Irene Pivetti: The Hot Politics of Italy’s Ice Maiden

Irene Pivetti: The Hot Politics of Italy’s Ice Maiden

by Peggy Simpson

At 32, Irene Pivetti is the youngest speaker of the Italian Parliament in history.

Irene Pivetti has a reputation as an antifeminist. She earned the nickname “ice maiden” early in her tenure as the youngest president of the Chamber of Deputies – the Italian equivalent of Speaker of the House – because of her blunt dealings with political peers as well as with the onetime ally whom she later helped unseat as prime minister, media and political tycoon Silvio Berlusconi.

She is a new breed of political woman for Italy. She is neither heir to a famous name nor a jiggling prostitute-as-politician. She is a rightist reformer trying to bring democracy and morality to Italy. Going on 33, she jogs early each morning with weights (“I run for real, not like [Bill] Clinton,” she told a magazine in late 1994) and was start off runner for the Rome marathon in March 1995.

Pivetti is likened by some to Newt Gingrich: an opinionated, controversial right-winger. She supports the pope’s efforts to ban abortion and challenges his decisions on religious pluralism. She offended many with an early interview in which she said, “The best things for women and families were done by Mussolini,” and alienated others by protesting the building of a mosque in Rome and commemorations for Jews lost in World War II.

The parallel goes only so far, however. Pivetti has questioned why women today have to take their husband’s name. And when her economist husband, Paolo Taranta, apparently wanted more of a wife-and-mother partner, she chose her work over him and asked for an annulment. Her lawyer told the weekly newsmagazine VRepublica that the marriage broke up “for political and idealistic reasons” and because she didn’t want to have children.

Many feminists from the Left consider her a significant addition to Italian politics today. She has broken through the “glass ceiling” in politics at a time when the men from the Left talk a good game of equality but don’t practice it. And many Left women are grateful to Pivetti for her tough confrontations with Berlusconi, in what they see as a showdown over democracy itself.

Pivetti contradictions abound. When LEspresso newsmagazine polled politicians about her two years ago, Michaelangelo Agrusti of the centrist PPL party said she was “like acid…she’s bitter, both in her tone and in her words. Having a wife like her would be a nightmare.” Yet young beauties in the Miss Italy contest overwhelmingly chose Pivetti as their role model.

Welcome to Italy and its upside-down politics.

Birth of an Activist

The issue of women in Italy conjures up images of fantastically sensuous nudes captured in centuries-old paintings; of the elegance of this century’s mega-movie star Sophia Loren; or of some highly publicized women in Parliament today, including a rambunctious porno actress and Mussolini’s granddaughter. Pivetti is none of that. She is serious political stuff, not a flirty skirt.

At 32, Irene Pivetti
is the youngest
speaker of the
Italian Parliament
in history

She was born in Milan, center of Italy’s industrial north. Her grandfather was a famous linguist; her father is a theater director, her mother an actress. When her high school peers were active in public-education battles, she was away from the fray in a Benedictine convent. At Milan’s Catholic University, she helped found the “Dialogue and Renovation” group, a grass-roots Catholic activist movement, and was its campus counselor and newspaper editor until her graduation in 1986. Afterward, she stayed active in the group while helping revise dictionaries at a publishing house and editing Catholic newspapers and magazines.

This proved to be a back-door way into politics. In November 1990, after the League won a local by-election, Pivetti wrote a critique of the victory and sent it to the party’s boss, Umberto Bossi. Their subsequent pizzeria meeting was the beginning of a political relationship. Pivetti brought the Renovation group into the new Liga Norte or Northern League political party and ultimately was elected to Parliament in 1992. In April 1994, Parliament elected her to Italy’s third most powerful office, president of the Chamber of Deputies.

She came on the scene at a time of significant disarray in politics. The fall of communism internationally destabilized the Italian communists, who had been an entrenched opposition force for decades. Then the lid blew on top-to-bottom corruption scandals implicating leading industrialists, Christian Democratic power brokers who had ruled Italy for the past 45 years, and organized crime bosses.The northern magistrates pursuing the corruption cases became heroes – and assassination targets.

With the meltdown of the monopoly Christian Democrats, new parties (there are nearly two dozen parties) were scrambling to get their footing. The Milan-based Northern League staked its future on a “clean hands” campaign – sometimes insinuating that the industrial North was “clean,” the South was “dirty,” – and helped form the center-right coalition that elected Forza Italia party head Silvio Berlusconi, owner of three national TV channels and various other outlets, as prime minister in May 1994.

Pivetti, with only two years’ experience as deputy, was a surprise coalition selection for speaker of Parliament.

