Pioneers, rebels, feminists, icons, witnesses to changing times, first-timers … to say the least, the contributions of Italian women in the history of the country (and well beyond the country’s borders) in every possible field have always been underestimated—and they still are. Although it is impossible to make up for the lost recognition and honors, things are slowly changing. In our small way, let’s try to acknowledge some Italian women who made an impact on history—or who are making history right now.
The method bearing her name, Montessori, focuses on children’s interests, attitudes, and abilities. Placing the child rather than the teacher at the center of the experience, the metodo Montessori goes way beyond the classroom and has by now succeeded with several generations of parents, educators, and children. Maria Montessori, born in 1870, was one of the first female Italian physicians. She first focused on psychiatry and later developed an interested in education, working with underprivileged children and children with disabilities. Over time, she developed the method we all know and appreciate today. As we all can imagine, she had to fight against norms, conventions, and expectations in a male-dominated field—and world— but, as they say: mission accomplished. There’s no doubt Maria Montessori made a worldwide impact that still holds today.
No post in 2023 on influential Italian women would be complete without mentioning Samantha Cristoforetti, aka AstroSamantha, whose influence goes well beyond the world—literally to space. An Italian European Space Agency astronaut, Cristoforetti has broken several records. She holds the record for the longest uninterrupted space flight—199 days and 16 hours—by a European astronaut. Until 2017, she held the record for the longest single space flight by a woman. She was, in fact, the first Italian woman in space… and that IS rocket science, right? In April 2022, when Cristoforetti left to fly to the International Space Station for the second time—where she eventually stayed for five months—a debate sparked on social media around the astonishing, stellar (as they like to say) question of who would take care of her children, ages 12 months and 5 years? She (and they) made it successfully, of course, and Cristoforetti broke another record along the way, becoming the first person to make a TikTok video onboard the International Space Station. A record is always a record worth being noted, isn’t it?
Second-generation female writers
The so-called seconda generazione is made up of people born to immigrants who came Italy starting in the 1990s and of those born abroad but raised in Italy. Second-generation female writers deserve a special mention: In addition to all the issues and challenges they had to address as children growing up among two or more cultures and languages, they also found themselves women in tumultuous, fast-changing, at times scary—and yet intriguing—times. Among them are Espérance Hakuzwimana Ripanti, born in Rwanda in 1991 and raised in Brescia, with E poi basta – Manifesto di una donna nera italiana; Nadeesha Uyangoda, the Italian author born in Sri Lanka who, in addition to writing L’unica persona nera nella stanza, hosts Sulla razza, a podcast that tries to translate words and concepts around racial issues from the Anglo-American context to the Italian one; Igiaba Schego, a writer, journalist, and activist of Somali origin with La mia casa è dove sono and La linea del colore; and Rania Ibrahim, with her Islam in love and blog Yalla Italia, focusing on second-generation Italians.
Giorgia Meloni and Elly Schlein
Giorgia Meloni—leader of Fratelli d’Italia, the current majority party in Italy; as well as the current Italian prime minister and the first woman in that capacity—and Elly Schlein—the first woman to lead Partito Democratico—could not be more different in terms of opinions, style, and experiences. But for the first time in history, the two biggest Italian political parties are led by women. In addition, Meloni is 46 and Schlein is 37, both of which count as young— actually, very young—for the Italian political landscape. Whatever their stances are, Meloni and Schlein are making history and having an impact already. Italian women were granted full suffrage in 1945 (they could vote starting in 1925, but only in local elections); among the first women to be elected was Nilde Iotti, who later, in 1979, became the first female president of the Chamber of Deputies. A few women followed her in her footsteps, filling this important role, but, before 2022, Italy had never had a woman as a prime minister. First up: a woman serving as, the highest political rank of the country? The road ahead is still long, but very few people would have bet on such a generational—and gender role—change until a few years ago.
By Claudia Quesito
Also read: Top Italian Authors & Books to Read in 2023