AN OVERWEIGHT Sicilian woman -- whose daughter's face bears witness to her own former beauty -- sits in the living room of her Palermo home and, ignoring her husband's disapproving glance, tells an interviewer that if she had it to do all over again she "would take at least 10 contraceptive pills a day."
Her life this time around included 11 live births and another 14 abortions, originally done behind her husband's back. Most terrifying of all, Signora Aliota says she doesn't like kids. Nevertheless, in true Sicilian style, she submitted to the will of her husband, who wanted "lots of children," particulaly because the first five or six his wife bore him were all girls.
Both Mrs. Aliota and her eldest daughter work as piecework seamstresses under the watchful eyes of their respective husbands. But the reality of modern day Italy has nevertheless trickled in. Mrs. Aliota's daughter takes the pill, has flatly refused to have more than two children, and supports the new Italian abortion law. She listens with apparent obedience while her blustering husband holds forth about the importance of a woman's premarital virginity and the seriousness of adultery -- when committed by a women. "My husband is the boss here," she says conformingly with a mocking smile in her large brown eyes. But, she adds, in her opinion, "on almost every issue the feminists are right."
The two interviews were part of a recent television series by director Luigi Comencini, "Love In Italy." with an unmarried woman who refuses to marry her baby's father; with a widow who has sworn off marriage for good; with a young, divorced, working mother who says five pregnancies provoked a serious identity crisis -- contributed to the program's major thrust: Over the last 30 years, Italian women have changed far more substantially than the dominating self-centered role-conscious Italian male.
But wait. The universally recognized changes in some Italian women, which many have termed the biggest single shift in the nature of postwar Italian society, are often only skin deep. Despite its bedrock deep traditions, Italy has not been immune to the vast movements of social change that in recent years have swept Western Europe. Arriving in Italy today, an American familiar with the Italy of the 1940s and 1950s would be hard-pressed to recognize the social landscape. Many of today's young Italian women appear to have rejected the elegance of earlier eras for blue jeans and casual hair styles. And in contrast to yesterday's stay-at-home tradition, young girls scoot around the bustling cities on mopeds or Vespas, date early -- unchaperoned, of course -- sun and swim naked, and increasingly use the same foul language habitual to many of their male counterparts.
Despite these apparent changes, the modifications in the status and behavior of Italian women so far have had only a limited impact. True, there is now a slowly growing group of women who take full and genuine advantage of the greater independence, sexual freedom and growing professional nobility that this country is beginning to offer them. But for the most part, Italian women are, as one disgruntled feminist put it, still caught "halfway between the Middle Ages and the Space Age."
The average Italian woman has changed far less than outward appearances and institutional novelties would lead one to believe. The results is that the average Italian male has not been forced to make substantial changes in his behavior, and consequently the average Italian couple continues to operate along traditional lines. Indeed, after a few years in Italy one is forced to conclude that it will still take a social earthquake to tear the majority of Italian women -- there are, of course, exceptions -- away from the psychological comforts of a society organized along the lines of masculine privelege.
According to Ida Magli, an athropologist, in fact, "when given a choice, Italian women will still opt for dependence." After 12 years of teaching in the humanities department of Rome University, Magli is pessimistic about the Italian women's desire for substantial change. "For the overwhelming majority of Italian women," she says, "the relationship with the male is still the top priority." She points to early marriages, a shrinking role in the Italian work force and a tendency among women to leave school early to illustrate her point.
Most analysts agree that Italy is now immersed in a genuine sexual revolution; premarital virginity is a concern only of the very few and many women appear to be taking advantage of the new mores of sexual freedom. But, says Magli, their newfound sexual independence surprisingly has had only a limited spillover effect. It has not made Italian women more independent in other respects and consequently it has not altered the basics of the traditional male-female relationship.
The life style of Antonelli M. would provide a living testimony for attachment to the old-style relationship. At 31 a short, small-boned women with curly brown hair and quiet brown eyes, Antonella appears to believe that passivity is the key to marital happiness. During her engagement to Domenico, a tall, dark-haired southerner with sparkling blue eyes, Antonella readily forgave her fidanzato's peccadillos (both virgins when they first met, by the time they married Domenico had had several other sexual relationshis).