The Center-Right’s Woman Strategy

Pivetti’s rise in the Northern League had been notable from the start: She was a young, outspoken Catholic woman, not a middle-aged male. Her party had consciously recruited women between the ages of 25 and 40. Her elevation to be speaker had even more symbolic import.

“She signaled a break with the past,” says deputy Petrini Pierwigi, Northern League caucus leader in Parliament. Previous speakers were at the end of their careers, not the beginning; the only woman had been a matronly wife-of. “The fact that it was possible to find someone who was intelligent and a strong person was obviously essential. Not all women, or young women, would have been able to fill that job,” he says.

“This appointment of a woman was almost seen as a provocation, as a challenge,” Pierwigi explains, undermining Leftist opposition arguments that the Right was dominated by machismo-oriented, fascist, and anti-family politicians, that only the Left cared about equality and fairness.

And Pivetti was a provocative choice. In her first two years she’d hardly gone unnoticed. In fact, her early interviews after arriving in Rome were political bombshells. She was portrayed as a Northern bigot wanting to cut off welfare from the needy South; as a Catholic fanatic intolerant not only of Muslims but of the Jewish religion; and as an anti-abortion activist trying to rock the boat in an overwhelmingly Catholic country where abortion is legal.

A Different Kind of Catholic Politician

Chiara Valentini, a reporter with L’Espresso who keeps track of Pivetti, calls her “a completely new figure in Italian politics,” not just because of her rapid rise from obscurity but because “she is a Catholic fundamentalist, ” a rarity in Italy, even rarer among politicians.

Her goal, Pivetti says, is to “give a voice to all those Catholics” who don’t recognize their faith as practiced by the former Christian Democrat power-brokers – or by the Church’s cardinals who carried water for them or by the cardinal who runs the curia “like a business corporation.” She has condemned the “hypocrisies” of the monopoly politicians and said the grass-roots “reformation” Catholics “are a big problem” for the Catholic intellectuals and the ruling bishops because “we are living proof that Catholics can organize themselves politically outside the Christian Democrats, outside their monopoly.”

Pivetti sees abortion as a wedge issue between what she called the “new world” Catholics and the ostensibly Catholic power-broker politicians from the past. She favors a review of options for banning abortion: “We want the law to be reviewed from head to toe, as the Pope asks,” she told L’Espresso in late 1992.

In that interview she said the final decision on abortion “will be up to the woman.” But she said “clinics have become abortion factories,” and “you should teach young people to control their sexuality, which means not handing out the pill so easily. There should also be objective doctors to counsel.”

She also wants to liberalize adoption laws in a reform she said would “emphasize life” and would also be an “antidote against the dramatic drop in birth rates in the North.” When the interviewer said the low birth rate could be solved with more immigration, something opposed by the Northern League with its “Italy-first” policy, Pivetti retorted sharply, “We should not accept people who are expecting free housing while our own poor have no protection.” Immigration policy, not just Catholic purity, could have been a factor in Pivetti’s protest against the pope’s approval of building an Islamic mosque in Rome and her subsequent protest by saying 50 Hail Marys at a cathedral when the mosque opened last summer.

By the end of two years in politics, Pivetti was headline material and gun-shy. Asked by L’Espresso in late 1992 why she had come to be accused of intolerance, she said she was “a victim, attacked because I express original opinions. And I’m not just talking about progressive intellectuals. Every time I go home, I find threats on my answering machine. Things like ‘Pivetti, we’ll get you’ or ‘Pivetti, we’ll rape you.'” She said she didn’t know who left them, “but those messages don’t frighten me. I certainly won’t stop myself just because of threats.”

Defining Moment

Pivetti was well on her way to earning a loose-lips, mistake-prone reputation that would make her a liability in politics when the constitutional showdown with Berlusconi occurred last winter. Magistrates produced evidence they said showed that Berlusconi himself was linked to the corruption scandal. Pivetti suddenly had no time for a learning curve; she had to preside over explosive parliamentary procedures that ultimately led to the collapse of Berlusconi’s government in January 1995 when onetime allies in the Northern League – led by Pivetti’s mentor Bossi – withdrew their support. A new prime minister, Lamberto Dini, a former banker and political independent who had been treasury secretary under Berlusconi, was selected; he was still in office at press time. (Since she was appointed by Parliament, not the prime minister, Berlusconi’s fall didn’t mean Pivetti’s position was affected.)

Pivetti got high marks for her even-handed handling of the parliamentary drama. She also caused shock waves with initiatives of her own, which critics said overstepped her authority. As Berlusconi continued to fight for his political life, Pivetti took to the podium at a Northern League political gathering to talk about the dangers of gross conflicts of interest, to say that political influence on media monopoly economic issues would not be tolerated. Everyone knew exactly what she meant and whom she was addressing.

