On International Women’s Day, a Tribute to 5 Influential Italian Women

| Tue, 03/08/2022 - 03:53
Sophia Loren

Ed. March 8, 2024: This archival article is being re-shared on International Women’s Day to mark the occasion. To reflect the specific moment in time in which it was first published, the data has not been updated. 

On International Women’s Day, Italy Magazine celebrates some of the most influential Italian women who can serve as inspiration to all.

But before we do, it’s worth taking a look at the complex situation of Italian women in society.

While women play a prominent role in Italian society, often in the home as daughters, wives, mothers or grandmothers, equal power in the working world remains elusive.

According to data provided by the research company Censis, there are approximately 31 million women living in Italy, representing 51.3% of the Italian population. According to the latest Istat report on education levels, women study more and generally perform better academically than men. There are more female graduates (23%) than male graduates (17.2%) in Italy.  

Yet Italian women work less and are generally less valued in the workplace. This is common to other European countries, but Italy seems to lag behind almost every other country except for Greece. Italy is second to last in Europe for female participation in the labor market; only one in two working age women work. And only 27% of executive positions in Italian private companies are held by women (in the European Union, the average is 34%). Left out from top positions also means not being able to give an imprint to the labor market that takes into account the needs of women, especially working mothers, considering that in Italy 81% of women take care of domestic chores daily while only 20% of men do.

Add to this the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, and the situation gets worse: in 2021, out of 101,000 new unemployed people, 99,000 were women, as reported by Italy's financial newspaper Il Sole 24 Ore.  

There’s work to be done. As Emma Bonino, one our featured women below, said in an interview with The Guardian, “If I look back 50 years ago, if you look at women’s rights, I cannot even recognize my country, the change has been enormous. That doesn’t mean it is all done. On the contrary, rights are a process, and if you don’t care for them, you can lose them from morning to night.”

This list of five powerful and influential Italian women is not by any means exhaustive, just as the overview above can’t cover all of the nuances of women in the workplace. Still, each sets an example for success in the face of adversity — something always worth celebrating — in fields ranging from science to politics and from fashion to cinema.

Rita Levi Montalcini

Born in Turin to a Jewish family in 1909, Rita Levi-Montalcini was one of the most important scientists of the 20th century. She died in 2012 at the age of 103. An Italian neurologist, she won the 1986 Nobel Prize in Physiology for the discovery of the nerve growth factor along with her colleague Stanley Cohen. Through her foundation, Rita Levi-Montalcini Onlus, she financed scholarships for women in developing countries, fought for the right to abortion and steadfastly pursued her commitment to women's empowerment. In short, her long long life was dedicated to science and humanity.

Emma Bonino 

Emma Bonino is an Italian politician and the leader of the Italian Radicals, a liberal political party. Born in Bra, Piedmont, in 1948, she served as Minister of Foreign Affairs, as vice-president of the Italian Senate and was a member of the European Parliament. In 1975, she promoted the referendum which led to the legalization of abortion in Italy. Bonino has led several international human rights campaigns and is a strong supporter of the European Union and of the rights of migrants. She is a lung cancer survivor. 

Sophia Loren

An international icon, Sophia Loren stands as both Italy’s greatest cinematic export and ‘the embodiment of “Italian womanhood.” Born Sofia Scicolone in Rome in 1934, she has starred in more than 100 films and has received more than 50 international awards. She was the first actor to win an Oscar for a non-English-language performance (Two Women, 1961). The American Film Institute named her as one of the greatest female stars of classical Hollywood cinema. Since the 1980s, she has slowed down her acting career to raise her two children. She was awarded the Honorary Academy Award for her work in film in 1991.

Miuccia Prada

Miuccia Prada, born Maria Bianchi in Milan in 1949, is the head designer of Prada and the founder of its subsidiary Miu Miu. The youngest granddaughter of Mario Prada, the founder of the luxury fashion company, Miuccia is considered one of the main shapers of the luxury fashion industry and received numerous accolades and awards for her work. She is also the founder of Fondazione Prada, which promotes contemporary art and culture through three exhibitions spaces in Milan and Venice. She holds a PhD in political science. 

Rita Borsellino 

Born in Palermo, Sicily, in 1945, Rita Borsellino was an anti-mafia activist and a member of the European Parliament. She was the sister of the anti-mafia magistrate Paolo Borsellino, who was killed in 1992 in the horrific Via d’Amelio bombing attack by the mafia. In 1995, For decades, Rita collaborated with the non-profit organization Libera, which works to create an anti-mafia culture among Sicilian youth and promotes activities against organized crime. She died in 2018.