What Rome's election of its first female mayor says about women in Italian politics

[This is the unedited version of a piece which appeared in Fortune.]


According to legend, the last time a woman took Rome, she was in disguise. Pope John VIII is rumoured to have been a Pope Joan who never publicly revealed her gender. One can imagine why.

Things are better now: Italy’s capital just elected its first female mayor. The lawyer Virginia Raggi won her runoff against a candidate backed by the Prime Minister Matteo Renzi in a landslide. Turin, Italy’s fourth-largest city, also elected its first female mayor, the manager Chiara Appendino. “This is the beginning of a new era”, Raggi said in her victory speech. “This is a historic moment”, echoed Appendino.

But these historic results, just like Brexit, look surprising. Italy’s civic life is male-dominated. Women compose 28% of Italy’s Senate and 31% of the House of Representatives, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union. Those stats put the nation at No. 42 on the IPU’s global list, which ranks countries by percentage of women in the lower house. What’s more, there have been signs that women are actually losing ground in the top level of Italian government; Renzi’s cabinet was fully half female in 2014, but has since slipped to six women out of 16.

So how did Raggi make it?

Many analysts agree that Rome’s mayor was elected because she represents the 5 Stars Movement (as does Appendino). The recent-born party mostly runs on an anti-establishment platform, promising to fight corruption and bring about transparency.

Transparency struck a chord. Gianni Alemanno, Rome’s mayor until 2013, is on trial for corruption, and the recent Mafia Capitale scandal showed that a criminal organization has strong influence with Rome’s municipal services. Raggi held the right flag, at the right time.

Yet Rome doesn’t have a female mayor by coincidence, either. Over the last few years, a number of factors played their part in weakening Italy’s gender bias.

For one, there was a reaction to Silvio Berlusconi, whose four terms as a prime minister were brimming with sex-scandals. The feminist movement If Not Now, When? (Se Non Ora, Quando?) denounced the “repeated, indecent, flamboyant representations of women as naked objects of sexual trade, produced by newspapers, television and advertising”, and has grown quickly.

Enrico Letta’s post-Berlusconi government signaled a rise of women in Italian politics, making women’s number grow from 20% to 32%. Women of great competence began to appear in visible positions, such as the Minister of Justice and Internal Affairs.

In 2012, gender quotas were approved at the level of Italian city councils. (They have applied to company boards since 2011.) The subsequent double-preference law required one’s first and second choice in council elections to be of different genders. Women’s presence in city councils thus increased of 38.8% in 3 years. Both Appendino and Raggi, too, served in city councils before becoming mayors.

Admittedly, the 5 Stars Movement (5SM) also favors women. Despite lacking a feminist agenda, the party filters out fewer women candidates than other parties do. During its first national elections in 2013, 38% of MPs from 5SM were women. This round, 36% of 5SM’s elected mayors are women – contrast this with the 0% of Renzi’s Demoncratic Party.

5SM hindrances women less because of its firm emphasis on meritocracy and transparency. When decisions are made transparently, women who are competent are more likely to spots they might otherwise be denied. Transparent voting procedures force people to keep an eye on their implicit biases.

Needless to say, women in Italian politics still have challenges to face. Witness the fact that Raggi carefully avoided the woman card. Unlike Hilary Clinton, she never stated that a sign of her progressivism was her being a woman. Her supporters didn’t receive a pillow with the tag ‘it’s time for a woman to be in Rome’s City Council’.

In fact, you might say Raggi exactly the opposite of Clinton. She kind of played the non-woman card. The Italian feminine term for the word ‘mayor’ (‘sindaca’) is officially part of the Italian language, and advocated by prominent Italian female politicians. Nevertheless, Raggi used the masculine (‘sindaco’), deeming it safer.

By contrast, the other female candidate in Rome’s mayoral race, Giorgia Meloni, made gender part of the conversation by announcing her pregnancy. Several political figures (Berlusconi included) and a famous female comedian offered advice: stay home instead of running for mayor. Raggi’s choice of words looked better and better.

But after winning Raggi put her gender in the spotlight too:

I feel like pointing out that, for the first time, the mayor [‘sindaco’, in the masculine] of Rome is a woman. In a time in which gender equality is still a dream, this is a historic moment.

A telling reaction followed: journalists described the mayor as ‘not very sexy’, ‘a doll’, ‘a dark lady’, ‘Ms Nobody’, and ‘a shark’ – the last three labels applied in a single article. Maybe that’s why Pope John VIII—if he really was a woman in disguise—did not out her gender upon taking Saint Peter’s chair.

Media smears notwithstanding, the female presence in Italian politics promises to grow. The UN and the EU just created a partnership for women in politics. The movement If Not Now, When? remains strong. Gender-equality laws continue to do their work in city councils, and have just been extended to regional councils.

Further, 5SM is now the second most popular party in the country. Rome might be a first step towards 2018’s general elections, and more seats in Parliament for 5MS will likely imply more seats for women.

Whether 5SM’s success is good for Italy is a different matter, though. The party’s populist tendencies and unsettled socio-economic policies make Rome’s vote an experiment whose results Italians are awaiting to see.

Thus Raggi’s road ahead, like Rome’s, is full of potholes. You may have heard of “the glass cliff,” a theory that suggests that women are often made CEO of companies in crisis. Rome looks a lot like a company in crisis. While campaigning Raggi estimated its debt amounts to $13.6 billions. “Many colleagues never show up”, tells me a city council employee.

When a company in crisis has a female CEO, the researcher Christy Glass says for the Guardian, there’s more risk of double standards. Women can easily be blamed for being unsuitable leaders in the first place. Raggi faces this risk too. She’ll have to be true to her campaign motto: ‘coRAGGIo’ – ‘courage’.

Actually, Raggi is showing some courage already. Since elected, she has been calling herself ‘sindaca’ (in the feminine) and has announced – in her first international interview as mayor, for Euronews – that “it’s time for gender policies to be at the centre of the political scene”. I feel Pope Joan would cheer to this too.