Nilde Iotti, 79, the first woman to be president, or speaker, of Italy's lower house of parliament and a stalwart of the Italian left, died Dec. 3 at a clinic outside Rome after a heart attack.

She served in the Chamber of Deputies for 53 years before retiring last month because of her failing health. The longtime companion of Italy's postwar Communist Party chief Palmiro Togliatti, Ms. Iotti became the chamber's first female speaker in 1979 and held that post until 1992. She also was a member of the European Parliament, serving on its foreign affairs committee.

Leonilde Iotti was born in Reggio Emilia, the heart of Italy's "Red Belt." The daughter of a railway worker, she grew up in a staunchly anti-fascist working-class family. She was a literature major at the Catholic University in Milan. She taught for several years and was a member of the Resistance during World War II.

Her legislative career began in 1946 as a member of the constituent assembly that wrote Italy's postwar constitution. Her contributions to the so-called "Committee of the 75" included work on chapters involving family rights.

Soon after her arrival in Rome, she met Togliatti, who was married and was 27 years her senior. Divorce did not then exist in Italy and the couple defied convention, remaining together until Togliatti's death in 1964. They even adopted a child, Marisa, in 1950, who survives her. Togliatti was a giant of the Italian Communist Party, the largest in Western Europe.

Ms. Iotti once said that her real career "started after Togliatti." She said that "his shadow no longer weighed on me."

She was one of the first top officials of the Italian Communist Party (PCI) to back the proposal by former leader Achille Occhetto to change the party's symbol and turn its name into Democrats of the Left in 1991, following the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall.

On Dec. 4, Premier Massimo D'Alema called her a great example of the democratic style: someone whose firm convictions never stood in the way of respecting the ideas of others.

"She was a very authoritative speaker," he told journalists. "I recall that a single word from her was enough to bring order to parliament because of her authoritative manner and her charisma."

Her restraint and impartiality in Italy's often acrimonious political scene was appreciated by politicians from across the political spectrum, including adversaries on the right. Right-wing National Alliance leader Gianfranco Fini lauded her "style and tact" in a message of condolence.

Dubbed "Queen Victoria" for her dignified bearing, Ms. Iotti was a tireless campaigner for working women and helped make both divorce and abortion legal in Italy. Though impartial and fair, she also had a reputation for severe manners that resulted in fellow members of parliament refering to her as "czarina" or "the Red Queen."

"I'm just a woman who has a difficult job and tries to do it with tact," she maintained.

CAPTION: Nilde Iotti, shown in 1996, was the first woman to be president of Italy's lower house of parliament and a staunch advocate for the Italian left.