Social Injustice Social Issues

Because there are few feminist studies courses in Italian universities

In 1995, the Italian-Australian philosopher Rosi Braidotti became professor of women’s studies at the University of Utrecht, in the Netherlands, and director of the Dutch school of research in women’s studies, a position she held until 2005. At the time Braidotti was thirty years old and he has just written one of his most famous books, Nomadic Subjects (Castelvecchi 2023). Although she was born and raised in Italy, she studied in Australia and France.

In the mid-nineties in Italy, courses in feminist theories or gender studies were not very widespread, despite the significant presence of feminist theorists in philosophy faculties. Two among all: Adriana Cavarero and Luisa Muraro. But almost thirty years later, although sensitivity and culture have changed a lot, Italian universities remain late in integrating more than a century of theoretical production on these topics into academic paths, which adds to the structural gender inequality in universities.

As shown by the data collected by the Italian Society of Women in Philosophy (Swip), the presence of women in philosophy faculties is similar to that in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem) faculties: women are underrepresented, especially in positions higher and more prestigious, and in stable and long-term teaching positions.

“The percentage of women in philosophy faculties is low, similar to that of STEM faculties. And this also applies to countries like the United Kingdom and the United States. While the percentage of women in other scientific fields, such as biology, social and psychological sciences and other humanities is much higher,” is written in the latest Swip report.

“In December 2022 there were still many more men (861) than women (393) employed on a permanent basis as teachers in the philosophy faculties of Italian universities, but instead there was no significant difference between women (187) and men ( 226) employed as temporary workers in the same universities”, the report continues.

“Furthermore, there is a significant difference between women and men when we talk about full professors in philosophy faculties: there are 113 women, compared to 312 men. Similar proportion for associate professors: there are 184 women, while there are 404 men”. Inequalities that are reduced when we talk about fixed-term and permanent researchers: in the first category there are 62 women and 107 men, while in the second there are 34 women and 38 men.

But even the presence of courses in feminist theories and gender studies is still problematic. As Massimo Prearo, researcher in gender studies at the University of Verona and editor together with others of the first pilot report of the Gifts network on gender and feminist studies in Italian universities, tells Internazionale, “now many teachers have trained abroad, they have become interested in these themes, they have carried out many research projects from a gender perspective”.

But studying these issues can be a disadvantage for the academic careers of researchers and teachers. “We have mapped around a thousand people who deal with these disciplines in Italian universities. There are quite a few, but the problem is that they are not recognised.” According to Prearo this is due to regulatory and structural problems, as well as cultural ones.

“In Italy, due to regulatory issues, it is not possible to create degree courses that do not fall within the sectors and degree classes imposed by the Ministry of Education. This is the main reason why innovation at the level of three-year or master’s degree courses is very limited, we have rules to respect which are linked to the degree classes and what’s more we have very rigid scientific-disciplinary sectors”.

The Italian philosopher Adriana Cavarero in Turin, 11 May 1996. - Alberto Cristofari, Contrasto
The Italian philosopher Adriana Cavarero in Turin, 11 May 1996. (Alberto Cristofari, Contrasto)

In universities there are 370 scientific disciplinary sectors, grouped into fourteen areas, and gender studies (understood in a very broad sense: gender studies, feminist or sexuality studies) do not constitute a scientific disciplinary area, or even a sector.

Despite these limitations, according to the Gifts report published in 2022, there are 63 entities in Italian universities that in various capacities deal with feminist, gender, intersex, transfeminist and sexuality studies. There are only nine courses, masters and doctorates in these disciplines in the whole country, but they are more present in the faculties of sociology, political science and communication sciences than in the actual faculties of philosophy.

“The concept of gender was developed in the North American tradition of thought, it was born within the social sciences and not in the actual philosophy faculties,” explains Prearo. “In Italy, feminist theory has been dominated by the thought of difference , which is resistant to the concept of gender, and this is another factor that explains the rarity of this type of studies in the country,” continues Prearo, according to whom Italy is about twenty years behind other European countries such as France.

