’t live in Italy might deal with this difficult topic. I think you are right, it’s quaint from afar, but far from quaint.

    Yesterday a man came to repair blinds at my house and asked me about kids. When I said i had none he implied that I looked like I was getting on 40, not much younger than he, but he had 4 kids. I pointed out that he was at work but i bet his wife was at home with the kids. He agreed. He suggested i get a dog instead. I told him ‘too much work. Who will take it out to pee when I am out of the house 11 hours of the day at work?’. In Italy, your business is everyone’s business!

    1. It’s similar, I think, to how many of the people who vacation in Italy leave after two weeks thinking, “I want to LIVE there!” without realizing their vacation experience is a far cry from the everyday reality.

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