Bologna boasts one of Europe’s largest libraries of its kind
Bologna is filled with political expression, whether in the form of pride flags or “All Cops Are Bastards” graffiti. This activist spirit isn’t possible without educational resources, which are crucial for the advancement of women’s rights in Italy. That makes the city the perfect home for The Women’s Library, La Biblioteca Delle Donne — one of Europe’s largest libraries devoted to women’s issues and feminism.
Yet patriarchal and conservative religious influences run deep within Italian culture and, most importantly, throughout the government, impeding progress. Along with the Women’s Library, organizations such as The Orlando Association, and The Women’s Bookstore, Libreria Delle Donna, are fighting for women’s rights by offering educational resources.
Associazione Orlando, which began as a women’s collective in the 1970s, is named after Virginia Woolf’s 1928 novel “Orlando: A Biography” (about a man who becomes a woman). The association’s goals are to fight gender inequality, transphobia and to advance other feminist issues by holding meetings, conferences, and collaborations with schools and other organizations. Associazione Orlando members founded the Biblioteca Italiana Delle Donne in the late 1970s, to promote female participation in a public arena while striving to educate people about gender.
“Women and girls have been victims of stereotypes,” said Associazione Orlando President Dr. Samanta Picciaiola, who is also an elementary school teacher. “And they feel pressure to fit in with the way that they are represented in the TV or in the media, or in politics.”
Associazione Orlando receives funding from both the city of Bologna and greater Emilia-Romagna region to acquire and preserve books in the library. Picciaiola incorporates feminism into her primary school teaching. She notes that there are already gender stereotypes in place the moment children walk into school — boys have Spider-Man and blue themes, for example, while girls have Barbie and pink.
Dr. Elena Musiani, the volunteer archive historian, said the library has welcomed approximately 200 visitors per week after the COVID-19 pandemic. The library archives thousands of books, magazines, videos and other materials about women’s history, political movements, art, creativity, LGBTQ+ movements, gender inequality and related issues. While much progress has been made by Italian women who have fought for and achieved greater legal and social equality with men, “there’s still a lot to do to strengthen women’s rights in this country,” said Musiani, referring to the growing popularity of conservative and neo-fascist ideas and political candidates in Italy.
Religion as a regressive force
Religion is an undeniable influence on Italy’s culture; one cannot walk down the street without seeing a statue of the Virgin Mary or images of Catholic saints; and there are churches on nearly every corner. Religion is woven into the traditional political framework of Italy, making for a difficult delineation between church and state.
“It’s not always a dialogue (between the state and church),” Picciaiola pointed out. “Sometimes it’s more of a fight. It’s a hard relationship.”
Though Italy has some laws to protect women’s rights, activists don’t feel any particular sense of security, due to heavy conservative religious influence of the country’s current right-wing national leadership. For example, Italy’s first female prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, rejects feminism and leads the “Brothers of Italy” Party, which has long-standing connections to fascism. Meloni’s political views are far right, and her platform claims to defend “God, Fatherland, and Family.” She rejects “gender ideology,” and her administration mirrors these beliefs.
While abortion has technically been legal in Italy since 1978, it isn’t easily accessible. The decision to administer an abortion is left entirely up to a doctor’s discretion, and nearly 70% of Italian doctors refuse to provide them.
“We have achieved rights that are still unstable right now,” said Elena Alberti, the manager of Women’s Bookstore. “So, we keep on fighting every day for those rights. At present, we have a right-wing government, and they are not in favor of abortion. So, we need to fight for that.”
“They [the national government] are against the self-determination of women, and they are against different ways of being in the family,” she said. Picciaiola referred to the discrimination experienced by Italian LGBTQ+ families, in which laws don’t recognize two same-sex parents as legal parents. If a child has two mothers, for example, only one mother is legally classified as the parent — the other has no parental rights, and is considered a stranger on paper. These issues keep feminists around Italy continuing to fight for equality for all.
Patriarchy in Italy is entrenched, many activists say.
“As for the culture of sexism, it’s widespread, but it’s connected with the patriarchal idea of male supremacy,” said library archivist Musiani. Relatively few Italian women are involved in politics – and those who are rarely espouse feminist politics. Picciaiola noted that Meloni “doesn’t carry out feminist activities, feminist politics or policies, so there’s been issues there.” And in politics, “there is a real underrepresentation and misrepresentation of women,” she added.
The Orlando Association also works to increase the presence of women in the workforce. Picciaiola offered the example of a labor rights issue about which Italian feminists are organizing: unpaid child care and elder care. Women in Italy and across the globe are more likely than men to be responsible for caregiving, and the vast majority of this work is never financially compensated.