The researchers who deal with these issues are marginalized and often have to deal with them after having completed other studies considered more important, imposed by the scientific-disciplinary sectors imposed by the ministry, precisely to remain within the system. But it didn’t go any better for the philosophers and theorists of Italian feminism, who were often recognized with difficulty and with delay, sometimes only when their works were translated abroad and into other languages.

“Dealing with this type of thing in some cases penalizes you and in others delays you, because for example what you do is not recognised. There really aren’t any spaces. Only in recent years has the presence of this type of study become somewhat widespread. But we remain a minority, somewhat confined compared to the rest of the disciplines we belong to. And our colleagues, who do not deal with these issues, allow themselves to ignore them. They have no basic knowledge regarding a field of knowledge that in reality, in the rest of the world, has now become extremely advanced”, continues Prearo. And it happens that students are very advanced on these topics and increasingly request to do in-depth studies or write their degree theses in these areas.

Women’s space

According to Daniela Brogi, professor of contemporary Italian literature at the University for Foreigners of Siena and author of the book The Space of Women (Einaudi 2022) “patriarchy is not just a legal institution. But it is a mentality, it concerns the symbolic. And it also manifests itself through school programmes, textbooks and texts considered essential”. For this reason, even if texts written by women are more present than in the past in study courses and even if there are more women in universities, there are still many delays and discrimination.

For Brogi, however, it is not just a question of inserting more books written by female authors and thinkers into the canon of literature and philosophy, but of changing attitudes in general towards the history of thought and literature. “The absence of women and authors is an elephant in the room that cannot be discussed,” explains Brogi.

“The events, works and existences of half of humanity have been left on the margins of history, forming an off-screen area which, on the other hand, as happens in cinema, must be placed in dialogue and in critical and creative tension with the center of the frame. It will therefore not be a question of polemically inserting missing pieces, nor of patching up the holes, or of adding names just to make up the numbers. But to change language and perspective, to form a new mosaic,” says Brogi.

“I mean that at this point we should all have a feminist gaze. It means considering a culture that has a history of 150 years and which, according to historian Eric Hobsbawm, produced a true cultural revolution. But this data has not yet been assimilated, neither by society nor by academic knowledge”, explains Brogi, according to whom it should be “unacceptable” that at certain levels the classics of thought and artistic and theoretical production of the authors are ignored.

“Becoming and being a feminist is a painful business. Because it means taking note of all the symbolic violence that each of us has suffered and of which we have also become the unconscious bearer”, continues Brogi, according to whom it is no longer a question of breaking “the glass ceiling”, that is, of reaching the top, but rather than breaking “the glass walls”, that is, creating a common and widespread culture on these issues, taking a position and orienting oneself on a series of issues that are no longer possible to ignore.

The recent emancipation of women complicates the picture, as does women’s access to education

Brogi says that she began to write The Space of Women starting from a bibliography that was increasingly requested of her by colleagues and students to include the authors and their works in the study programs, in addition to all the reflection on the deconstruction of the canon classic. “I started with fifteen essential titles, which then became one hundred. Obviously it is not an exhaustive and definitive bibliography, it is an initial tool for orientation”, explains the professor. “This is how I realized that feminism is still considered a sentimental attitude, a state of mind, at most a political position. Not a culture. This of course has to do with that process of removing and silencing women’s voices,” she continues.

Brogi explains that we should also critically reread the great classics. “The accusation against those who try to broaden their gaze is that they want to subject to an overly critical analysis the texts of the past that were conceived in another context. We are often accused of wanting to subject to cancel culture , to censorship, texts written by men in even more patriarchal contexts than those in which we live now. But culture is always dynamic: the meanings through which we rethink the history of philosophy, literature and all forms of knowledge are also social constructions, so we, in the present, always renegotiate the meaning of the classics, precisely in the light of ‘Today. Which doesn’t mean wildly updating the books and forcing the texts,” continues Brogi.

