Celebrating Women in History: Italy

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Every March Women’s History Month is celebrated around the world. Its goal is to recognize the generations of women who have shaped and changed our world and smashed records and perceptions.

This week we turn to Italy, a country where the fortunes of women have risen and fallen dramatically over the centuries. Traditionally, women had fewer rights and were encouraged to become housewives and mothers.

While the feminist movement of the 1970s shook up the accepted norms, life for women in Berlusconi’s Italy took a startling nosedive, leaving the country languishing 49 places below Kazakhstan in the Global Gender Gap Rankings. In a rising wave, discontented women in Italy are expected to make their voices heard, and these are the women they can look to for inspiration:

Gaspara Stampa (1523-1554)

Gaspara Stampa

Her poetry was mainly about a tormented love affair with an Italian count, and primarily in the lyrical style of Francesco Petrarch. So what is there for women to admire in anguished love notes aping another’s style? First, Stampa is now considered by many critics as Italy’s best female poet. However, while alive, she was harshly criticized for the use of sexual language in her poetry and her clear assertions of independence, highly unusual for a woman in 16th century Italy. Gaspara routinely visited Venice’s famous performance salons, another pursuit which earned her the disapproval of polite society. Both her lifestyle and poetry mark Stampa as extraordinarily progressive for her time.

Anna Maria Mozzoni (1837-1920)

Anna Maria Mozzoni

Widely known as the founder of the Italian Women’s Movement, Anna Maria Mozzoni began earning this title in the 1860s, when she published several works calling for the emancipation of women in Italy. Her tireless work secured her a place at the International Congress on Women’s Rights in Paris in 1878. Three years later, she founded the League for the Promotion of the Interests of Women in Milan, and she also played a crucial role in the founding of the Italian Worker’s Party. While she achieved little measurable success, and her death attracted little attention, she has been recognized posthumously for her indefatigable attempts to create equality in Italy.

Maria Montessori (1870-1952)

Maria Montessori

The surname is doubtlessly familiar: 30,000 schools worldwide bear it. But the development of Maria Montessori’s educational method—characterized by an emphasis on independence and encouragement of creativity—was fraught with struggles. Maria defied discouragement from her father to enroll in the University of Rome. After studying natural sciences, she entered the university’s medicine program, where she was harassed and made to study certain subjects separately from men. She then began working with children, opening her first school, the “Casa dei Bambini” or Children’s House in 1906. Her work attracted international recognition, and for the rest of her life, Montessori traveled tirelessly around the world, lecturing, training and ensuring her method would live on.

Rita Levi-Montalcini (1909-2012)

Rita Levi-Montalcini

“Above all, don’t fear difficult moments. The best comes from them,” said pioneering biologist Rita-Levi Montalcini, whose life was peppered with difficult moments. As a teenager, she defied her father to enroll in medical school, and then during World War II defied Mussolini’s ban on non-Aryans in professional studies.  She conducted groundbreaking neurology experiments, secretly studying chicken nerve cells in her bedroom, first in Turin and then in a country cottage to escape wartime bombing. Her greatest achievement was the discovery of nerve growth factor (NGF), for which she won the Nobel Prize for physiology in 1986. She also set up the Rita Levi-Montalcini Foundation, committed to the scientific education of African girls.

Miuccia Prada (born 1949)

Prada Boutique in Milan, Italy

Fashion and feminism do not appear to be natural bedfellows, and for many years Miuccia Prada felt entering the fashion industry would be the “worst thing” she could do. Instead, she earned a PhD in political science, and campaigned for women’s rights in Milan. However, she eventually took over the family label in 1978, and is now a leading voice in an industry curiously dominated by men. Perhaps her best service as a feminist operating in an industry criticized for promoting unattainable ideals is her focus on reality. “I struggle with and work against illusion,” she says. “I have always said I want to be very practical, realistic.” Her fashion is known as cool, original, and flattering for women.


One Response to “ Celebrating Women in History: Italy ”

  1. Frank Marchionda says:

    You left out my Mother.

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