In the late Middle Ages, it was believed that the king possessed two distinct bodies: the first was the natural and mortal body, subject to time and human frailty; the second was the political body, with a perpetual character, which by passing from one individual to another escaped the limits of human nature and death. The idea of the dual body of the ruler expressed in metaphorical terms the emergence of political sovereignty and the state, which transcended the contingent individual who found himself at the head of the latter.
Historically, the natural body of the king has been predominantly male. But it has also been female. Ancient Egypt, Nubia, Japan from the late 500s to the late 1700s, Spain, and, most famously, the United Kingdom, have had female leaders. And even in the Italian states before unification in the 1860s there was no shortage of women in leadership, such as Joan II of Naples, or Eleonora D’Arborea in Sardinia in the fifteenth century.
All these queens found themselves holding the reins of power in contexts extremely hostile to women. Femininity was mostly associated with dispositions considered detrimental to the art of government, such as irrationality and weakness. The female body, in other words, was not conceived of as a political body.
Yet Elizabeth I of England bent the old notion of the dual body of the ruler in her favor. It was useful to her power strategies because it implied that the “natural defects” of the biological body (which, after all, men possessed too) did not contaminate the political body, which was considered immortal. She famously referred to this idea in her 1588 Tilbury speech to galvanize the English troops readying to defend the island from the Spanish Armada: “I know I possess the weak and frail body of a woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king.” Elizabeth I was also one of the first to theorize that a ruler should possess both masculine and feminine qualities — strength as well as compassion, courage as well as caring and love. In fact, she proclaimed herself, and was in turn called by her subjects, either King, Prince, or Queen.
If premodern history counts so many female rulers, it is not because things were better for women then. Rather, it is because many lineages preferred to entrust leadership to female daughters in direct descent rather than risk losing power to male sons belonging to other lineages, or to family members who were hated by the ruler of the day. Women therefore became queens by accident of birth, but they were expected to rule as kings. None of them espoused the cause of “women’s rights,” in whatever form it took in their time, not even after the first feminist movements arose (as in the case of Britain’s Queen Victoria, who opposed both the right of women to vote and their entry into universities).
It was then the bourgeois revolutions that kept women out of the halls of power by establishing liberal democracies that denied them — as well as the working classes — the right to vote. We will have to wait until the first half of the twentieth century, following the suffragettes’ struggles, for women to be able to vote and be voted for. It would take until 1979, with the election of Margaret Thatcher in the United Kingdom — after two decades of feminist mobilizations for gender equality in all spheres of social and political life — for a woman in Europe to become prime minister.
From Thatcher onward, female heads of governments became ever more numerous. A few months after Thatcher, it was Portugal’s turn, with the premiership of Maria de Lourdes Pintasilgo, followed by Iceland in 1980 with the election of Vigdís Finnbogadóttir as president, Norway in 1981 with the election of Gro Harlem Brundtland, and then Yugoslavia, Poland, Ireland, and so on. There are a few European countries to date that have not yet had a female premier at least once. Until the election on September 25, 2022, Italy was one of these few. Now, it is not.
This historical background is useful to contextualize Giorgia Meloni’s victory and her election as the first woman to head a government in Italy as a phenomenon in continuity, rather than in rupture, with a more general European trend. The reality is that over the past forty years women have occupied progressively more positions of power. And if there are ever more women in key positions, including the highest state and government posts, it is also due to the feminist struggles that preceded and accompanied them. As Italian journalist Ida Dominijanni put it in a recent article, Meloni ultimately reaps the fruits of a history of feminism that does not belong to her, but of which she makes use.
And yet, as feminists, we do not rejoice in the slightest at Meloni’s victory. Not only because for the most part women’s access to the highest ranks of power hierarchies is consummated within a framework that leaves those hierarchies, their rituals, and their patriarchal symbolics unchanged. But also because Meloni represents a political formation with an explicitly misogynistic culture, which has systematically fought against fundamental feminist demands for reproductive rights and sexual freedoms.
The question, therefore, is not whether Italy’s first female prime minister represents an achievement for women, but why she has come from an openly anti-feminist political force.
Like other formations of the radical nationalist right in Europe — with or without roots in historical fascism —Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia has for years been undergoing a process of repainting itself as a democratic force, and winking at the center to enhance its credibility as a candidate to govern the country. Meloni’s female leadership in a masculinist and far-right party, as also in the case of Marine Le Pen in France, or Alice Weidel in Germany, is functional to showing an innovative and feminized facade that serves both to intercept more votes, including female votes, and to “soften and make palatable their more backward programmatic content,” as Dominijanni writes.
