Who is Elly Schlein, the first woman and LGBTIQ+ leader of Italy’s left?
The Democratic Party’s new leader is the main centre-left rival to far-right prime minister Georgia Meloni
Another woman has shaken up Italy’s male-dominated political scene – but this time, she’s a feminist, openly queer and left-wing.
Say hello to Elly Schlein, 37, the new head of the progressive Democratic Party (PD). The party is the main centre-left rival to the far-right Brothers of Italy, which swept to power in last year’s election, when its leader, Giorgia Meloni, became Italy’s first female prime minister.
To the surprise of party stalwarts and pollsters, Schlein defeated her older, more centrist male opponent Stefano Bonaccini in PD’s leadership election at the end of February. “They didn’t see us coming,” Schlein quipped triumphantly after her win.
Frequently compared to the US’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Finland’s Sanna Marin and New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern – a cohort of women heralded as the new ‘warriors’ fighting a global far-right surge – Schlein looks to bring a fresh vision to Italy, one that stands in stark contrast with Meloni’s iron-fisted, nationalist approach.
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Schlein’s outsider status, not to mention her chutzpah, charisma and drive, have already given her one important win against Italy’s far-right, when she helped defeat Meloni’s ally, Matteo Salvini’s Northern League, in the Emilia-Romagna region in 2020. But emerging victorious in a general election in Italy – a notoriously messy and tribalistic affair – is a whole other matter.
To succeed, she needs to revive the PD’s diminishing influence and fend off her political adversaries - as well as counter doubts from within her own party.
Background, political and personal
For decades, Italy’s leaders have hailed from a remarkably homogeneous political milieu, and all looked rather similar: homegrown, greying and male.
Schlein traces her heritage much further afield. Born in Switzerland to a family of Jewish-American and Italian academics, she cut her political teeth in the US, where she campaigned for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012.
Unlike Meloni, who climbed the political ladder as a loyal member of Italy’s post-fascist, national-conservative tradition, she has tip-toed around the margins of the PD since it was founded in 2007. Schlein even quit the party in 2015, while serving as a member of the European Parliament, when PD leader and then prime minister Matteo Renzi tried to push through economically liberal reforms.
She remained an active member of the broader centre-left coalition, but rejoined the PD only last year, two months before the leadership race that followed the party’s brutal defeat in last September’s snap general election. She remained unpopular with much of the party’s establishment – which is why her victory was such a shock.
Her outsider reputation within the centre-left has been compounded by two other key aspects of her identity: her gender and her sexuality.
Her status as a queer woman in a country whose LGBTIQ+ rights record is among the weakest in western Europe – and where gay marriage proper is yet to be legalised – has attracted public attention. Yet, in spite of the energy she channels into defending the rights of the queer community, Schlein remains reserved about her private life. She came out publicly on an Italian talk show in 2020, revealing she was bisexual and had a girlfriend, but has been largely silent ever since.
I want a party in which no woman, especially if she is young, is asked ‘who she belongs to’ – because she just belongs to herself
Schlein is, however, considerably more vocal about being a woman in a male-dominated political environment. While Meloni may have broken Italy’s glass ceiling by being elected its first female prime minister, becoming the first woman to lead the country’s left is no small feat either – and Schlein hopes it can be a turning point for others like her.
“I want a party in which no woman, especially if she is young, is asked ‘who she belongs to’ – because she just belongs to herself,” Schlein declared recently on a popular TV talk show.
While Italy’s left-wing tradition includes many female pioneers (most prominently, Communist politician Nilde lotti, who became the first female speaker of Parliament’s lower house in 1979), the PD’s all-male leadership has alienated many women in a party that purports to be the country’s leading progressive force. The significance Schlein’s election holds for many members cannot be overstated.
“Her victory is an important turning point for a party like the PD, which in past years had struggled to connect with a big chunk of its progressive female electorate,” said Bianca Gaudenzi, a political historian at the German Historical Institute in Rome and supporter of Schlein.
It may seem odd that the deeply conservative Brothers of Italy party managed to elect a woman leader before the PD, but political analysts have argued that left-wing women often face even greater hurdles than their right-wing counterparts.
“Women leading progressive political forces bring about greater social upsets and upheavals,” said Costanza Hermanin from the European University Institute.
“Consequently, they struggle to emerge, more so than women in conservative parties.”
Regardless of their opposing beliefs, Meloni and Schlein now occupy a similar space within Italy’s political system. In a country where more than two-thirds of lawmakers are men, the importance of having women in charge of its two leading political forces is undeniable, said PD member Laura Leuzzi.
