Giorgia Meloni says she wants to ‘protect’ Italian women. Some are skeptical

Giorgia Meloni, leader of the Fratelli d'Italia (Brothers of Italy) speaks at a press conference at the party electoral headquarters
Giorgia Meloni is set to become Italy's first female prime minister.
Antonio Masiello—Getty Images

Good morning, Broadsheet readers! Lila MacLellan here, filling in for Emma. The British pound tanks following prime minister Liz Truss’s tax cut proposal, Girls Who Code books are banned from a Pennsylvania school district, and what the election of far-right politician Giorgia Meloni means for women in Italy.

– Rome’s new direction. In the lead-up to Italy’s general election over the weekend, Giorgia Meloni, the 45-year-old head of the far-right Brothers of Italy party, tried to deflect attention from her neofascist roots. “Fascism has been consigned to history,” she told foreign press in an August video message.

Meloni, who is now poised to become Italy’s first female prime minister after her coalition party won a majority in parliament on Sunday, likewise tried to convince women that she isn’t “a monster,” says Giorgia Serughetti, a professor of political philosophy at the University of Milan-Bicocca. “She promised not to touch women’s rights.”

Though Meloni’s apparent ascent to power is unprecedented in a country where politics have been dominated by men, feminists in the country are hardly celebrating it as a win for women.

Meloni may be smashing a glass ceiling, but she opposes gender quotas, abortion, and LGBTQ+ rights. “Yes to natural families, no to the LGBT lobby. Yes to sexual identity, no to gender ideology,” she said in a speech to supporters of Spain’s populist Vox party in June. She’s also against “pink quotas,” whether in government or in boardrooms, stating that she believes in merit-based rather than gender-based advancement.

I spoke to two experts on Monday to gauge how Meloni’s win is perceived in Italy and beyond. By and large, they told me that Meloni’s proposed policies reveal she is in fact an extreme far-right politician, and her public commitment to safeguarding women’s rights appears to be deceptive. “Her whole agenda has been about protecting women,” Serughetti says. But she believes Meloni is instead protecting women’s ability to fulfill their traditional role as mothers. What she offers, says Serughetti, is “more protection, less freedom.”

With Meloni in power, many fear that women’s progress in Italy will stall. Experts point to recent discrepancies between Meloni’s promises to women and her party’s actions in a region it already leads.

Yet Meloni won support among a sizable percentage of Italian women, in part, because she effectively capitalized on a universal fear that they’ve been left behind, Serughetti says. And in many ways they have been. Italian women disproportionately shouldered the pandemic’s economic setback and have yet to regain their financial footing in its aftermath. Finding affordable childcare is another challenge that keeps Italian women out of the workplace and from achieving financial independence. At least 40% of women don’t work outside the home.

But Nadia Urbinati, a professor of political theory at Columbia University, argues that Meloni’s interest in supporting women is limited to mothers. “On one hand, this is good because if you have a job and you are a mother, you should have rights.” But ultimately, she says, the conservative Meloni is far more concerned with “supporting women at maternity and—if needed—at work.”

Although first-trimester abortions have been legal in Italy since 1978, the incoming prime minister is expected to make access to abortion more difficult. Meloni, who has ties to the pro-life movement, has said she will not reverse the country’s abortion law but that she will strengthen policies that give women alternatives. Many view this as a sign that Meloni will make policy changes that would dramatically limit abortion access, says Serughetti.

Many of Meloni’s policies on motherhood cater to women in heterosexual relationships. Though the politician has never come out against gay relationships, Serughetti notes, she is unquestionably against same-sex marriage. Under Meloni’s proposals, only the biological parent of a same-sex couple would be recognized as the child’s parent.

Meloni’s rallying cry has largely centered on patriotism and pushback against Italy’s reliance on foreign workers as its birth rate collapses. While Urbinati says that leaders of other parties in her coalition are more overtly xenophobic and anti-Islamist, Meloni’s repulsion policies are disguised by “a discourse that holds together immigration, maternity, and reproductive policies.”

“When Meloni talks about protecting women, what she really intends is to protect Italian and white women, with no attention to the particular fragility and vulnerability of migrant women,” Serughetti adds.

With 26% of the election votes, Meloni certainly has admirers. But Serughetti believes her victory is partly a product of timing. Meloni ran during a snap election and dominated a condensed campaign period that fell in the summer when most Italians were vacationing. It was difficult to mount counter-protests, and the election saw record-low voter turnout. It didn’t help that the incumbent party was in shambles.

Still, Meloni’s win could usher in another politically transformative and socially conscious era in Italy. “I expect a season of mobilization,” Serughetti says. “I expect families to take to the streets.”

Lila MacLellan

The Broadsheet is Fortune’s newsletter for and about the world’s most powerful women. Today’s edition was curated by Paige McGlauflin. Subscribe here.


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