Yesterday Hillary Clinton was in Venice, taking in the city’s film festival — and telling Italian media about the antidemocratic dangers around the world. Interviewed for the country’s leading daily, Il Corriere della Sera, she spoke of the “very powerful forces” who threaten democracy, from Russian cyberattacks to Donald Trump–style demagogy.
With Italy due to hold its general election on September 25, the former secretary of state was also drawn to comment on this country’s politics. Currently, polls are led by Giorgia Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia, part of a right-wing coalition widely expected to secure a majority of seats. With her own party backed by around one-quarter of voters, Meloni looks likely to become prime minister. Showing the success of recent efforts to mainstream Meloni’s image, Clinton commented:
The election of the first woman prime minister in a country always represents a break with the past, and that is certainly a good thing. But then, as with any leader, woman or man, she must be judged by what she does. I never agreed with Margaret Thatcher, but I admired her determination. Clearly, then you vote on ideas.
Clinton repeated the same essential comments in a clip released by Sky’s tg24, part of an interview to go out on Friday evening. Prefacing her comments on Meloni saying she “doesn’t know much about her,” Clinton said, “every time a woman is elected to head of state or government, that is a step forward. Then that woman, like a man, has to be judged, on what she stands for, on what she does.” There have to be “two parts to the analysis” for though a woman premier would “open doors, that’s not the end of the story.”
In all fairness, Clinton probably doesn’t know much about Meloni, and chose a diplomatic answer; she also told Il Corriere that women leaders are often backed by right-wing parties because such women “are often the first to support the basic pillars of male power and privilege.” It is unclear whether their “determination,” like Thatcher’s, is itself admirable. But if, as Clinton says, Meloni has to be judged “like a man” on how she governs, it’s also important to understand why her election will close doors for women.
In particular, Meloni’s party is obsessed with the idea that women are, more than anything else, mothers, while damning the Left (and what she calls “LGBT lobbies”) for working to destroy this connection. One of the party’s main slogans is “God, Fatherland, Family,” and it routinely insists that one of the main focuses of government should be to drive up birth rates in order to avoid the “extinction of Italians.” This vision of women’s role also has a strong homophobic edge. Last October, in one of a series of rallies where she has been hosted by Spanish far-right party Vox, Meloni spoke of the war on “natural motherhood,” part of the destruction of Christian civilization.
LGBT lobbies want to beat down our sexual identity with gender propaganda in schools, in the media, in institutions, with the “selfie” principle of “I am not what I am, but what I feel,” which mainly hurts women’s rights and achievements. Our spirituality, our sense of our sacred and Christian roots are under attack in the name of absolute relativism and aggressive atheism.
While Italy has the highest female unemployment in Europe, and more than a quarter of Italian women workers earn under €9 ($9) an hour, Fratelli d’Italia would make the situation for precarious and low-paid women harder. As well as opposing a national minimum wage, it boasts of being the only party that has consistently voted to get rid of Reddito di cittadinanza, the benefit for individuals seeking work. It instead proposes welfare measures strictly linked to motherhood and childcare, on the model of right-wing governments in countries like Poland.
This obsession with women’s priority role as mothers is also visible in the party’s position on abortion rights, which combines formal respect for Law 194 — the legislation from 1978 which legalized terminations — with attempts to frustrate it in spirit by making abortion services harder to access.
We see this in the few parts of Italy already governed by Meloni’s party. Such is the case in Le Marche, ruled by Fratelli d’Italia since September 2020. As the Guardian reports, regional authorities there have refused to distribute abortion pills in health clinics and proposed to allow antiabortion activists into family counseling centers. Despite the 1978 law, abortion access is not guaranteed, and doctors can choose to “conscientiously object” — also making those who do provide abortions subject to harassment. Most doctors nationally are “objectors” (indeed, this is not just the doing of Meloni’s party) including some 70 percent of ob-gyns in Le Marche.
In Verona — for over a decade ruled by this “postfascist” party in alliance with the far-right Lega, before a local election defeat this June — authorities similarly declared this a “pro-life city,” directing public funds to antiabortion organizations and a project pushing women who wanted abortions to instead carry the fetus to term, before having the child adopted. In 2019, it hosted a “World Congress of Families,” a hotbed of “gay conversion therapists,” Russian Orthodox priests, and fascist groups claiming to defend the “natural family” from leftists, Muslims, and so-called “gender ideology.”
Far-right parties across Europe often try to turn the tables on left-wing feminists through such “femonationalism” — claiming that if the Left really cared about women’s rights, they would focus on the threat posed by immigrants (especially black men and Muslims). Rape and femicide are certainly no foreign import to Italy: up till 1981, a rapist could evade prosecution by marrying his victim, and until 1996 rape was considered a crime against “public morality” rather than the victim herself. Yet, Meloni and her party constantly present violence against women in racialized terms.
Indicative in this sense is another major campaign story in Italy this week: a continuing dispute over Meloni’s posting, on August 22, of a video of a Guinean immigrant man raping a Ukrainian woman in the northern Italian town of Piacenza. Taken from Il Messaggero newspaper, the video posted by Meloni blurs the faces of both rapist and victim, but the raped woman reported that she had been recognized thanks to the footage being circulated.
Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter each took down Meloni’s post, but in subsequent days she faced criticism for instrumentalizing the crime — and indeed, racializing it. But Meloni has remained combative, and again stoked the dispute at a rally this Thursday. Speaking in Perugia, the far-right leader said “they” (seemingly meaning, the Left) damned her posts because “in their rock-paper-scissors, an illegal [immigrant] beats a raped woman.”
The attempt to connect rape to the spread of “illegals” naturally sparked outrage on the Left, though it probably appealed to Meloni’s own base. Her willingness to keep the story running — regardless of what the raped woman herself said or wanted — shows that this is probably a deliberate campaign tactic. In this speech at least, Meloni mirrored a tactic Clinton would expect from her old rival Trump. Meloni may, indeed, become the first woman prime minister, but she’s prepared to trample on plenty of other women to get there.