Now married for six years. she recently had her first child. In the preceding years she made no attempt to work -- although before her marriage she had been a lawyer's secretary -- and she willingly accepts Domenico's opposition to having a telephone, even though the family -- which includes Antonella's widowed mother -- already lives in an isolated area of the Italian capital. Domenico is a police captain assigned to an anti-terrorist detail, but Antonella is well aware that his erratic schedule (she never knows whether he will be home for dinner; generally he returns home after midnight) is dedicated to other women he continues to see. "This is just man's nature," she says, shrugging, and insists that she is happy. A gentle, easygoing man who says he loves his wife dearly, when at home Domenico tries to do his share, like getting up for little Enrico's 2 o'clock bottle or changing his diapers when Antonella is busy at the stove, "But I don't really want him to do anything else," she says with conviction. "Cooking and cleaning are a woman's job. He has his work, and I have mine." "
Magli tells of countless women university students who leave college to get married and/or have a baby. But the tendency to subordinate work to marriage -- unless a second salary in the family is a necessity -- appears to be even more widespread among women who never intended to go on to higher education.
Gina is 19 and, like most of her friends, is already married. A petite, pretty girl with an unusually spontaneous warmth, she was born in a small town in the mountainous Abruzzi region and quit school as soon as it was legal to do so; that is, after the Italian equivalent of the ninth grade. At 15, therefore, Gina went to work in a local beauty parlor, but her main interest was her boyfriend, Sergio, three years her senior.
When Sergio decided to go to Rome to look for a job (he found work as a room-service waiter at the luxurious Hassler hotel), Gina decided to follow him and got a job working for a hairdreser near the hotel. The two lived with their respective relatives in Rome until, financially, they were able to marry. As soon as it became clear Sergio could and would, support them both, Gina left her job. She spends her time fixing up their small apartment in an outlying area of Rome and wondering when she will become pregnant. She does not miss her job or the contacts she had with various types of people. "Now that my husband is making good money, why should I work? Taking care of a husband and baby is all I really want to do," she says.
Her employer, Claudio, was distressed that Gina left."She works hard, and she's a top-notch manicurist," he says. But when she announced her decision, he really wasn't surprised. Over the last 10 years, all the girls who have worked in his shop have gotten married young and eventually quit in favor of family life. The only exception was Claudia, now 27 and unmarried, who quit in favor of a better job. But Claudia, an attractive girl with long blond-streaked brown hair, was different.
Sometimes an Italian woman's failure to continue her studies is the result of family decisions, but even though a university education is free here (except for minor fees and book prices), it never occurred to Adriana to disobey her father and continue her education. Adriana's father, a notary in the northern city of Bologna, believed college was not for women and Adriana acquiesced. Today, however, it is clear that her obedience was more than just a reflection of the traditional filial relationship. A striking brunette with thick bangs and large dark eyes, Adriana, at 39, is still finding it difficult to be independent. All through her marriage to Michele, now a television reporter, whom she met when she worked briefly as a secretary at a local newspaper, Adriana consistently refused to get a job ("Find me one," she would say sullenly when Michele pointed out that they could manage much better with two breedwinners in the house). She preferred, she admits now, to concentrate on urging her husband to earn enough to provide his family with the better things in life: two cars, a daily housekeeper, a nice apartment in Rome where the couple moved a decade ago, and a small summer house at the shore.
Now separated, Adriana finally got up the courage to move back to Bologna, where she and the children coud be near relatives. For two years they lived in her mother's cramped apartment while she listlessly looked for a place of her own. Finally, perhaps realizing the marriage was truly over, she found it. But despite Michele's urgings, she has made few efforts to find a job. It seems much easier to live off the money he gives her, and her main hope is that eventually she'll meet a well-off man who will take care of her and the kids.
Some Italian women, of course, are making a valiant effort to win their independence, but the path is a rocky one made torturous by real and emotional obstacles. Emma at 40 is a woman who in her own quiet way has carved out an existence that she now feels allows her to be her own person, but it certainly hasn't been easy. Always somewhat unusual, Emma went abroad shortly after graduating from college; for two years she lived in New York, worked for the United Nations, and shared an apartment with Japanese and Spanish roommates.
When she returned to Rome in the late '60s, however, she thought only of getting married, and the concern was so all-engrossing that she inevitably made the wrong choice. Her husband, Carlo, a mathematician, is joyless, pedantic, and neurotic, and the marriage was soon showing strains. Determined to make her marriage a success, Emma waited a few years and then gave birth to first Alessandra and then Iiaria. She also began going to a psychologist, passed the civil service exam for the foreign trade institute, and began cultivating her own circle of friends.
