Italy once had a thriving feminist movement. In the late 1960s and for most of the 1970s, Italian society changed dramatically under both demographic and political pressure. Women earned greater financial and personal freedoms: The right to divorce in 1970 (confirmed in a 1974 referendum), as well as reforms in family law, the legalization of family planning (both in 1975), and the legalization of abortion in 1978, all led to greater legal, financial, and personal security for women. Major student protests and the changing social climate gave women an increasing voice in the workplace and in wider society.
But instead of moving to the near equality that women now enjoy in the rest of Western Europe, in Italy the process stopped -- or rather, was pushed off course. There are certainly underlying sociological causes -- not least, the influence of the Roman Catholic Church -- but the crass populism of Berlusconi's TV programming played an undeniably large role.
When Italian broadcasting was liberalized in the late 1970s, Berlusconi's offerings couldn't have contrasted more greatly with the staid standard fare offered by public broadcasters. Pretty scantily dressed girls became essential decoration for most TV shows, to be seen but not heard. Italy is hardly the only country in which sex is used to attain success. But on Berlusconi's increasingly influential channels, it became the only model on offer to Italian women.
In the last few years, he put this model into practice in his cabinet: Among party candidates for regional assemblies and the European Parliament were pretty younger women, often ex-showgirls, appointed by Berlusconi.
Finger-pointing aside, it's undeniable that gender equality has suffered. The glass ceiling in today's Italy is thicker than in comparable countries. According to the OECD, the percentage of women employed in the labor market is declining. Currently, only 46.4 percent of women work -- compared with 80 percent of Norwegian women. In Europe, only Turkey, where 24 percent of women are employed, makes a poorer showing. The 2007 World Economic Forum gender gap index put Italy in 84th place, down from 77th in 2006.
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