Veteran political organizer and Center Party deputy, Elisa Possa Tasca, recalls the parliamentary aftermath when Berlusconi-backed deputies challenged Pivetti about her partisan speech. She cut that short, Tasca says: “She took the floor away and asked them ‘Is this on the agenda today?’ It was very direct.”

Overnight, Pivetti became a figure of near adulation in the media. “In six months’ time she went from being a right-wing woman who had to be attacked to a very acceptable person. And, considering the political chaos we are experiencing here in Italy, she did very well in her political behavior. She was very severe and austere in all her undertakings,” says L’Espresso’s Chiara Valentini. Center Party deputy Elisa Possa Tasca was “very skeptical” of Pivetti, especially since she was only two years older than Tasca’s daughter, “but then I saw her at work and she’s better than four men. She’s very good at her job…. She’s very authoritative. Very straight. Very direct, as a person. She’s young and has a young face, a very beautiful smile. But when she talks business, something unexpected comes out…. She has a strong will and a big soul, with big feelings.”

Leftist enemies of the past joined with the right-wing reformers in the Berlusconi defeat. “It was obvious she is a person who has been very skillful at handling a very complex situation and handling the fall of the Berlusconi government,” says Pierwigi. The fact that Pivetti turned out to be media-savvy proved a valuable commodity in the battle not just for credibility, but even for airtime, in the era when Berlusconi still controls much of the media.

A Catalyst for Change

Pivetti’s true-believer Catholicism is anathema to many left-wing women. They are intrigued with her for other reasons. The communists, for the most part, were not tainted by the corruption scandals and their leaders were not purged. The same elderly men are out front, with no corruption catalyst to force new identities, new relationships with voters, new political faces to put forward. There had always been women in the ranks but not in the leadership and that’s still the case.

The feminists on the Left have found themselves grateful for Pivetti, for her courage in confronting Berlusconi and in warning people about the dangers to democracy. They also see Pivetti as a catalyst for change in Italian politics. In a perverse way, they are grateful for her prominence in national politics – hoping that their own older-male political leaders can see that it pays to have women in visible leadership jobs.

These feminists include Gioia de Cristofaro Longo, a sociologist and anthropologist from the University of Rome, one of the leading analysts of women in public life in Italy today. “In 1994, I was very afraid. There was great confusion,” she says. But Pivetti, new in her job as speaker, came through: “She provided the necessary constraints and institutional guarantees when democracy was in the balance in these last two years; it could have been tipped one way or another.” Pivetti showed “a very high sense of duty, ” she adds. “She attached more importance to her institutional role rather than her political role.”

Longo said Pivetti is “a woman of the Right and feminism has its traditions on the Left here in Italy, but we have to admit that some Rightist women rising to important roles are more free than Left women…. They’re independent and free and they act on their own accord.”

Daniela Brancati, the top policy woman in Italian television who directs the major news program on state TV channel 3, says Pivetti is “very strong…very independent” and, while unprepared for the job she walked into, is playing a key role in trying to shape a new conservative party in Italy. “I don’t know if she will succeed,” Brancati says, looking ahead. But “I think she is very important for Italian women…. For the first time, there is a young woman, a pleasant woman, who likes jogging, who is contemporary. So she’s very important.”

Forging New Female Alliances

This realization is occurring amid growing discussions about ways to create a grass-roots women’s movement. “Feminism” – in the political social-welfare and egalitarian sense, more than the personal-identity sense – is seen by some analysts as captive of the Leftist political blocs. It has not had much of an autonomous bottom-up base of individual women organizing around issues.

Women are not seen to have much political clout here although many have economic power, as entrepreneurs and partners in family-owned businesses, including some that are quite large and are a part of Italy’s diverse economic base. Until now, this has meant women from ideological opposite parties didn’t talk, let alone address common concerns. Being politically independent is not possible in Italy, Brancati says.

Brancati talked publicly about this at two 1995 meetings sponsored by Carla Sepe, top aide to the Rome mayor’s office. “We need a new cultural knowledge [of how women have organized in other countries, such as the United States]. Everything, small and large, is useful. But most useful is a women’s network – an Italian women’s network, not just an international network. I have been talking about this for two years. And it is very, very, very difficult. Carla Sepe has been helping us but the political parties are very strong.” The conservatives’ recruits, Brancati says, “are young women, from 20 to 40, and they do not agree with those of us from the left-wing movement about political ideas, about the organization of society. But we [mostly] agree about abortion, about sexual harassment, and this is a very new phenomenon.”

Across-party women’s coalitions are beginning to show up, Brancati reports. “Last summer, the women deputies in Parliament from the Left to the conservatives on the Right sponsored, all together, a proposed law on sexual harassment. This included Ms. Mussolini. That’s very new. And they presented this law project to Irene Pivetti. That’s new.”

