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ROME — Giorgia Meloni, a 45-year-old, unmarried mother from Rome, is poised to make history. If opinion polls prove right, she is set to be appointed Italy’s first female prime minister after elections later this month.
But what Meloni’s victory would mean for the rights of women, and the campaign for equality in Italian politics, is less clear.
In recent weeks, a series of female celebrities have lined up against Meloni and her far-right Brothers of Italy party. They have attacked her family planning policies, her dedication to the “traditional” family, and her disregard for minority rights as evidence that she will not help female representation or increase women’s rights.
The singer Levante wrote on her Instagram that Meloni’s vision excludes minorities and women who do not conform to an idealized image of the heterosexual, Christian mother. Elodie, another popular singer, highlighted parts of the Brothers’ 2018 election proposals to “defend the natural family, combat gender ideology and promote life.” “Frankly it scares me,” she wrote on social media.
Last week it was the turn of Italy’s top fashion influencer Chiara Ferragni, who took aim at Meloni in an Instagram story, claiming that Brothers of Italy have made it “practically impossible” to have an abortion in the Marche region, which the party governs. This, Ferragni told her 27 million followers, is a “policy that risks becoming national if the right wins the elections … Now is our time to act and make sure this doesn’t happen.”
For her supporters, a Meloni premiership would send the strongest possible signal that there are no limits to the opportunities open to women in Italy.
In a political culture infamous for its machismo, her victory would certainly be remarkable. Women have previously reached the rank of foreign minister and president of the Senate, but 76 years after the foundation of the republic, she would be the first woman to lead the government, after 30 men served as prime minister before her.
During her career, Meloni has played up her status as an outsider. She has spoken out about how she was pushed to sit out the race for mayor of Rome when pregnant, and how she faces gender-based online threats and abuse. The fact she is an unmarried, working mother — and was raised by a single mother — may make her more relatable to normal women.
But for her adversaries, none of these personal characteristics guarantees that she will deliver what Italian women need.
Meloni’s party has voted against proposals in Europe and Italy to protect women from discrimination and violence, because of its opposition to gender ideology. For senator Valeria Valente of the center-left Democrats, “Meloni plays on the novelty factor [of being a woman] but does not represent and work for women. [Her premiership] is not an opportunity for women.”
Valente believes that Ferragni’s concerns about the risk to abortion rights are “well founded.” In regions already run by Meloni’s Brothers of Italy, national guidelines to make the abortion pill available in a day clinic are not adhered to. To justify this policy,regional politicians in Le Marche, of Italian children,.
In Italy, only 49 percent of women work, compared to 73 percent in Germany. Some of Meloni’s critics say her policies would risk making this gap wider. Meloni has promised to cut taxes for larger families to boost Italy’s currently low birth rate of 1.2 births per woman, compared with 1.5 in Germany and 1.8 in France.
While this would be potentially a welcome tax break for some, there are concerns it would also risk holding back economic equality for women in Italy. “She wants to keep women at home,” Valente told POLITICO.
Isabella Rauti, a senator for Brothers of Italy, said Meloni’s policies would help women reconcile work and family by incentivizing companies that hire new mothers, and that adopt family-friendly policies. “Her appointment as prime minister would be something completely new and send a message to all Italian women.”
Meloni has been clear she would not abolish the 1978 law that legalized abortion. However she would seek to fully apply a part of the law that directed state entities to offer women abortion alternatives, to “overcome the causes that could induce the woman to terminate her pregnancy,” Rauti explained.
Some measures that have already been adopted in regions run by the right include paying women not to abort and allowing groups into hospitals and family planning clinics. Abortion rights groups say these measures are designed to confuse women and delay their decision until it is too late to legally abort.
Undoubtedly Meloni has already broken barriers — she was the youngest cabinet minister in Italy’s history.
But her rise is not guaranteed to open the door for more women to enter politics. Meloni decries feminism and does not believe in setting quotas. She argues that only merit-based promotion gives women authority. The conundrum for feminists is whether a Meloni government is a victory because she is a woman, or a defeat because she is a woman on the right.
Historically Italy has a long way to go. The system is “so male-dominated and macho that the small number of powerful positions occupied by women do not become launchpads for others,” said Valeria Manieri, founder of Le Contemporanee, a start-up that campaigns against gender discrimination. “It is highly probable that her leadership will favor her and only her, without smoothing the path of others.”
Meloni may have some .
For Marina Terragni, a feminist writer, the left have ignored radical feminists for too long on issues such as gender politics and surrogacy. Now they see possible common ground with Meloni. “The left has never wanted to listen to the objections of feminists on these issues,” said Terragni. “The right is more willing.”
Some feminist groups have been pushing for surrogacy, which is already illegal in Italy, to become a crime even if carried out abroad.
“If Meloni promotes this policy — and she already has — I cannot say no because it is her that is saying it,” Terragni said. “That would be absurd. Obviously we have different ends,” added Terragni, who is an abortion rights supporter. But as an unmarried mother, Meloni is “a woman of our time.”
If nothing else, Meloni’s position at the top would raise questions about why in Italy and elsewhere it tends to be the political right — which often backs more reactionary policies — that produces female leaders, like Angela Merkel in Germany and Margaret Thatcher, Theresa May and potentially Liz Truss in the U.K.
Whatever their politics, when women do break through they are inevitably capable, Manieri added. “Because to get there they have worked 10 times harder than a man. This certainly applies to Giorgia Meloni.”