Feminist or not, Giorgia Meloni has a duty towards Italian women

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Giorgia Meloni, leader of the far-right Brothers of Italy, is leading the polls ahead of next month’s Italian general election. In fact, she can already imagine herself sitting in Palazzo Chigi, the magnificent 16th-century palace in the heart of Rome that is home to Italy’s prime minister.

Meloni recently told Fox Business that becoming prime minister would be the honor of a lifetime. It certainly would. Meloni could be the first female head of government in Italy since the republic was restored after World War II in 1946. In a country known for its high testosterone levels, that would be a historic achievement.

But would Meloni really advance the cause of women in Italy? Her record suggests that at best, she’ll act like it’s not a real problem. At worst, if she bows to her party’s hard line, her tenure could be a major setback for Italian feminists.

A clue will come from the way she refers to her position as prime minister. Would it be: Meloni, il Presidente del Consiglio, as the office is officially known? Or the President? For those who do not speak Italian, the difference may seem small, but it is important.

In politics, Italy has a long tradition of referring to women politicians using the masculine form of titles. It symbolizes centuries in which men almost exclusively controlled power. There was no need to clarify the gender in his language – you just assumed he was a man in command.

Although there has been a push in recent years to incorporate the female version of professional titles and positions of power, the old ways persist. It is not uncommon to hear il ministro – instead of la ministra – for a female minister on television. In the written press, the head of the Italian Senate, Maria Elisabetta Alberti Casellati, appears on all official communications in the masculine form: Il Presidente.

Perhaps it all seems inconsequential. However, such linguistic quirks in national discourse point to a much larger problem of female representation in Italian politics.

Aside from Meloni, the rest of the party leaders — from the more progressive forces to the right — are men. And then you have Silvio Berlusconi, leader of Forza Italia. His issues involving women – from a public divorce to the infamous bunga bunga parties – would have ended his career elsewhere; in Italy, it added to his bravado. Times have changed since Berlusconi’s Italy, but his legacy is profound.

Therein lies the irony surrounding Giorgia Meloni. If she takes the top job, she would carry Italy’s claim to a pioneering female premiership – escorted by Berlusconi and League party leader Matteo Salvini, who played the role of the alpha male when he was Minister of the Interior. As for the left, a premiership of Meloni would rob them of their aspiration to break the glass ceiling, although that’s a hard thing to achieve when you’re not promoting women. And then there are the feminists, who make a good point: being a woman doesn’t automatically make someone a supporter of women.

Meloni, who made headlines for having a baby out of wedlock, knows firsthand the prejudices and barriers that Italian women face. She has spoken at length about the discrimination she faced while running for mayor of Rome while pregnant in 2016. Yet her policies on how to avoid such discrimination are murky.

She is against female quotas in professional competitions. The criticism is that sex trumps talent, and she prefers to focus on merit – but she admits women have to work twice as hard to be as successful as men. At a recent rally, she raged against gender ideology, abortion and what she called the LGBT lobby. She later said her tone was off, but did not apologize.

For Italy, this is not only a political problem. The country has one of the lowest female labor force participation rates among rich countries. According to a UniCredit study published last year, only 55% of Italian women able to work are actually working, suggesting that increasing women’s participation is good for growth and a matter of social justice. Compared to Spain, Italy lags behind by more than 10 percentage points in terms of female labor force. For someone who knows both countries well, going from Madrid to Rome sometimes feels like stepping back in time 15 years. (By the way, in Spanish women ministers are ministras and the boss is la presidenta.)

In their joint political manifesto, the Italian right, led by Meloni, barely mentions these issues. There is no reference to closing the gender pay gap or promoting equal economic opportunity, especially after having a child. In fact, the only brief reference to women in the 17-page document released last week devotes more resources to addressing domestic violence. The picture is grim for Italian women: according to Interior Ministry data, 75 women have been killed as a result of domestic violence so far this year, a 4% increase on last year. .

Meloni has made no secret of his ambition for power. “Whether it’s karting competition or politics, I have to win,” she once said. But if she does, she will have the responsibility of making sure the Italian women win too. After all, being the President would indeed be the honor of a lifetime.

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This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Maria Tadeo is Bloomberg Television’s European correspondent based in Brussels where she covers European politics, economics and NATO.

More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion

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