ROME — This month's local elections have changed not only the face, but also gender, of leadership in 3,825 Italian municipalities. Exactly 628 towns and cities now have women mayors, with almost all of the candidates having beaten male opponents.

Still, this is a country that continues to agree apparently with Italy's former head of civil protection agency Guido Bertolaso, who once said of the possibility of Giorgia Meloni becoming mayor of Rome: "A mother cannot dedicate herself to such a terrible job." And the reality is that the overall percentage of women mayors is a rather modest 16.4%.

You show off, show your qualities and wait for the jury to choose you.

Looking back, however, we do see progress: It turns out that in the last 30 years, the number of female mayors has increased sevenfold and that one municipality in three has been run by a woman in recent times.

The next question is: Where did these women end up? And what are they doing now? How come at some point they disappear instead of becoming national cabinet ministers, party leaders, heads of government?

Marta Dassù of the Aspen Institute recently wrote in La Stampa how in Europe, a generation of "cultured, pragmatic and very determined" women has taken power everywhere, radically changing politics in the process. And it hasn't been limited to northern European countries. Inés Arrimadas, the rising young leader of the Ciudadanos party in Catalonia, convinced her husband, who serves as a member of Parliament for another party, to leave politics in order to avoid any risk of a conflict of interest. Could you imagine a woman like that in Italy? Of course. Except that after a certain point the ascent slows down, and they never end up making it to the top.

Chiara Appendino, the current mayor of Turin. — Photo: ActuaLitté

The list of talented Italian women held down by the country's political parties is very long indeed. Two examples from the left: Valeria Mancinelli of Ancona, 2018 winner of the World Mayors Prize, whom the party chiefs sent on TV a couple of times. Very good, calm, quick on her feet — and then gone from sight as soon as the attention from the prize died down. Giusi Nicolini, former mayor of Lampedusa, brought by Matteo Renzi to President Obama as a symbol of Italian excellence, co-opted in the party echelons, left without any real responsibility to eventually vanish from view.

On the right, it's usually the same. Titles and awards are distributed generously, but if there is true experience, independence of thought, it usually becomes impossible to go beyond. There are two exceptions of note: the above-mentioned Meloni, who is busy building a party of its own, and Mara Carfagna, who rose through the ranks of Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia party with choices that bucked the party line, proposing herself as an alternative to the prevailing machismo.

After a certain point the ascent slows down, and [women politicians] never end up making it to the top.

Silvia Botti, the editor-in-chief of the architecture and design magazine Abitare, has worked extensively for women and knows the psychology of both women and politicians. She is convinced that the real problem is that Italians have an idea about the competition for power that is too similar to that of a beauty contest. "You show off, show your qualities and wait for the jury to choose you." In Europe, competing is an ongoing contest, and women have long since learned how to do it. "If you want a place, a role, you have to beat the others to get it, no jury will assign it to you," she says.

Botti adds that our model in Italy is so frozen within the principle of co-optation that often those with the European standard, the educated, the pragmatic, decide, precisely because of who they are, face the fatal question "Is it going to be worth it?" to try to make it in politics. And the answer, then, is no, it's not worth it — better to take my commitment elsewhere.

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