With men routinely taking lovers and expecting their wives to cook, clean and look elegant, Silvio Berlusconi is only part of the problem
by Maria Laura Rodotà
It's not easy to explain, as an Italian woman, why so many of us continue to admire Silvio Berlusconi. Why some of us justify his brazen womanising, his appointments of beautiful girls to political office, his absurd macho posturing. And why others hate him but don't speak up.
Today's average Italian woman is a hybrid incomprehensible to foreigners: she's overdressed, overworked and has the lowest self-esteem in the western world. If she has a job, she has to work overtime inside and outside the home (Italian men rarely clean or cook, and spend less time looking after the children). Unwritten laws demand that she is cute, thin, elegant and well made-up. For Italian men it's normal to have a wife and a lover, which is why many have been amused by the adventures of the prime minister. The number of women in positions of power is small; in politics, almost all owe their status to men. The fear of being caricatured as a bitter feminist (who probably hasn't got a sex life) is always strong. Women who overcome that fear are often ridiculed.
At Corriere della Sera we've experienced this at first hand. Last week I wrote an open letter to Italian women. The paper received an avalanche of comments online. Virtually all the women shared my anger. "Finally we're talking about this," they wrote. "We must organise and act." But the men, including those on the left, responded differently: "What a lot of hysteria and poison."
So we are beginning to understand that the battle is not only against Berlusconi. It's against our friends, partners, colleagues and bosses. And if they are sexist, who can blame them? For the Italian male, it's not going too badly. They can be family men as well as serial playboys; they can work hard and return to splendidly kept houses; they can be anti-Berlusconi, yet make jokes about women Berlusconi-style, and whoever gets offended is just a silly woman. And to enjoy a spectacle of serried ranks of starlets, they can watch the half-naked silent TV showgirls invented by Berlusconi's channels. Some 80% of Italians receive most of their information from Rai and Mediaset which, indirectly or directly, are controlled by the prime minister.
But gradually a small number of women are beginning to ask whether it is time to act and how to do it. Some, like the political scientist Nadia Urbinati, warn that "the condition and treatment of women holds the mirror up to a country" and want to organise street demonstrations. Against Silvio and his escort girls? It would look ridiculous.
Many women doubt anything can be done, but others see a new awakening. Perhaps Italian women should use one of their best characteristics: the ability to be real ball-breakers. If we used this skill in a targeted and determined way, Italian men who have made themselves in Berlusconi's image would have to change their ways. So please don't consider us the sick women of Europe . At least not yet. We can do something.
Maria Laura Rodotà is the former editor of Italian women's magazine Amica and a columnist with Corriere della Sera.