THERE ARE men you marry and men you flee. The goal is to figure out which is which before any permanent damage is done.
Italian women are hoping it isn’t too late. Their nearly 20-year political marriage to disgraced Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has finally come to an end. While the immediate cause for the split was Italy’s financial woes and debt crises, Berlusconi’s behavior with minors and prostitutes had already turned him into Europe’s most isolated ruler. In his place, new Prime Minister Mario Monti has swept in, unelected, to help lead Italy out of its dire economic predicament. The European Bank technocrat has also found time to woo Italy’s beleaguered women. And for the courtship alone, he’s a keeper.
To first put Berlusconi’s escapades in perspective, the 75-year-old ex-prime minister is now facing three separate criminal cases related to allegations regarding hookers, sex with minors, and payoffs. Berlusconi always embraced his hedonism, accusing his critics of just being jealous. But he isn’t simply a creepy old man; he did run a country. By the time the debt drama unfolded, Berlusconi had so weakened and denigrated his office with scandal that he lacked the political good will and credibility to address the economic emergency.
Educated and able Italian women felt the consequences of his reign well before they ever got wind of his “boom boom’’ room. Italian women rank a sorry 74th in the 2011 World Economic Forum’s ranking of political and economic participation. This gives Italy the lowest slot of any European country, except Macedonia. While Catholic traditionalism may explain part of this shortfall, Italy’s once very active women’s movement successfully overcame Vatican opposition to pass an abortion rights provision in 1978.
Then, a little more than decade later, began the Berlusconi era. The mogul-cum-premier didn’t really love women, he simply liked having the upper hand.
One of Berlusconi’s most consequential acts was to reinstate a previously banned policy known as dimissioni in bianco. As described by The Guardian, this policy allows employers to fire women when they get pregnant. It sounds quite humiliating; when hired, women must sign an agreement that gives their consent to termination in the event of pregnancy.
And while Berlusconi appointed some qualified women to senior posts, his most prominent female appointee was a former topless model to oversee equal rights enforcement.
When news of Berlusconi’s alleged affair with an underage prostitute broke earlier this year, women recoiled and organized a series of protest rallies, including one in February that brought two million Italians to the streets. When Berlusconi left office nine months later, one female member of Parliament told me, “We finally felt that we would be credible for our own merits and not, well, dot, dot, dot, you know, dot, dot, dot.’’
Yes, we know what “dot, dot, dot’’ means.
When Monti came into power last month, his exclusive focus was on the economy. But it’s a broad focus. As an economist, he believes that women’s lack of engagement in the workforce - fewer than half of Italian women work outside the home, considerably less than the rest of Europe - contributes to Italy’s stagnant economy. He speaks publicly about bringing women back into Italian society so that they will contribute more to economic and political life.
He also immediately placed three women in cabinet positions, changing the tone of gender politics. All three head serious and demanding departments: Interior, Welfare, and Justice. Like all of Monti’s appointees, they are well-known experts in their respective fields. And they are all over 60, a nice touch if only a coincidence.
Berlusconi isn’t gone yet; he just doesn’t get the hint. He remains the leader of his party. He will be busy with his criminal trials, and a few civil cases as well. And if that were not enough, the billionaire who began his career as a cruise ship singer just released a CD called “True Love.’’
Monti, on the other hand, seems to have little time for love songs.
His cabinet of plaid-wearing academics and economists are a different kind of centerfold. A lot is resting on “Super Mario’’ and whether he can get austerity measures in place fast enough. It’s no boom-boom, but Monti does seem like the marrying kind.Juliette Kayyem can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @juliettekayyem.