Currently, sexual harassment is considered a violation under “public morals” laws; the proposed change would make it an offense against women, as individuals, “so it is a change in mentality – and you also would have to change the judges’ mentality. In Italy, this is seen by some men as not terrible but a ‘cultural thing.'”

Where does Pivetti fit in to all of this? Brancati says Pivetti apparently has no “sensibilities to women’s problems…. Life was good to her; she’s successful. But she understands that women have problems, and in her role, she will approach this problem. So she has no personal sensibilities but she has political sensibilities.” In fact, later on Pivetti reportedly blocked passage of the new sexual harassment bill in the Chamber of Deputies citing the lack of a quorum, despite the protests of the women’s caucus.

At press time, Pivetti’s immediate political future was unclear. In January Prime Minister Dini resigned under pressure from the Berlusconi group in Parliament, although it was considered possible that he might be asked to form a caretaker government. New elections loom as early as spring. Despite his corruption trial, which began as this magazine went to press, Berlusconi continues waging comeback efforts.

Life is “very different than it used to be,” says Pierwigi. “It means that the democratic institutions have been able to hold up. And this is partly due to the major role of Irene Pivetti.” Whatever her fate in this latest shift – a new Parliament means the speaker job is up for grabs – the last four years have shown that she has the potential to continue to be a major player in Italy’s future.

PEGGY SIMPSON, a Warsaw-based journalist for Business Week and others, has reported on economic and political news for the Associated Press and other news organizations for 30 years.

Sidebar: Italy s “Tits and Ass” Newsmagazines

One element of Italian life that makes Pivetti’s rise especially astonishing to the American observer is the truly staggering use of women as sexual objects on the covers of mainstream Italian newsmagazines (as in their Time and Newsweek equivalents) and what these imply about women’s place in public life. These quasi-pornographic images go well beyond anything even dreamed of in U.S. markets, where women in compromising positions on billboards – ass-first jeans ads – draw protests and where “porn” magazines proliferate but have to be kept out of view, or sold in brown wrappers in family drugstores or food stores.

“We often see naked women on the covers of L’Espresso and Panorama. It is inconsistent with Italy s “Tits and Ass” Newsmagazines what’s being covered inside the magazines. This distorts the image of women,” said Carla Sepe, a top aide to the mayor of Rome at one of two 1995 conferences she and the mayor’s office sponsored on building a women’s movement from the grass roots up.

Sepe said editors claim women aren’t interested in politics; therefore they aren’t among their readers; thus the covers don’t offend their readers – and they sure sell a lot of newsstand to male voyeurs. Women don’t fare much better on TV or on billboards. “Women anchors should not have to look like showgirls…And on buses, we see naked women in advertising….We don’t know what strategies we [in the women’s movement] should be following,” says Sepe. Television uses exercise and entertainment shows as vehicles to feature naked bums, with sometimes only a C-string visible; mainstream morning shows feature “exercise story” closeups of a woman’s rear end jiggling. There is more “tits and ass” stuff than most porn movies could squeeze in.

Tellingly, some of this was pioneered by former Prime Minister Berlusconi in his media-mogul capacity. Journalist Daniela Brancati of TV’s state-owned channel 3 news, a rival station, remembers hearing Berlusconi talk about his “tits and ass” strategy for building a private media empire: First, use them to get viewers and with viewers in tow, pull in advertisers.

“It was in 1980, and I was a journalist on a monthly magazine covering a socialist party media meeting,” says Brancati. “We were discussing commercial media possibilities. There was only state media at the time. Berlusconi was just beginning. He spoke, for the first time, about his plans. And about his use of women. He said something so disgusting – about the role of the female form and how you could get a lot of advertising off of naked women. And in these 15 years, this is just what he has done. And worst of all, the state channels – to have more audience share – have followed him in this.”

The real impact is that the porn-covers “confirm the invisibility of women” in men’s worlds. “I think we should be annoyed at seeing the intelligence and abilities of women be ignored,” essayist Lidia Menapace told Sepe’s conference. Sepe herself is gambling that contact with other women (including looking at how the media treats women in other countries) can help women in Italy grapple better with their own dilemmas.

Women may not cross ideological and political lines for candidates. But it is conceivable that they might debate the impact of “women-as-porn” images and find common ground in taking action to curb them. This could help jump-start a women’s-rights movement in Italy, to get women to start talking, as was happening at Carla Sepe’s two 1995 seminars. The nascent women’s movement might try to raise the stakes for publishers – and politicians – who take women so lightly.

Pivetti, who is paving new paths for serious women in politics, could be a change agent by her very presence. Women from diverse ideological backgrounds are watching closely. – P.S.