Just over 30 years ago, Nilda Iotti, Italy’s first female president of the Chamber of Deputies, declared Italy was “long overdue” a woman as president of the Republic. But to this day, the country has never had a female head of state, although several women have been in the running. Yesterday, voting began as incumbent president Sergio Mattarella’s mandate comes to an end. And it’s high time a woman came out victorious.
In the run-up to the election, the media focused on former premier Silvio Berlusconi’s attempts to woo voters (and a subsequent halt to campaigning on Sunday) and the debate over whether current Prime Minister Mario Draghi should step into the role at the risk of destabilizing the government. Although admittedly the chances of a woman being elected are slim, giving greater space to this discussion could help pave the way for a future female president.
For several weeks, some names of women — including Liliana Segre, Marta Cartabia and Emma Bonino — have cropped up in discussions about Italy’s new president. For many, it’s not the first time the suggestion has been made. Bonino, currently a senator, saw great support in 1999 with the “Emma for president” campaign, but to no avail, while Cartabia, Italy’s Minister of Justice, was in the running during the previous elections when Mattarella was voted in. The woman who came closest to success was Iotti back in 1992 but, on the 16th round of ballots, Christian Democrat Oscar Luigi Scalfaro came out top. Segre, a Holocaust survivor who was named Senator for life by Mattarella in 2018, was for many the perfect candidate this time around, but she declined the position.
As voting begins, a process that could take several days, there are several women currently still tipped for the job. Along with current justice minister Cartabia, 58, is former justice minister Paola Severino, 73, as well as the leader of the Senate Maria Elisabetta Casellati, 66, and former Milan mayor Letizia Moratti, 72. After the first round, Cartabia received nine votes. But most MPs left their voting cards blank and the real contest will begin in a few days.
To have a female head of state could have a profound effect in Italy. The position of president in Italy may not be as powerful as in countries such as France or Turkey, but it is a stabilizing and symbolic presence. In some of the toughest moments of the pandemic, president Mattarella’s speeches and public appearances inspired strength. In more practical terms, the president has the power to dissolve parliament and to request reconsideration of legislation. Such authority becomes vital in times of political crisis. Indeed, Mattarella stepped in last year in February to appoint Draghi as Italy’s new prime minister.
Electing a female president would send a powerful message in a country that still cherishes out-of-date ideas about the role of women. Almost monthly, it seems, news breaks of another scandal, from an overly-sexualized statue to a female sports reporter assaulted on camera.
Voting in a woman as head of state would also be a significant step in aligning Italy with more progressive countries like Finland and Denmark that currently have or previously have elected female presidents or prime ministers.
However, while electing a female president would be a historic scenario for Italy, voting for a woman solely on grounds of gender would be a mistake. Recently, a survey printed in some Italian newspapers added the option of “a woman” to the lists of (men’s) names in the running for president. Voting for a woman for the sake of being a woman would be detrimental, not least because it totally devalues those currently in the running and their individual merits.
Italy likely won’t get its first female president during these elections but seven years down the line, when it’s time to vote again, calls for a woman will be even more difficult to ignore.