Saluti from Italy! Gender Roles and the Declining Birth Rate

Please don’t ban me I still want to eat your food

“Beauty has no age. Fertility does.” Sure, but your sexist and fascist past clearly has no expiration date. (https://osocio.org/message/italian-government-declares-fertilityday/)

Salutations, dear reader! As I sit here in my fortress of COVID-free solitude, enjoying some penne lisce from a box and canned tomato sauce, I can’t help but yearn for the chance to indulge in some authentic Italian pasta (which, when that blessed day comes, better be the best damn pasta I’ve ever eaten). Now, I could have taken a look at Italian culture and written about a hundred incredible, fascinating, awe-inspiring things about it, from ancient Roman civilization, to Italian cuisine, to the Renaissance. Instead, I decided to devote my writing to a modern-day crisis in Italy: how its declining birth rate is intrinsically tied to the sexist nature of the underpinnings of the workforce in Italian society! Yay! (we’ll get to the pasta later).

So, the birds and the bees and Italy’s misogyny. Where to begin? Italy post-World War Two was a ripe battleground for women’s gradual emancipation from the home. While the drastic divide between the two genders in the workplace has made some strides, it would appear that the Italian’s love of, ahem, “traditional” familial structures made them most unprepared for this cultural shift within society. Apart from Italy’s heavily controversial fascist past that had highly sexist underpinnings regarding the roles of women in society (that, however, is a can of worms I will open on another date), much of Italian culture orients around this family dynamic, with la Famiglia often being the most important component of the Italian lifestyle. Whether it’s meals, work, or free time, the famiglia is the controlling factor of all, extending beyond the nuclear families of Western culture. The origins of this familial bond are unclear, but the underpinnings appear to have been within Italian culture for quite a long time. Being not only a primarily Catholic country but also having the fiefs and rural peasantry families of the past, extended familial relationships that were a necessity for survival (particularly within southern Italy) persist to this day, with strong multigenerational relationships and connectedness to the famiglia extending throughout one’s life.

I now, imagine, dear reader, that you will be more or less unsurprised to learn that a country so strongly rooted in its traditional familial structures would have one (or more) cultural shock regarding the liberation of women within this society. Disruption to the countrywide's Catholic beliefs regarding women in the household — such as the divorce law of 1970, the 1979 family law reform, and the 1978 abortion law — threw a wrench in the slightly sexist underpinnings of the traditional Italian family. Women now who are marching on to pursue other options beyond marital bliss are pushing back their marriage dates, remaining within the educational system longer, and remaining in the workforce as long as possible due to a more unstable economy, have contributed towards a lower birthrate across the country over the last 20 years, with the lowest total fertility rate (TFR) reaching 1.19 infants per woman in the mid-1990s.

However, one cannot attribute all of the birth rate crisis in Italy to the feminist movement within Italy. Rather, it would appear to be that Italy’s inability to grasp the rapidly changing familial dynamics of their country is where the most damage should be attributed. Familial responsibilities and the workplace are still obstinately stuck in the past: between the scarcity of public childcare for young children, unequal distribution of housework and childcare, a lack of coherent family-friendly policies for working mothers, and the structure of outside institutions being built on familial structures of the past have all combined into a most atrocious symphony of child support. La Famiglia is an important part of Italian culture, and an undeniable part of what makes it memorable. However, it would do Italy some good to note the impact that it’s having on a critical component of their society and recognize that, while the famiglia should stay, the sexist beliefs that it has helped perpetuate should not.

The Italian Tragedy of Penne Pasta: A brief tale from COVID Lore

Well, dear reader, now that your bellies are full of the sexist underpinnings of Italy’s birth rate crisis, perhaps you would like to finish off with a steamy debate regarding my dear penne lisce as a quick little tidbit of fun facts? When the lovely COVID first reached Italy’s shores, the supermarkets of Italy were practically stripped of pasta stockpiles within 24 hours, with only penne lisce remaining on the shelves. Thus sparked the most curious debate of the pasta and whether this cylindrical, ridge-less pasta was merely a misunderstood staple of Italy or the spawn of Satan himself. Then began the debate between which penne was superior — penne lisce or the ridged penne rigate — regarding subjects as monumental as historical origins of the pasta shape to as trivial as sauce retention on the pieces of pasta. Either way, as much as I try to remain dignified and poised, dear reader, I believe I am too much of an uncultured swine for a question of this magnitude.

References

https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.3109/09540261.2012.656306

https://www.politico.com/news/2020/07/05/italys-problem-with-working-women-made-worse-by-coronavirus-349561

https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Elizabeth_L_Krause/publication/23952155_Empty_Cradles_and_the_Quiet_Revolution_Demographic_Discourses_and_Cultural_Struggles_of_Gender_Race_and_Class_in_Italy/links/55a5c07f08aef604aa045b9c.pdf

https://thisismold.com/process/manufacture/smooth-vs-ridged-penne-a-covid-19-pasta-drama#.YBzZLGRucTU

https://www.lifeinitaly.com/culture/italian-families-then-and-now/

https://culturalatlas.sbs.com.au/italian-culture/italian-culture-family