Written by Rachael Martin


Living in Italy… made me a feminist

Standard Issue writers are exploring when they knew they were feminist. For Rachael Martin, it was a fertility campaign in her beloved Italy that made her see red.

Illustration by Louise Boulter.

“I’m not ironing his shirts. I’m not ironing anyone’s shirts.” Me, aged 17, to my boyfriend’s mother.

It was written on the cards that I’d be a feminist. Or rather it was written on the oak panelling of my all-girls school along with the photos of hockey teams and successful old girls.

I was taught by a generation of women graduates from 1950s Oxbridge. Education was their vocation and we got the benefit. The message was this: you are as good as boys and you can be better than boys. It was 1980s Britain and Margaret Thatcher was prime minister. We were going to have careers, not babies!

My mother reinforced the message, but it needed fine-tuning. I had to do my own ironing. My brother didn’t.

I went off to northern Italy to teach English in a provincial town, a 1990s Lucy Honeychurch with a bright orange Puffa jacket and a mild thirst for adventure.

I met a group of like-minded Italians and spent years flying up and down mountain passes to go skiing. I didn’t pay much notice to the rather too silent semi-naked women parading across Italian TV screens, and the double standards for men and for women. Italy had its attractions, and not just my Italian boyfriend. And it was a far cry from a cold grey Yorkshire town.

I stayed in Italy, married an Italian and began a family. It all started well. In Italy, a pregnant woman is a pregnant queen and there I was waddling around, eating all possible flavours of delicious Italian ice cream.

Then I had a baby.

The family culture that had been so appealing reared up and slapped me in the face. Great if you have one around, but mine was back in Yorkshire. All the mum and baby groups my friends were attending in the UK barely existed in Italy.

A year and a half later, I had my second child, followed by a spell in hospital due to complications. There I was in my hospital bed, being lectured on the importance of breastfeeding, despite a 40°C temperature and the fact I could barely stand up. Think of your baby, they replied. I thought of my baby, but it also got me thinking about a whole lot more.

“When a national fertility campaign told us all we should be going off and making babies, it was the straw that strengthened my feminist back.”

Last September, the Italian Health Ministry organised Fertility Day, a campaign designed to kickstart a declining birthdate. The images on posters ranged from a tap dripping water (“Fertility is a common good”), to a woman holding a sand timer and her stomach (“Beauty has no age. Fertility, yes.”). And the Health Minister’s a woman. If Italy has the lowest birth rate in Europe, there are reasons why.

It’s one thing to make sacrifices for your kids, but here in Italy I sometimes get the impression that motherhood is the consolation prize for women who lose their own identities in a system that fails them.

On the one hand, there’s the image of maternal perfection. The ideal of motherhood is well-revered but it is all-consuming: women have a hard enough time for the usual reasons – sexism within the workplace, unequal pay, fewer women in higher positions – and when they become mothers, almost one in three stops work after the birth of the child.

Precarious work contracts, unrenewed work contracts, lack of contracts, it all contributes. Wraparound childcare isn’t the norm. There are no regulated childminders and grandparents step in a lot.

So when a national fertility campaign told us all we should be going off and making babies, it was the straw that strengthened my feminist back.

It had begun quietly: personal experiences, watching women struggle and listening to their stories. Then Trump became US president, we had the Women’s March in Milan and I made contacts within feminist movements.

Preparations are now taking place for the ‘Not one less!’ strike on 8 March, a deliberate reference to femicide: if our lives don’t have any value, we shall not produce!

The UN’s 2012 ‘Report of the Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences’ by Rashida Manjoo, stated that most violence in Italy is under-reported within a family-oriented, patriarchal culture that doesn’t always perceive it as crime. A culture where women are economically dependent, and where they believe appeals for help will not always be answered.

There’s also the problem that the word ‘feminist’ still evokes the age-old stereotypes (of course, this isn’t just in Italy – a lot of women don’t identify with the word). And the divide over abortion is huge. Abortion has been legal in Italy since 1978, but rising numbers of conscientious objectors in gynaecology departments mean it’s not always accessible. Unsurprisingly, the number of clandestine abortions has increased.

As for the ironing, my husband does his own. So will my boys. My mother showed me the path, I’m doing the fine-tuning. Living within the patriarchy doesn’t mean you can’t find your own solution.

Being a mother of boys is a massive responsibility. “MUM! Why do all the adverts in Milan have bums and boobs?” Good question. A long, complicated answer.

And a lot of that answer is why on 8 March, Dad will be making dinner, boys. And you two can help him.

Mum will be striking with her sisters. And going off to protest in Milan.

Read about more of our writers’ feminist lightbulb moments here.


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Written by Rachael Martin

Rachael moved to Italy 20 years ago, and can still be found living north of Milan, enthusing about food and places, and eyeing up the Abarths. She’s bilingual, writing in English and Italian, and also goes off to Spain every summer. Three places, three languages, certainly two identities, with cultural insights and awareness that live in her suitcase wherever she goes.