Four years ago, when Carlo adamantly refused to go to either a psychologist or a marriage counselor, Emma moved into her own room and, shortly after, had her extramarital affair. So far she has decided not to seek a divorce, both because the girls are very attached to their father and because she doesn't see why she alone should have to bear the burden of bringing them up. She puts up with criticism from her traditional mother, has the support of her well-traveled father, and with a good position at the foreign trade ministry is busy trying to carve out of a valid professional identity for herself.
Naturally, getting a degree is not in itself a symbol of independence. Paula, the daughter of an Italian naval officer, quit college and married at 20 because, she says, her father told her to. Later, however, when she was living with a second man, she took advantage of his support to go back to school and graduate in archeology, a field with relatively few employment opportunities. Entranced by the Roman intellectual scene, Paula decided she wanted to become a journalist, but she appears incapable of finding solid work opportunities without the help of a man.
Over the last few years she has been seriously involved primarily with older men in key positions at the Italian state radio and television network, where she has been doing free-lance work. Good at making friends, she has an active social life. But she is unable to make a living on her own and admits that what she yearns for is someone to come along and solve all her economic and professional problems.
Many Italian feminists, who are disappointed by the limited strides that the Italian housewife has taken out of her often comfortable ghetto and into the real world, put much of the blame on the economics of the female condition here. In the current recession, women are apt to be fired first, they say, and sometimes the generous maternity benefits women have won act to discourage firms from hiring them at all.
Other real problems are the lack of adequate day care facilities for women with children and the negative position that Italy's powerful unions have always taken on the issue of part-time work. Magli concedes that economics do play a role -- there is severe youth unemployment affecting those up to the age of 29 -- and the highly fragmented women's movement here has yet to discover the affirmative action concept. But she is convinced that on the whole Italian women "are just plain lazy."
Certainly, militant women in Italy have a lot to be pleased about: The economic boom of the late 1950s and early 1960s had profound effects on basic economic and educational structures, opening up high school and college possibilities to thousands of women who before would never have been able to go beyond the compulsory school years. And the circulation of new ideas, aided by the spread of television, led major political groups to carry the banners of change on issues -- divorce, abortion, birth control, family relationships -- that cannot help but leave their mark on the more traditional male-female syndrome.
But it will clearly take time. Today most Italians men appear ready to give lip service to the concept of male-female equality, even if their habits seem to have undergone little change. According to surveys done here in recent years, only a tiny percentage of Italian men help around the house: Most prefer having son to daughters; and a majority believes that extramarital sex is "forgivable" for men -- but not for their wives.
And what about the women? To an unsettling degree, many seem to concur. Despite the changes in society, many are remarkably similar to their mothers and their grandmothers. In fact, the average Italian woman still has little education and is a nonworking housewife who neither reads a newspaper, plays sports, nor belongs to a poltical party. The polls, furthermore, show that the major goal of over 90 percent of Italian women is still that of getting married. Seventy percent admire women who give up careers for hearth and home. Two-thirds believe housework is a woman's job, and 80 percent want a mate who is highly protective and has a strong character and a somewhat authoritarian nature.
Furthermore, only a tiny minority of Italian women make their own decisions regarding birth control. Less than 5 percent use the pill; the diaphragm is almost unknown; and a majority of those using some form of birth control rely on "male-controlled" methods like condoms or coitus interruptus.
A foreign woman who belongs to a women's gym here says that over the last four years she has never heard the women there discuss anything other than diets, clothes, crime, vacations and, of course, men. The overall impression is that except for a small minority -- political activists, professionals and feminists -- today's Italian women is still a willing victim to the psychological shackles imposed over the centuries by a male-dominated society.
To an extent this is understandable. After all, it was not all that long ago (1941) that the highest Italian court, the Court of Cassation, ruled that "since the conferral of greater authority on the husband is designed to safeguard the cohesion of the family group, any impulse capable of undermining that authority is illegal . . ." Even more recently, Italian courts have upheld the husband's right to open a wife's letters (Florence, 1949), abandon her on her wedding night if she proved not to be a virgin (Turin, 1955), and beat her "for corrective purposes" (Sassari, 1961). In short, making the break with the past is not easy in a country where only 15 years ago a court (Caglaiari, 1964) could exonerate a man charged with slander for greeting his daughter's birth with these words: "Now we've got two whores in the house."