“It makes sense to study The Betrothed by Alessandro Manzoni also remembering that it is a work written by an author who kept his last daughter in a convent without responding to her letters and requests to meet until the girl died at the age of twenty-six. tuberculosis? Yes, certainly”, says Brogi, who has dedicated several studies to the author of The Betrothed . “Knowing and remembering it could have an added value not in an anecdotal sense, but in a literary sense, because the pages in which that very father, as a writer, invented Gertrude in the ninth and tenth chapter of The Betrothed , dedicated to the daughter of a prince destined to become a nun before being born. The fact that Manzoni also belonged to a patriarchal culture helps us understand how forms rework and deny biographies, going much further”, explains the teacher.

In Let’s Spit on Hegel (La Tartaruga 2023), a text considered fundamental for Italian feminism, the art critic and feminist Carla Lonzi wrote: “For the girl, university is not the place where her liberation takes place, through culture . But the place where her repression is perfected, cultivated within the family. Her education consists of slowly injecting her with a poison, which immobilizes her on the threshold of the most responsible gestures.” It was 1970. Lonzi had left her career as an art critic to dedicate herself completely to feminism together with the Rivolta donne group. In Let’s Spit on Hegel she took it out on the German philosopher and denounced the non-neutrality of culture with respect to the inequality between men and women.

Twenty years later, in 1990, the philosopher Adriana Cavarero tried to restore some figures of women and thinkers to ancient philosophy, starting from reading the texts of one of the philosophers she herself had loved most during her studies, Plato. “Western culture is full of figures in which the symbolic order represents itself. Thus we have the Greek gods, then the Homeric Ulysses and Polyphemus, then the Oedipus of tragedy, and again, Faust or Don Giovanni. Or, why not, Cyrano or Werther”, wrote Cavarero in his About her Despite Platone , an essay republished in 2023 by Castelvecchi.

These fundamental figures of Western culture have in common that they are male and yet claim to be universal. According to Cavarero, even if there are female figures in the classics, they are always subordinate to the male, “so that every female figure finds herself playing a role whose meaning lies in the patriarchal codes that assigned it to her”.

The recent emancipation of women complicates the picture, Cavarero assures, as does women’s access to education. Because women who attend traditional study courses and universities are forced to identify with those male subjects, who are believed to be universal and neutral.

“The concept of extraneousness was made famous by Virginia Woolf who in Three Guineas uses it in reference to the thought of cultured men, that is, of that prestigious tradition that is designed by men for men,” writes Cavarero. For the Italian philosopher it is not just a question of criticizing patriarchy and its presumed universalism, “of unmasking the tricks of universal reason which assigns a privileged role to the white, adult male”.

The attempt instead is to provide a gallery of female figures in which women can recognize themselves, freeing them from the exclusionary mechanisms and texts that have caged them in stereotypes. The German novelist Christa Wolf had already rewritten the figures of Cassandra and Medea between the eighties and nineties, more or less in the same period in which Cavarero rewrote the figures of Penelope, Demeter, Diotima of Mantinea and the Thracian servant starting from the texts Platonists. Cavarero makes space for those characters, with the idea of ​​going back to one of the founding moments of Western metaphysical thought, to show the “philosophical crime perpetrated on women”, their exclusion.

For Cavarero and according to the thought of difference to which she belongs, countering that system of domination also means reconstructing a genealogy of authors and thinkers who preceded her and who were erased. Restoring that bond with the “mothers” is already a step towards another story.

Related Posts

Jessa Crispin: «A t-shirt won’t make you a feminist»

In her essay «Why I am not a feminist», the American writer states that female empowerment, popular today, is not feminism. She explains to us what doesn’t work in the #metoo movement and why men don’t have the right to speak...

Feminist. To be or not to be? Read Jessa Crispin between dilemmas and desire

Ennio Flaiano , in  The Solitude of the Satyr , proposes a brilliant idea to make communism ineffective in a country like ours, of parliamentary democracy. It’s Marx’s egg. It would be enough to teach communism in schools. In that case it would not be necessary...

Fashion, feminism and patriarchy are more intertwined than we think

A miniskirt is not just a miniskirt, just like the feminist slogans on Dior t-shirts: here’s how women’s struggles have changed fashion Everything that we wear today more or less without asking ourselves too many problems has a history, carries with...