Home stories The Taboo of Using The Word ‘Feminism’ In Italy By Michelle Tarnopolsky

The Taboo of Using The Word ‘Feminism’ In Italy By Michelle Tarnopolsky

written by M.E. Evans February 19, 2015
Italians to me

Italians to me

A lot of Italians are visibly uncomfortable when I call myself a femminista or refer to femminismo. It has taken me a while to understand just how much of a taboo it is. Not long ago my sister-in-law – who heads a project to support women entrepreneurs and regularly engages with me about women’s equality – plainly informed me that people don’t use this word in Italy because it has ugly connotations.

suffragette-postcard 13.13.59

Come to think of it, at the women’s group I’ve belonged to for a few years, I honestly can’t remember ever hearing it spoken. Maybe it’s because the group focuses on women’s leadership. With the widespread reticence to adopt feminized titles in positions of power (like assessora, ministra, sindaca or magistrata) it is clearly still very much a man’s world. As is so much of Italy, of course.

Even activist Lorella Zanardo, who famously co-produced the viral 2009 documentary Il corpo delle donne (Women’s Bodies), distanced herself from the word when I interviewed her for my article, “What Happened to Italian Feminism?”

On the one hand, seeing all these strong, progressive Italian women fighting for equality and uniformly avoiding the word feminism makes me wonder whether I should reconsider using it myself; that if I want my ideas to have an impact, I should consider where I am, adopt the popular language in use and not presume to impose my beliefs in the name of social justice.

On the other hand, what the hell else do you use if you’re talking about feminism in Italian?!

Like, if you’re going to tell me that to gain credibility and access to power I need to leave it out of my vocabulary, you have to at least come up with a decent equivalent. And not ‘women’s issues’ or ‘women’s rights’. Don’t pinkify my cause to make it more palatable.

Calling yourself a feminist isn’t exactly popular in North America either. But it sure seems far more acceptable than in Italy. You would never see a major Italian singer emblazon ‘feminist’ behind her onstage like Beyonce. And broadcast a female empowering ad for a feminine hygiene product during the Italian equivalent of the Super Bowl? Are you kidding me?

I just can’t help but wish Italians would hurry up and get over their outdated, insulting ideas about this word.


Four years have passed since Berlusconi left office and Se Non Ora Quando (SNOQ) was launched and I’m still not allowed to use the word feminist in Italian?

Fuck it. I don’t care what Italians think of me using it. Let them write me off as an ignorant foreigner. At least some Italian women out there feel like I do, even if they’re discounted as too old-school, out-of-touch, radical, communist or ‘moralist’ to be taken seriously; Italian women like Liliana Pontisso, who writes on the SNOQ Facebook page in response to a quote by Laurie Penny (crusading feminist extraordinaire who’s also, may I add, under thirty):

“The word ‘feminism’ became almost synonymous with lesbianism in the 70s, something ridiculous. But a lot of men preferred thinking of it this way. Otherwise they would’ve had to face all their failings and understand that women should not submit to them but rather be their allies. Then there were the mothers who felt like masters (madri padrone) of their children. Those women viewed female emancipation as a threat to their ‘superiority’. So many things were never explained to women, mothers and daughters alike. Feminism is simply the awareness of being useful in the world, no more and no less than men. When women realize this, they will live better lives.”


Author Bio:

Toronto-born Michelle Tarnopolsky has lived in Italy for 13 years. When she’s not juggling her various jobs or running after her kid, you can find her blogging about parenting in Italy from a gender perspective at www.mapleleafmamma.com.

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Jane February 19, 2015 at 11:51 am

Another interesting blog and very well put Misty! This is another way to gain valuable insight on how men think and navigate in 2015 and in many ways, still old world. My Italian girlfriends mentioned I should look into books about an Italian Femminist, Oriana Fallaci, a controversial Italian journalist in and around 1970s. I can not even begin to imagine the challenges she came across during that time and as an example of a Femminist.

M.E. Evans February 19, 2015 at 11:59 am

Thanks so much Jane! Yeah, this post is great (by fellow blogger Michelle, she’s awesome!) I’m so glad you mentioned Oriana Fallaci, I’ll have to buy a book 😉

Michelle February 19, 2015 at 2:24 pm

Me too!

Jane February 24, 2015 at 1:13 pm

Awesome post Michelle. Keep on rocking!

leefoust February 20, 2015 at 5:02 am

great article, Michelle! And I’m glad to see you and Misty know each other. The best thing about being a teacher is meeting wonderful people & writers like you two! Rock on.

Luca da Brescia February 21, 2015 at 8:50 am

That’s not my case, but I think that our problem is that we aren’t able to distinguish real feminists from beings like Laura Boldrini. Sorry, our bad.

Thomas February 24, 2015 at 2:53 pm

To be honest, if you enter “feminist are” in google.com, you’ll get the similar results: feminist are retarded, dumb, annoying etc. Anyway I incline to agree with you. PS I like your blog, sometimes we need an outside perspective to understand our country.

Name (required) March 22, 2015 at 7:02 pm

All I can think of when it comes to SNOQ is this failure of a video spouting lies (most degreed in the world, 20% less pay, etc) and rhetoric and just being plain offensive to anybody with a brain (women put in 3x as much work as men…so they work 24 hours a day?).

