Italian Women in the Workplace
By Taylor Marvin
Recently Matt Yglesias posted this interesting graph illustrating Italian women’s low workforce participation rate:
Wow. Italy’s women employment-population ratio is much lower than Sweden or the US’s, and has grown at a historically much lower rate. Yglesias makes the good point that Italian women are working, but are overwhelmingly laboring in the home where their labor isn’t taxed. Obviously, this has a significant negative impact on Italy’s high public debt.
Italy’s economic problems aren’t solely due to its low female workforce-participation rate (Daniel Gros recently convincingly argued that governance failure bears the brunt of the blame). However, it’s reasonable to suspect that chronically underutilizing half of the available labor force has had negative consequences for Italian growth, which has stagnated for the last two decades:
This reminded me of a 1965 Playboy interview with Italian actor Marcello Mastroianni I recently stumbled upon, which anecdotally explores Italian women’s role in the workplace in the most misogynistic way imaginable:
MASTROIANNI: Because women are changing into men, and men are becoming women. At least, men are getting weaker all the time. But much of this is man’s own fault. We shouted, “Women are equal to men; long live the Constitution!” But look what happened. The working woman emerged—angry, aggressive, uncertain of her femininity. And she multiplied—almost by herself. Matriarchy, in the home and in the factory and in business, has made women into sexless monsters and piled them up on psychiatric couches. Instead of finding themselves, they lost what they had. But some see this now and are trying to change back. Women in England, for example, who were the first to raise the standard of equality, are today in retreat.
PLAYBOY: How about American women?
MASTROIANNI: They should retreat, but they don’t. I’ve never seen so many unhappy, melancholy women. They have liberty—but they are desperate. Poor darlings, they’re so hungry for romance that two little words in their ears are enough to crumble them before your eyes. American women are beautiful, but a little cold and too perfect—too well brought up, with the perfume and the hair always just so and the rose-colored skin. What perfection—and what a bore!
PLAYBOY: Are Italian women different?
MASTROIANNI: Thank God, yes.
PLAYBOY: How is she different from American women?
MASTROIANNI: She’s not afraid to be a woman—not yet, anyway. But what happened to women in America is beginning to take place in Italy, too, and I don’t like it. I don’t feel tenderness toward this new kind of women. I wouldn’t even want to have children by them. I want women to have all the faults and weaknesses they always had. I adore them, but we must keep them in their place. It’s presumptuous for a woman to show me she is a doctor of mathematics. Comptometers can do that. What’s more subtle and difficult is to know how to make a man feel important.
PLAYBOY: You don’t think women have the right to a career, to compete with men in the professional world?
MASTROIANNI: Of course, they must evolve—but not away from being women. At the same time, I admit we have to do something with them besides give them babies. In Italy, women now have fewer children and do less housework than ever. This makes them bored and a terrible weight on men. Now, I like to have a woman hang on—but not to suffocate me. So today she needs some kind of occupation, and it’s right for her to want to be on man’s level. My logic admits this—but my instincts tell me to watch out.
I’m not saying that we should read to much into this — obviously Mastroianni is only one man, and he doesn’t speak for all of Italian society. But Mastroianni’s views are a product of his time, and his opinions do tell us quite a lot about mainstream Italian social views of women in the workplace in 1965. If one of the leading stars of Italian cinema was comfortable describing American women — who by the mid-1960s were increasingly entering the workforce — as “afraid to be a woman”, these views are evidence of much stronger social barriers to female workforce participation in Italian society than in the US as late as the 1960s. A popular masculine narrative of working women as “not real women” and “angry, aggressive, uncertain of her femininity” is a powerful barrier to female workforce entry, and one that’s likely endured in Italian popular culture on some level.
Again, this is only an anecdote. But it is an interesting one.