Monday, August 22, 2011

Are Italian women really unhappy?

An article in last Thursday’s Telegraph bearing this provocatively titled article has created a bit of a buzz among my expatriate friends here in Rome. So I'm here to ask the question: Are Italian women really the unhappiest in all of Europe?

Taking a closer look at the article reveals that the title is completely misleading. 4,000 women from 5 countries in Europe were surveyed. 5 countries: Britain, Germany, France, Spain and Italy. There are almost 50 countries in Europe (if you count the baby ones like San Marino and Liechtenstein) so a measly ten percent of those countries can hardly pretend to represent an entire continent. With less than 1,000 women in each country being surveyed, the study is far from representative. Then look at a keyword in the first paragraph: “housewives.” So the article should have been titled: “Based on a small study, Italian housewives are the unhappiest out of five western European countries.” But surely that would not have lured many readers.

Now I am not trying to downplay how difficult life can be for women in Italian society. There’s a long list of things Italian women have to complain about, from lack of benefits for working mothers, to lower salaries than their male colleagues, to sexual harassment and the explicit sexualization of women in the media. But this article makes it sound like the major cause of unhappiness for Italian women is all the fault of the unequal division of household chores.

Here are the statistics that baffled me the most: “Research has found that 70 percent of Italian men have never used an oven, while 95 percent have never emptied a washing machine.” What? Who were they surveying? 60 year-old men who live with their housewives and 25 year-olds still living at home with mamma? The Italian husbands I know, and I will start with my own, do more than their share of housework. The Maritino (as I am only too proud to boast) cooks at least as much as I do, washes the dishes, cleans, does laundry, and even irons my shirts! And he is not, as some have suggested, an exception. I have numerous girlfriends who are married to or living with Italian men, and they also seem eager to do their share of the housework. In fact, in most cases, it is the hubby doing all the cooking! (Let this not reflect poorly on the cooking skills of my fellow Anglo-Saxons.)

Then something dawned on me. My girlfriends and I have one thing in common: we are not Italian. Maybe that is where the change comes in. Then that got me to wondering: Did our Italian men pick us because they were already more open-minded and modern (and therefore more likely to pick a foreign woman), and thus naturally more inclined to shirk traditional gender roles? Or did we pick them in part because we as American/British/Canadian/Australian, etc. women would never put up with a man who was so blatantly sexist? Or is it even simpler? Do American (et al) women simply refuse to wait on a man hand and foot while our Italian counterparts are only too willing to take on the role of slave/supermom/martyr that they watched their own mothers fulfill?

Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t have anything against Italian women, but at the risk of sounding like a victim-blamer, it does seem that they often bring this life of drudgery on themselves. In my own experience, I've seen Italian women regularly insist that no one give them a hand, and that goes doubly for males. They enable the stereotype of the Italian male who is coddled and slaved over, first by his mamma, then by his wife.

A few cases in point? I once met an ancient Italian lady walking to the bus stop in Trastevere. She was lugging a heavy duffle bag, so I offered to carry it for her. In the not-so-brief walk, (I was sweating under the massive burden) she revealed to me that she lived in Naples, and that she took the train up to Rome once a month to do her son’s laundry. Yes, she was taking the massive bag of soiled laundry of her 40 year-old son down to Naples to wash and bring back up to him, neatly pressed and folded. And he didn’t even give her a ride to the station! She had to take the bus, an 80 year-old feeble little signora! When I asked her why she did it, she beamed and said, she wanted to do it, it was an excuse to see her son more often. Now who is the crazy person in this story? The son who let his mother do this? Or the mother who more than willingly offered to do it? I ask you.

This is probably an extreme case, but certainly not unusual. I have noticed with my own beloved Suocerina (mother-in-law), that when someone is so consistently willing to bend over backward to please you, never letting you lift a finger to help, it’s quite easy to get used to. You often become complacent and forget even to offer to help, especially when you know your half-hearted attempt will be met by shouts of “Lascia! Faccio io!” (Leave it! I’ll do it!). Life just becomes too easy when Mammina (or Mogliettina, when the time comes) makes life so convenient. Why should a man offer to help when the women around him have always made it clear that to do so would be ridiculous?

I don’t think there is an easy answer to this, but it is certainly not as cut and dried as this article would have you believe. I'd love to hear your take, so please comment!

Update: This post caught the attention of a journalist for Italy's Il Fatto Quotidiano newspaper, who mentioned me (quite harshly) on the paper's blog. In this post I respond to her attack of me!

Photo sources: 1, 2, 3
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  1. Your pinning some blame on Italian women gives the donkey back his tail, and you cracked me up writing about it here!

    i think that it is very significant that all of your girlfriends with Italian beaus are also foreigner. That is key - the sample of people you are referring to are themselves rare exceptions (being foreigners living non-poverty lives on this peninsula) and therefore have quite exceptional experiences here.

    Also you make some really good points at the beginning about the yellow quality of that Telegraph article. But this is to emphasize detail that does not hinder the larger point brought up by the article: Italian women, as a stereotype of a group, are observably miserable and unsatisfied in their daily lives.

  2. Great post! I am such an American-- the thought of handling all the housework and cooking makes my head spin. So glad your Maritino is such a help.

  3. I totaly agree with your analysis. It is so. And it is shocking. As I wrote recently to a friend, there is an important part of Western history that did not cross the Alps: feminism, the real one. And this situation is indeed perpetuated and reinforced by italian women. But I would speak of responsability rather than blame or fault. What's at stake here is the unconscious demeaning of women by themselves. Anti-feminin cultural values are so ancient, widespread and heavy on this land that they became institutional, structural. And women are, for the most part, unaware of how much of their own personal and collective misery is in fact enabled (even encouraged) by women themselves, through the kind of enabling behaviour that you described. And, as far as I'm concerned, this is also connected, to some extent, to the "femminicidi" wave here in Italy. In a very distorted way, through mothering, women enable abusive and possessive behaviour in men. I say this not to put further blame on womens shoulders, but to point out that we, as women, do not depend on men to have power. We can claim it, as soon as we quit wanting to keep them nearby at any cost. Of course this weakening of italian women has hystoric and social roots. It's time to go beyond, though. The suffering of women (and men, by the way), is too much. Too much.
    Like you, I am a foreigner married to an italian man, although not an anglo-saxon. I'm portuguese and live in Bergamo. Like yours, my husband is an equalitarian man that knows his way around the house and the kids.And everyday I get my heart broken to see all of these women enslaved by... their own conception of life.Thankyou for posting this. You put it respectfully and intelligently and the example you gave of the Napolitan women is a wonderful illustration of this aspect of the Italian society. Good to know I'm not alone. I wish you all the best


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