But will the election of the two leaders result in more systemic change?
“It’s difficult to ascertain whether theirs is an isolated case, but it certainly denotes that the tides are turning for a certain [demographic] of the country,” Leuzzi said. “It will be up to the two leaders to open the doors to greater diversity in institutional settings and positions of power.”
A left-wing populist?
Schlein opens her latest book, ‘La Nostra Parte’ (Our Part), which was published last year and details her life and political visions, with a call to disrupt the status quo – using the popular Covid-19 slogan: “We won’t go back to normal, because normal was the problem.”
Schlein’s speeches echo the passion of other young reformist politicians in the US and the UK. She imbues her rhetoric with references to patriarchy, racism, feminism, LGBTIQ+ rights and the environment, and promises to fight for a state-mandated minimum wage – which Italy still lacks.
Among her political reference points are figures far removed from the Italian political mainstream, such as US critical race theory scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw; and she wears her anti-fascist credentials like a badge, making ‘Bella ciao’ (Italy’s famous Resistance anthem during the Second World War) her own call to arms.
Her activism is rooted in her first-hand experience in a nation that, while increasingly multi-ethnic, has seen racism intensify, and which has never properly reckoned with its fascist and colonial past.
Schlein’s ability to infuse her politics with the struggles of minority groups she herself belongs to has given her a certain authenticity among Italy’s progressive younger voters
Her own Jewish heritage has made her a far-right target. “My nose is undoubtedly an important part of my body,” she said in response to antisemitic comments about her appearance. “A full-blown army of haters has been unleashed, using my nose and surname to express ignoble antisemitic sentiments.”
Schlein’s ability to infuse her politics with the struggles of minority groups she herself belongs to has given her a certain authenticity among Italy’s progressive younger voters. Indeed, she often employs the controversial neutral pronoun schwa (written as an upside-down e – ə) instead of the masculine form, to convey inclusivity in a language that has a strict gender binary.
The creeping influence of populism in mainstream politics means that some have asked if Schlein can be categorised as a left-wing answer to this phenomenon, but Italian historian Daniele Pasquinucci cautions against reading her politics through this lens. “I’d avoid talking about populism, a term that is misused nowadays,” he said. “If anything, I see [Schlein’s platform] as an attempt to move the PD to a more leftist ground.”
And ‘populist’ is not the only epithet used to characterise Schlein. “Communist… radical chic, privileged,” said veteran TV interviewer Lilli Gruber when she grilled Schlein about some of the terms ascribed to her by the right-wing press, to which the young politician scrambled to find a direct response.
Schlein vs Meloni
The biggest question for Italy’s left-wing voters is whether Schlein has what it takes to revive the PD and tackle Meloni come the next election (which will take place no later than 2027). The party’s electoral prospects have taken a hit in recent years, with its share of parliamentary seats dropping to 17% in 2022, just over a third of what it had ten years ago.
The reasons behind PD’s misfortunes are many and complex. Born out of a historical union of Italy’s postwar communist and more centrist Christian Democratic factions, it has suffered from a profound identity crisis since its genesis, struggling to bridge the chasm between its internal factions.
Surviving in Italy’s volatile political arena is a challenge too. Since the collapse of the main Cold War-era political blocs in the early 1990s, the national political landscape has become a messy buffet of short-lived parties, with voters barely able to return for seconds, leaving traditional political forces struggling to reinvent themselves.
Following the pandemic, Italy’s left has also been abandoned by its longtime supporters for failing to address the economic problems hurting the working class – a Europe-wide phenomenon that contributed to Meloni’s own stellar rise.
But Schlein appears confident for now, promising to be a “big problem” for Meloni, in part by focusing on issues that are important to women. “There’s no point in having a woman as prime minister who doesn’t fight for women,” she said last month.
She has repeatedly taken Meloni to task over her policies, from immigration and labour laws to her stance on gender, but has avoided inflammatory confrontation, preferring to offer an alternative vision for Italy.
Meloni’s government, Schlein said recently, “is obsessed with the issue of immigration, but has ignored the emigration of many young people [from Italy] who, with such low salaries and such precarious contracts, often choose to go elsewhere.” She added: “Instead, we want [Italy] to be the place where people can have a decent income and build their future.”
It’s too early to say whether Schlein will be able to rebuild the party’s voter base, but one thing seem certain, for now at least – it will be two women who are battling for the heart and soul of Italy for several years to come.
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