'I am Giorgia, I am a woman, I am a mother'. So said Giorgia Meloni in a speech that has defined her career. Yet, write Laura Montecchio and Marianna Griffini, Meloni is far from a promoter of gender rights
In the past year, the populist radical right (PRR) parties across Europe have garnered substantial success at first-order elections. France, Italy, Sweden and Hungary are all prime examples. Of course, this is not unusual; PRR parties have often enjoyed electoral gains, as well as stints in government.
What is distinctive about the recent PRR electoral successes is the prominence of female party leaders. These leaders include Marine Le Pen (Rassemblement National) who came close to winning the French presidential elections in 2022. But most emblematic of female leaders' present success at the helm of PRR parties is Giorgia Meloni, leader of Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy, or FdI). Meloni scored a resounding victory at the latest Italian elections, gaining 26% of the votes. It was an election that portended seismic changes in Italian politics.
The cultural paradigm in Italian politics is clearly shifting from a male-dominated political arena to a more diverse one
Meloni's win established her as the first Italian female Prime Minister. In winning, she not only defeated Partito Democratico opposition leader Enrico Letta, but also her coalition partners Matteo Salvini (Lega) and Silvio Berlusconi.
So, the cultural paradigm in Italian politics is clearly shifting from a male-dominated political arena to a more diverse one. However, women in politics remain underrepresented, especially in leadership positions.
Just after Meloni was sworn in as Prime Minister, Alberta Giorgi and Enzo Loner predicted that
Even though her being a woman is relevant in her speeches, (…) it is unlikely that this would result in an increasing attention to feminist concerns and an improvement of women’s rights and gender justiceGiorgi and loner, in the journal Social Politics, december 2022
Indeed, Meloni's expression of support for gender rights has been inconsistent. We see this in FdI’s 2022 manifesto, and in Meloni's appointment of a conservative Minister for Family, Natality, and Equal Opportunity. We can see it, too, in Meloni's policies responding to the pressing issues of birthrates and women’s role as mothers. These were articulated in the annual Budget and Economic Bill or Manovra, passed on 30 December 2022. The Bill proposes tax breaks directly proportional to family size, and an extension of parental leave.
FdI's 2022 manifesto pledges to narrow the gender pay gap and cut the tampon tax. It also offers incentives to break the 'glass ceiling' that restricts women’s professional fulfilment in the workplace.
Italy's so-called Law 194 guarantees a woman's right to abortion in the first 90 days of pregnancy for health, economic, social or family-related reasons. FdI's manifesto clarifies that it has no intention of repealing this law.
At the same time, these pro-women’s rights propositions are at odds with Meloni’s actions. Since becoming leader, Meloni has appointed Eugenia Roccella as Minister for Family, Natality and Equal Opportunity. Roccella is a vocal supporter of the 'traditional' family, and opposes adoption for same-sex couples. The recent renaming of the Ministry itself, previously known as Ministry for Equal Opportunity and Family, reveals Meloni's reactionary prioritisation of the family and natality over equal opportunities for all.
In truth, all this should come as no surprise. In its 2022 manifesto, FdI advocates for the protection of human life from the moment of conception. The manifesto stigmatises abortion, and it supports incentives to raise Italy's birthrate, and reverse the demographic 'ice-age'. The manifesto proposes the ‘prevention of abortion’ by offering financial aid to pregnant women suffering financial hardship. Moreover, it rejects the right to adoption, or surrogacy, for same-sex couples.
Meloni released a TikTok video of her appearance on an Italian TV show, in which she vows to apply in full Law 194, which sanctions the right to abortion. But Law 194 also secures financial aid for women who seek abortion for economic reasons, enabling them to continue their pregnancy. However, according to Meloni, this clause has never been applied in practice. Indeed, she argues that giving financial support to pregnant women considering abortion would support women’s self-determination.
Meloni appears to defend women’s and gender rights. But her defence of those rights is oddly entangled with more reactionary stances
So, on the face of it, Meloni appears to defend women’s and gender rights. However, on closer scrutiny, her defence of those rights is oddly entangled with more reactionary stances.
Meloni has been explicitly hostile towards LGBTQIA+ rights. In 2020, her party was among those which opposed the Zan bill, named after its creator, deputy Alessandro Zan. The bill aimed to increase fines against hate crimes targeting the LGBTQIA+ community and women, among other categories.
FdI and Lega members of parliament put forward several objections to the bill. They opposed the recognition of transgender identities, and the use of gender-neutral words. They also objected to the terms ‘parent one’ and ‘parent two’ rather than ‘mother’ and ‘father’, when referring to parenting roles.
Between 2013 and 2021, Elisabetta De Giorgi, Alice Cavalieri and Francesca Feo analysed references to women's issues in FdI’s parliamentary speeches, and on the @GiorgiaMeloni Twitter account, noting the salience of femonationalism, where nationalist ideology meets feminist ideas. However, after the 2022 elections, femonationalist sentiments in Meloni’s discourse decreased.
Indeed, at the time of writing, Meloni has recently defended the rights of Muslim women against allegedly oppressive Muslim men. This is not to say that the fight for women’s rights and the ethno-cultural nationalist credo ‘othering’ immigrants have subsided. Quite the contrary. But it signals that, at the moment, the two issues have not yet become intertwined.
Giorgia Meloni addresses her adoring crowds by identifying herself as 'a woman and a mother'. But she is not a true advocate for gender rights. In one sense, Meloni's contribution to female political representation is epoch-changing. She promises to empower women, and to preserve gender rights. Yet she also defends the so-called ‘traditional' family, works to undermine-LGBTQIA+ rights, and takes an ambivalent stance on abortion.
The contradictions are stark. Clearly, having a woman in charge does not necessarily advance gender rights, or enhance gender justice.
No.27 in a thread on the 'illiberal wave' 🌊 sweeping world politics
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