Rossana Rossanda’s speech sounded like it came from a bygone era, but the fact is that reality itself has lurched dangerously backwards. “Women should have jobs with equal pay and equal rights,” she said. “It’s unbelievable that I’m saying this today, but there is a pay gap of 23% between men and women.”
In her first public appearance since she recently relocated from Paris to Rome (except for a TV interview she did on Propaganda Live), she was welcomed with thunderous applause by the audience at the International House of Women. On Sunday morning, the Carla Lonzi room was packed, with more women than men (Nicola Fratoianni, secretary of the Sinistra Italiana and a candidate for the European elections, was also in attendance), and, while “the girl from the previous century” has a certain age and has to contend with the frailties that go with it, she was unwilling to say no to the invitation by three female candidates in the upcoming European elections to discuss the topic of “a feminine Europe.”
The public discussion, organized by Altra Europa con Tsipras (one of the groups running on the La Sinistra list, which distributed its platform at the event), was at a very high level. Together with Rossanda, a founding figure of il manifesto, there was also another of our founders, her lifelong friend and companion Luciana Castellina (“we are two old communists, but I’m more of a crone,” Rossanda says with great affection); Ginevra Bompiani, a public intellectual, publisher and environmentalist; and Marilena Grassadonia, the “junior” one in this line-up of “veterans,” but a tireless civil rights activist in her own right and leader of the Famiglie Arcobaleno (“Rainbow Family”) movement.
The topic of the discussion was the feminist movements, because, as Alfonso Gianni said in the opening remarks, “today, all around the world, women are in the front lines against the regimes” and against macho populism. Accordingly, this time around, female candidates “have a powerful charge, and also a symbolic one, in terms of history and authority,” according to Francesca Koch, the leader of the International Women’s House, herself a feminist committed to waging a battle for the survival of this historic space in the city, which Mayor Virginia Raggi—the first woman to ever lead the city of Rome—wants to shut down.
“The issue of Europe is enormously important: now, the Union and Italy will have to decide on the orientation, the direction of this continent,” Rossanda stressed, setting the course for the debate.
The battle against nationalism was one of the common denominators. “Why are Matteo Salvini from the Lega and others attacking the freedoms of women, LGBT persons and migrants? Because, with this war, they can impose their cultural model,” Grassadonia said.
“Women are fighting against Salvini’s laws for their freedom, because they won’t tolerate being turned into prisoners in new concentration camps,” Bompiani said. “We are not plunging into Fascism, but into Nazism, and we are doing it awake and aware.” No one who thinks the situation is so dire can stand idly by: “I am running as a candidate, I’ve done this last crazy thing, because I do not want to live like that, or die like that.” Bompiani confessed that she chose the title for the discussion because a “feminine Europe” is one in which women “have already won.”
Luciana Castellina—who is also running, on the Greek Syriza list alongside Alexis Tsipras (but who has already said that she will give up the seat if elected)—admits that she prefers a “feminist Europe” instead, and explains it as clearly as only one of il manifesto’s old guard could: “When we were talking about the dictatorship of the proletariat, we argued that there had to be a break—in the same way, today, in order to abolish patriarchy, it will be necessary, at least momentarily, to give the power over to women.” The audience applauded.
Then the veteran reporter recalled that the Maoists had gotten it right at the beginning, as they had women occupy not just half the seats, but a full three quarters. Then, things turned in another direction, as history records. Rossanda herself said she prefers the term “feminist” as well. Although she began her career as a leader in the Communist Party and was saying “I’m not a feminist” back in ‘78 (in Le Altre, a book born from a series of interviews with Radio Tre’s Enzo Forcella), while maintaining a very close dialogue with her female comrades, she no longer rejects the label: “’femininity’ is something invented by men, it bears the marks of centuries of submission—and then they added that we are ‘resources’: I never wanted to be anybody’s ‘resource,’ although I have met interesting men.”
The debate about words could have gone on much longer—but, of course, everything is tied to politics in the end. Although she chose not to, Bompiani could have brought a powerful example from her own past to argue for her choice of adjective in naming the event: she is one of the founders of the Revolta Femminile (“Feminine Revolt”), where she fought alongside Carla Lanzi, the matriarch of the feminist movement in the ‘70s and the greatest theoretician of feminism in Italy, and not only that. The audience was divided on the issue (according to the rules of the House, the audience is free to take part without reservations, although recognizing the authority of the speakers). But the urgency of the current situation broke through the dispute about terms and usages.
“I’ve been fighting since I was 14 years old, from the day when my classmate, who sat next to me, told me that she wouldn’t come back to school the next day. She was Jewish. I didn’t understand why, and neither did she,” said Rossanda. “Women have more of an impulse towards the equality of rights,” she added, but this is not an absolute truth: “we have to fight to get rid of the stupidity that they have taught us, we don’t have a natural inclination to do caregiver work for the elderly and children. Women no longer accept to be saddled with all that. But we have instead unloaded the work of reproduction and care onto other women from poor countries that we hire as ‘service workers.’ We should be ashamed.”
“When I was 18, I would have never even dreamed of accepting a precarious job for years, and I do not understand how we can stand that today,” she added. “I interviewed Maurizio Landini to ask him why the CGIL union did not join the global women’s strike on March 8, and he told me that ‘he encountered resistance’,’” Rossanda continued. “If I were younger, I’d jump in and join the union for a struggle in solidarity with the other women.”
Castellina replied: “I read the manifesto for a ‘Feminism for the 99%’ by Cinzia Arruzza and Nancy Fraser. I don’t agree with everything in it, but I certainly agree that the alliance between patriarchy and capital is a criminal one.” Besides, Carla Lanzi—in honor of whom the room where the discussion took place was named—was urging women 50 years ago to “not take part in to the existent modes of production, in the type of work carved out for men’s bodies and minds.”
The two women passed along the book Europa, la posta in gioco (“Europe is now at stake”, ed. manifesto libri) to the audience, which explains what is at risk for all of us, men and women, on May 26. “Now, we must not allow that the women who are elected find themselves alone,” Rossanda concluded. There was a standing ovation from the audience, with the whole room full of women standing up and chanting, “Thank you, thank you!”