“This is a problem that limits our country,” Picciaiola said, referring to the feminist theory that if women are never able to economically advance themselves, they remain powerless. She noted that Italy has initiated an incentive to raise its low birth rates, offering women more government financial assistance based on more babies born. With maternity as a major government priority, women are forced into a gender binary in which they are treated primarily as baby machines, she said, while the government stalls on policies that would significantly improve women’s lives.
All the activists we interviewed complained that Italy was less advanced than other Western countries in terms of feminism. Bologna’s Women’s Library and Women’s Bookstore promote literature on “feminisms” — plural to acknowledge that there are multiple forms of feminism, including transgender and queer studies. This intersectional approach was clear from the comments of Women’s Bookstore manager Elena Alberti, who has worked with with groups like “Not One (Woman) Less” and Camp Agape, with members of the LGBTQ+ community. Alberti, a fan of intersectional authors such as bell hooks, Carla Lonzi and Gloria Anzaldúa, was inspired by books on Spanish transfeminism. We need to “fight together,” she argued, because all of these issues — women’s rights, LGBTQ+ rights and trans rights — affect feminism as a whole.
The power of books
In discussions about Italy’s far-right government, Alberti mentioned another core political issue: recent legislation banning progressive educational books.
“Mayors in some cities have banned books in schools so that children won’t have access to them,” said Alberti. “Books are powerful. And that’s why we need to get involved politically in the sharing of culture through books.”
This was why The Women’s Bookstore had a large section of children’s books on a multitude of topics related to gender, sexuality and related stereotypes.
Similarly, The Women’s Library includes “Sofia’s Collection,” a collection of more than 4,000 children’s and teenagers’ books to educate and encourage young women, filled with authors from across the world and books in a variety of languages. The collection received its name from “Cartas A Sofia,” a book written by philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau, who advocated for the education of women.
As a primary school teacher, Picciaiola is making sure children feel comfortable in their bodies, and know that it’s important to take care of and respect them.
“Bodies are a big taboo here in Italy for children. We don’t talk about bodies with children,” she said. “I tell my students that our bodies are our home, and we should treat them like that.”
Picciaiola stressed the importance of teaching young people that we don’t live in a cisgender world, and that we need to go beyond gender stereotypes. However, she noted that this type of education isn’t the norm in Italy. A lack of education about feminism, women’s rights, and gender stereotypes is prevalent. Most schools in Italy don’t offer this kind of lesson. As a result, many Italian adults don’t have feminist views, and hold misconceptions about what feminism is. Underscoring the importance of Bologna’s Women’s Library and Women’s Bookstore, Elisa Bernardini, a doctoral at the Women’s Library who was studying arts, photography, and feminism, told us that she got in touch with feminism when she moved to Bologna because, in her high school, she wasn’t taught about it. Even at the progressive University of Bologna, only two gender studies courses are offered, and both only at master’s level, and so not widely available to most students.
With so little education around gender studies, it is difficult for the average Italian to see the more complex issues that go beyond basic equality. For example, Pietro Maggiano, a chemistry student studying at the Women’s Library, said he believed women deserved the same rights as men and claimed that he supported feminists, but didn’t notice any gender divide between women and men in the workplace. (He later told us he was studying in the Women’s Library because it was a quiet place to work, and not because he was interested in the books.) He said he believed that any gender differences in employment or salary were because “women didn’t work as hard as men.”
Perhaps noticing our startled reactions, he quickly justified his position by saying that he was born and raised in Apulia, in southern Italy (known to be conservative regarding traditional gender roles), using this as an excuse for not understanding feminism.
Picciaiola confirmed that, for Italians who don’t live in major cities, it’s hard to learn about these issues or to connect with others interested in the movement.
Due to such ongoing impediments to women’s rights, the educational resources provided by the Women’s Library and the Women’s Bookstore are more important than ever, to increase everyone’s knowledge and passion to help drive forward a more liberated feminist future. We were able to see that passion first-hand, in the activism of students like Bernardini, and library volunteers such as Musiani. If you are planning a trip to Bologna and are interested in women’s rights, we highly recommend that you visit both of these important sites.
If you go:
The Women’s Library (Via del Piombo, 5, 40125 Bologna) https://www.bibliotechebologna.it/biblioteche/biblioteca-italiana-delle-donne
The Women’s Bookstore (Via S. Felice, 16, 40122 Bologna) https://www.bolognaisfair.it/libreria-delle-donne/