50.50: Feature

Why this Italian MP launched a book-long protest against patriarchy

Laura Boldrini has been fighting for women’s rights and against sexism for years. Her new book demands both outrage and cultural change

roberta BW.jpg Claire Provost author pic
Roberta Scalise Claire Provost
1 February 2022, 9.50am
Laura Boldrini at a demonstration in support of Afghan women, Rome, September 2021
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Andrea Petinari / Medialys Images by Massimiliano Ferraro / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

The atmosphere feels electric with anticipation. All around us we hear the same question: “Is she here?” Laura Boldrini’s event at Turin’s Circolo dei Lettori, a grand literary social club, has been sold out for days. Staff buzz around, making final adjustments to seats and decorations.

When Boldrini arrives, she pauses as she moves through the room to gracefully greet people, but eventually reaches our table, in a back room with high painted ceilings.

While waiting, we noticed that many of the paintings on the walls are portraits, and almost all of them are of men. We noticed this because we are feminist journalists – but also because it made the setting for this interview seem even more appropriate.

We had not arranged to meet Boldrini, an MP for the centre-left Democratic Party (Partito Democratico, PD), to hear gossip from Rome. While Italy continues to battle COVID-19 and political upheaval, she launched a book-long protest against patriarchy – in Italy and in general – and was in town to talk about it.

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“Italy has never achieved the necessary progress in equality and gender equality [...] It has remained firmly in a patriarchal model to which it seems irredeemably anchored,” she laments in her new book, ‘Questo non è normale’ (This is Not Normal), which came out in late 2021.

Italy has remained firmly in a patriarchal model to which it seems irredeemably anchored

Aimed at a general audience, the book has a clear goal: to rid Italy of thinking that sexism and gender inequality are part of ‘normal’ life. Subtitled ‘How to End Male Power over Women’, it demands outrage at the status quo – but also cultural change.

Long-term work, the book argues, is needed to “deeply affect the cultural fabric” and train new generations in “mutual respect and the rejection of stereotypes and violence”.

This is what strikes us when Boldrini sits down at our large wooden table. Yes, policies are important, but everyday culture and what’s considered common or typical is what she seems to think is most crucial.

“I thought that it would be useful to focus on daily discriminations, prejudices, stereotypes, to offer with the book an ‘awareness instrument’ to explain to people, and mainly to young women, that all this isn’t normal at all,” says Boldrini.

“The main goal,” the politician is clear, is to end the “diminishing and controlling of women to guarantee men’s power”. She’s also clear that this requires “a collective fight”, and describes her book as her “contribution to the cause”. Though it’s not her first protest.

Pro-women campaigns

She describes proudly how she fought successfully to be called ‘la presidente’, rather than the masculine ‘il presidente’, when she was speaker of the chamber of deputies, the lower house of the Italian parliament, between 2013 and 2018.

“For 70 years, only the masculine [titles for official roles] existed in parliamentary acts,” her book explains. “For 70 years, we had accepted it as normal that every woman who sets foot in that institution should be considered a man.”

She also describes her campaign to get portraits of women hung in Italy’s parliament, where – as in the room in Turin where we met – the walls were dominated by pictures of men. Not because, she insists, women haven’t been involved in politics for a long time.

She references as examples the women who were involved in creating Italy’s current constitution after the Second World War, and who were absent from these portrait galleries.

“It is also sexism to obscure the female figures of our history in institutional buildings,” her book explains. After visiting Sweden’s parliament, and seeing its dedicated Women’s Room complete with portraits of women, she had the idea to do something similar in Rome.

Sexist attacks and backlash

Boldrini is a high-profile MP, but she’s only been in politics for about a decade. A law graduate, she worked as a journalist before joining a series of United Nations agencies. For almost 15 years, until 2012, she worked for UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency.

Writing ‘Questo non è normale’ wasn’t easy. In addition to being a full-time MP, last year Boldrini underwent surgery for cancer. Her book was delayed as a result, but, she says, she was driven to complete it as soon as she was able.

There was also backlash to contend with “as soon as I announced the book’s release on social media”. She recalls receiving tens of thousands of negative comments “within an hour” in an online “assault” that she thought seemed coordinated.

Boldrini is used to being attacked. In 2014, she spoke to The Guardian about the misogynistic insults and even rape threats she has received as an MP.

In 2018, she accused Matteo Salvini, leader of the far-right Lega party and at the time interior minister, of pursuing a “terrifying campaign” of sexist attacks against her. She said Salvini once attended a political rally with a sex doll that he said represented her.

Her book also looks beyond Italy’s borders at international threats to women’s rights. For example, she cites how in 2019 “the United Nations and the Kenyan government were targeted on the eve of a global conference” by internationally connected groups.

Boldrini tells us she believes that most of her book’s readers will be women, though she’d rather it wasn’t that way. The book is explicitly dedicated to “men who know how to wish women well, who value and respect them”.

When our interview is over, we all leave for the same place – the main hall in the Circolo dei Lettori, where Boldrini is due to talk about her book. The room is crowded with people in anti-COVID masks.

As she takes to the stage, we count the audience: about 70 people, of whom not even 20 are men. Around 25%. This may not be surprising for a talk about sexism and women’s equality – but we now ask ourselves if this is normal.

This is, of course, Boldrini’s key point – that such dynamics need to change, and that interrogating what is considered ‘normal’ is exactly what we should do. Her book is a manifesto for critical thinking about everyday life, as well as a rallying cry for change.

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