Women Taking Charge in the Italian Language

Mar 6, 2014

Italian women ministers

Le donne italiane

  Italian Women

Italy celebrates la giornata della donna (woman’s day) on March 8, when husbands, boyfriends, and bosses present the women in their lives with bouquets of yellow mimosa. This international celebration is a relatively recent invention, created in 1911, but this year le donne italiane (Italian women) are celebrating a major breakthrough.

In creating his cabinet, il nuovo primo ministro (the new prime minister) Matteo Renzi of the partito democratico (Democratic Party) chose—for the first time ever–un numero uguale di ministri uomini e donne (an equal number of male and female ministers). 

What struck me in the Italian press coverage of this historic occasion were the commenti (comments) on the new ministers’ apparenza (appearance). Journalists blasted one minister for appearing in electric blue, a color sconosciuto in natura (unknown in nature) and another for her rouged cheeks, which made her look come Heidi in estate (like Heidi in the summer). A stylist urged the ministers to call Giorgio Armani for an emergency consultation.

"Stop alle allusioni sessiste rivolte alle ministre!" (Stop the sexist innuendos directed at the ministers!) blasted a Democratic Party leader, "Non è tollerabile” (it is not acceptable) to continue to focus on le caratteristiche fisiche di una donna (the physical characteristics of a woman) rather than le sue competenze (her competence).

But the issue extends beyond la moda (fashion) to the language itself. In English a lawyer — man or woman — is always a lawyer. In Italian only a male lawyer is an avvocato. Linguists are still debating whether a female with the same credentials should be called an avvocata (a term used in prayers to the Madonna in her role as advocate or protector), avvocatessa (“essa” being the feminine ending in words like dottoressa for a female university graduate), avvocato donna (lawyer lady) or donna avvocato (lady lawyer). The same holds true for architetto (architect), chirurgo (surgeon), magistrato (judge) and other traditionally male professions.

Is a female minister a ministro or a ministra? The Italian press generally chose ministro. Curious, I submitted a news article to Google Translate, which consistently referred to each and every ministro as he—including the one described as all'ottavo mese di gravidanza  (in the eighth month of pregnancy).

The Italian language is “fortemente androcentrica” (strongly male-centered) and reflects centuries of “disprezzo per le donne” (contempt for women), says noted linguist Valeria della Valle, a professoressa at Rome’s La Sapienza,adding that  la lingua rispecchia e segue la realtà (language reflects and follows reality). In time sexist terms will run their course (esaurire il loro corso), she predicts, and  some day will serve only as a historical testament to the past.

An old Italian proverb declares, “Le parole sono femmine; i fatti sono maschi.” (Words are feminine; deeds are masculine.”) The new female ministers may usher in a new day when le parole non saranno più solo femmine, i fatti non più solo maschi. (Words will not longer be only feminine; deeds, no longer masculine.)

This would give le donne italiane more reason to celebrate—not just on International Women’s Day but all year long.

Words and Expressions

Il femminismo — feminism (masculine), but la femminista (feminist)

il sessismo –- sexism

la discriminazione sessista –- gender discrimination

il maschilismo –- machismo

Il gentil sesso –- the fair sex 

Dianne Hales is the author of LA BELLA LINGUA: My Love Affair with Italian, the World's Most Enchanting Language and MONA LISA: A Life Discovered.

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