How the women of Fiorentina transcend Italian soccer's gender roles | Fusion April 16, 2015 at 12:08 pm

[…] female employment rates and few initiatives to address imbalance. The word “feminist” remains taboo, and when gathered ‘round the table, it’s most often the men talking politics and the women […]

gnolnad May 7, 2015 at 1:32 am

Thanks for the great post! I love reading these … flow of thought? posts 😉

claudia June 15, 2015 at 11:02 am

as much as I love your posts and Think your comments are lovely and really flatter me as an Italian, I just don’t think americans will ever get Italy. Ever.
first of all they don’t understand the language and if you don t understand a roman accent you’ll never see tv show like “gazebo” and if you don’t see gazebo you’re like losing half of your shot at getting what it s italy like
let s be honest: foreigners don t have any idea what is italy: not learning the language, not listening to radio show like la zanzara or radio deejay, not going to movies to see a movie in italian, or going to mac donald or turist restaurants instead of true ones where noone speaks english is not italy. it’s not even near.
I’ll make you and example, so that maybe you’ll see where I’m gong. It was february, this girl I know, Melanie, who worksfor an art museum back in the US told me “Heck I ve just been to a carnival party and there was a man dressed as a black man! you know wth bananas as skirt and black fake skin” my answer was “so?”
americans are just much more controversial-finding that we are. we just don’t see it.we’re not acting like we don’t

M.E. Evans June 15, 2015 at 11:22 am

Claudia, part of me thinks you’re right. It’s very difficult for someone who isn’t born in a country to ever fully understand the details of another person’s culture to a full extent. That goes both ways. However, I don’t think that applies to everything. My husband is Italian and he thinks it’s super racist for people to dress up as black people. He is also really offended by sexism in Italy and he has a hard time with it. I don’t think that tourists understand Italy for the most part since you’re right, they usually only do touristy things. I’ve lived in Italy for five years, speak Italian, and have spent a massive amount if my time only with Italian friends, and in Cassino with my husbands small village family so I don’t think it’s true that all expats live like tourists but I do get where you are coming from. You’re right, a lot of people living in Italy live a life in Italy like a tourist. I feel like it’s a bit different when you marry into an Italian family though, but that’s just my experience.

claudia June 15, 2015 at 11:33 am

Your husband, ok: but I bet if you’ll ask other italian people (is it racist to dress up as a black man on carnival?) they’ll probably say “well, it’s just carnival!”:I don’t wanna judge anyone on this, i was just guessing that would be a good point to your blog. cause i remember when I asked about it to my italian fellas about this melanie encounter about what they tought about it this absoultely noone told me “yes it’s racist” Like: noone.
somebody even wondered if i got it right and to repeat exactly what she said. a guy told me that once he saw a little kid dressed up like alex on clockwork orange and tought was super awkward and social services oriented, but not this.

Thanks for your kind answer.

Michelle June 16, 2015 at 2:48 pm

I’m rather dismayed by your desire to defend racism and sexism. Though sadly not surprised. Italy is at least 10 years (in my subjective estimation) behind the Anglo world when it comes to social justice issues. Are you saying you’re proud of that? Sometimes it takes people with an objective, outsider perspective, or leaving the country yourself, to be able to look at your own country without rose coloured glasses. Every country has its good and bad, and Misty and I are talking about OUR experiences, we certainly aren’t suggesting they are universal. We also both LOVE Italy. The kind of thought we are putting into trying to understand a culture that is not our own, because we have committed ourselves to it in pretty profound ways, is actually a mark of precisely the opposite of what you seem to be accusing us of. We’ll never ‘get’ Italy you say? Who cares? We’re having a ball trying.

Michele November 28, 2015 at 12:14 am

10 years behind, you say? Even 20, compared to SJW socialdemocrats’ heavens such as Sweden. And hell, may god himself kill me with a lightning bolt if Italy becomes like that country. It takes so little effort for a country to ride full speed on the progressiveness highway and end up in a perfectly fascist state where you can’t speak up about the obviously failed multiculturalist project pursued by your government without being called “racist”, “xenophobe”, “fascist pig” (oh the hirony) ecc, making you lose your friends and your job. That’s what happens in Sweden. It’s just a couple step forward the anglo world.

claudia June 16, 2015 at 5:20 pm

Yes you won’t. Calling racist a Simple costume explains it so well. But thanks For spending Money Here and helping our economy

Kdipaolo June 17, 2015 at 8:03 am

Extremely ignorant and defensive. If you live in a safe bubble-your world will keep you unchallenged and feeling secure….but for those of us who dare to step outside our home countries and comfort zones, we are free to examine and reflect not only our own cultural mores, but also to determine what we believe for ourselves to be true…..not to accept like sheep what has always been done as being right. However, I also recognize that in my culture not following the norm- being forward thinking-can lead to rewards and admiration…..not so in other cultures.

Guido October 6, 2015 at 3:04 am

in italy “femminismo” has assured the same (at the opposite) meaning of “maschilista” – so a femminista (like a maschilista) is not a person that has an equilibrate point of view…


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