Re Presenting Women: gender and the politics of sex in contemporary Italy

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Guerrina, R (2014) “(Re)Presenting Women: gender and the politics of sex in contemporary Italy” in Celis, K and Childs, S (eds) Gender, Conservativsm and Political Representation. ECPR Press.


Berlusconi’s ascendency to power in 1994 was a critical junction in the politics of gender in Italy. His leadership has been marred by numerous scandals and has been widely criticised for the sexualisation of women’s political participation (Hooper, 2011; McRobbie, 2011). It is perhaps too soon to assess the long term impact of the Berlusconi years on Italian social norms, though Newell (2009) and Benini (2012) have already identified and expressed concern about the exploitation of women’s bodies in the media. From a gender perspective, Berlusconi’s version of centre-right politics does not construct a new gender ideology as much as it exploits already established – i.e. dominant – norms that juxtapose women’s sexuality, mothering and religiousness to create a multifaceted form of dominant femininity. This chapter outlines how this process determines, and arguably limits, the ability of women in government to represent the interest of women as a constituency.

The history of women’s participation and representation in Italian politics is complex and has been defined by the dominance of Catholics values in both society and politics. Berlusconi’s rise to power resulted from the disintegration of the old Christian Democratic Party (DC) that dominated Italian politics in the post-war period. His leadership was predicated on a mixture of liberal economic policies and conservative social policy. Following the general election defeat in 2006, Berlusconi sought an alliance of convenience with other parties of the centre-right. These included, amongst others, National Alliance (AN) and the Union of Christian and Centre Democrats (UDC). This new umbrella party – Popolo della Libertá/People of Freedom (PdL) – provided a platform for the renewal of a conservative political agenda that aspired to economic reform whilst supporting Italian conservative/Catholic values (Edwards, 2011; Pasquino, 2008).
The Berlusconi IV government (2008-2012) symbolises the merging of three conservative visions – AN, Forza Italia and Christian Democracy This chapter looks at this government to highlight the impact of gender ideologies on womens position as citizens and political actors. Seeking to map gender politics in a particular phase of contemporary Italian history, the main aim is to expose the impact of the Popolo della Libertás competing discourses on gender and how women in the government positioned themselves in relation to the partys political ideology, the politics of gender, and womens representation more broadly. In particular, it looks at the interface of social conservatism and populism in the politics of the centre-right and how it defines/curtails the political agency of women in the government.
The joining of forces of the three key conservative forces in the country under the banner of the Popolo della Libertá provides a useful starting point for the analysis of the politics of gender in the Italian right. The populist nature of Berlusconi’s politics also allows for a wider commentary about emerging gender ideologies in the country. The analysis of the tension between symbolic and substantive representation, the framing of gender ideologies and the public performance of dominant norms, provide a platform for a more detailed examination of the state of gender politics in Italy. The chapter evaluates the quality of women’s political representation along the following lines: 1. Political leadership and performance – both as members of a party and independent actors; 2. Representation of women’s interest; 3. Media coverage and depiction vis-à-vis the relationship with party leadership.

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