The fundamental ideological matrix underlying Meloni’s political program is nationalism, of which racism is an essential component. The instrumentalization of feminist issues by nationalism is what I have termed femonationalism. On closer inspection, this instrumentalization always takes place in the context of anti-immigration and anti-Islam campaigns. It is the femonationalist ideology, therefore, that allows us to understand why Meloni waves the banner of women’s rights only when it comes to demonizing immigrant men (as she did during this election campaign by posting a video of an asylum seeker raping a woman), or proposing family-work balance policies that would allow Italian women to have more children, so as to counter the supposedly excessive fertility of Muslim women who threaten to Islamize Europe, as Meloni has been saying for years.
For nationalist movements, in fact, women are central only as “mothers,” that is, as the biological and cultural reproducers of the nation. As such, women for nationalists must be protected from the sexual (as well as economic, cultural, and political) threat that would be posed by the foreign male. Think of nationalist iconography in its early days, when the nation was depicted with female features to naturalize the chauvinist political project. Although the nation is a historical and social product, naturalizing it allows and reinforces its legitimacy because its supposed naturalness implies its necessity and immutability, as well as the duty of loyalty.
The identification of the nation with the mother (motherland) and the family nest (homeland) allows the nation to be represented as a source of identity, an object that requires dutiful commitment. Fratelli d’Italia reproduces to the letter the femonationalist familistic iconography in which the call of the family and the female body serves to evoke the idea of “genesis,” “birth,” and “lineage.” It does so from the choice of the party name — in English “Brothers of Italy,” an explicit reference to the national anthem — which invokes a communion only between men (brothers), but is then represented by a female body (Meloni’s face plastered all over the party’s posters), to the constant invocation of Italian patriotism as an object of identification, devotion, and gratitude.
Meloni’s entire imagery and political agenda, including her opportunistic gestures toward women’s rights, are functional to mobilizing the national-racist identity against foreigners. Not surprisingly, Meloni has come out strongly against the proposed ius soli bill, which would allow the daughters and sons of immigrants born in Italy to obtain citizenship by right.
Even the battle waged by Fratelli d’Italia against the benefit known as “citizenship income” could be read according to an anti-immigration key. When Meloni takes away a minimal source of survival like the citizenship income benefit from the unemployed, who have little prospect of finding a decent job, she knows full well that she is putting them in the position of being forced to accept precarious and poorly paid jobs, i.e., those jobs to which immigrants have always resigned themselves for lack of alternatives.
Although branded as a measure aimed at valuing work as a source of human self-fulfillment, the elimination of the citizenship income benefit then would seem geared both to nationalize as much as possible the demographic profile of the blackmailable workforce, and also to reinforce the idea of work as a social duty (which was characteristic of fascism), without any discussion about the undignified conditions to which workers are subjected in the current context.
But there is more. Although Meloni talks about introducing pro-birth measures, the elimination of the citizenship income benefit would also mean a further reduction in birth rates, given that the poor women who receive the benefit — according to recent studies — are more likely to have children. Fratelli d’Italia’s national-racist (and post-fascist) obsession here thus risks penalizing the very women whom Meloni claims to want to help.
That the invocation of women’s centrality is, after all, purely instrumental in a fundamentally racist and anti-immigrant framework was well understood the very moment Meloni set foot in parliament as head of government. As soon as she entered the halls of power, she surrounded herself with men in key ministries, calling upon only a very few women to lead ministries considered secondary. In her inaugural speech, she mentioned the first names of the women who she said built the ladder that had enabled her to break the glass ceiling, but without mentioning their last names; meanwhile, the only MP in the chamber whom she addressed in an informal manner was the Italian-Ivorian trade unionist Aboubakar Soumahoro.
In both instances — in that of the women-precursors, called only by their first name, and in that of the only black deputy, whom she did not deign to address formally — Meloni displayed the paternalism and contempt (ill-concealed as familiarity) that patriarchs and bosses have always shown toward women, working-class people, and immigrants. In the coming months, we will need to be reminded constantly that Meloni’s most retrograde legislative initiatives are likely to be consummated in the intertwining of gender, immigration, and labor policies.
Finally, to reiterate the idea that power, after all, is still a male enterprise, Meloni wasted no time in insisting that she be called il presidente, with the masculine and not feminine article, as if to reassure the party’s entourage and base that her gender poses no threat, but rather reinforces the patriarchal symbols of leadership.
Somewhat like Elizabeth I over four hundred years ago, nearly half a millennium later Meloni thus emphasizes that while her biological body is female, her political body is firmly male (and white). We will have to be on guard that her policies do not set women’s achievements back by as many years.