Early this month, Hillary Clinton made some embarrassing comments about the then-forthcoming election of Giorgia Meloni as Italy’s first woman prime minister. “The election of the first woman prime minister in a country always represents a break with the past, and that is certainly a good thing,” the former secretary of state said.
Clinton has been rightly pilloried. After all, she was talking about the leader of the fascist Brothers of Italy party, the most extreme right-wing party to govern Italy since Benito Mussolini’s dictatorship.
Meloni claimed victory in Sunday night’s general election with considerable ease, leading a far-right coalition that now holds a significant majority in both Italy’s houses of Parliament.
White supremacy has always relied on active enforcement by white women.
Whatever “break” from the past having a woman leader signals, “Meloni would also represent continuity with Italy’s darkest episode,” historian Ruth Ben-Ghiat noted in The Atlantic. And the continuance is very real: The Brothers of Italy’s direct forebears, the neofascist Italian Social Movement, was formed by supporters of Il Duce after World War II.
The idea that a woman leader “opens doors” for other women, as Clinton suggested, is of course laughable. That’s especially true when that leader is a fascist keen to stop abortions and do away with employment quotas that favor women — quite literally shuttering women in the nuclear home — while locking out immigrant women from Italy’s body politic all together.
The media got this right much of the time, giving prominent billing to Meloni’s far-right nationalism, but numerous English-language headlines focused solely on her being Italy’s first woman prime minister.
It’s tempting to say that her position as a woman leader should be considered irrelevant, given her and her party’s vile anti-immigrant, nationalist, racist, anti-LGBTQ+ politics. But ignoring her womanhood misses some crucial points about her political ideology.
Being a woman — a white woman, that is — is not in conflict with Meloni’s fascism. White supremacy has always relied on active enforcement by white women, particularly when it comes to upholding racist, pro-natalist narratives.
Italy may never have had a woman prime minister, but white women in leadership roles within the forces of reaction is hardly a new phenomenon. Consider Phyllis Schlafly, the paleoconservative, anti-abortion leader of the anti-Equal Rights Act campaign in the 1970s, who made much of her role as a traditional wife and urged other women to stay in the home.
The fact that Schlafly was herself a powerful conservative activist was no threat to her political vision; the same is true for the rabidly traditionalist Meloni. A fascist society is also a society of rigid class structure; a woman leader is no impediment to keeping working-class women in their place.
Meloni, like her less polished far-right counterparts in the U.S. Congress — Lauren Boebert and Marjorie Taylor Greene, among others — weaponizes her roles as woman and mother to police the boundaries of womanhood and reproduction. She has framed her poisonous anti-immigrant positions as a defense of Italian (white) women’s safety, conjuring well-worn tropes of migrants “importing” sexual violence.
Her party’s white supremacist platform is explicitly pro-natalist, seeking to bolster the low birth rate of native Italians as a bulwark to “ethnic substitution,” or what fascists here call the “great replacement.” Meloni’s far-right coalition is expected to usher in more stringent abortion restrictions nationwide. Abortions, which have been legalized in Italy since 1978, are already difficult to access in many areas, especially where Brothers of Italy has locally governed.
Meanwhile, in line with the typical allocation of resources in Herrenvolk democracies, Meloni’s social welfare proposals are aimed specifically at Italian families, while excluding immigrants and those outside the bounds of the straight, cis family. Meloni is thus continuing the legacy of what Ben-Ghiat called Mussolini’s “natalist obsession.”
It’s no accident, and certainly no surprise, that Meloni paired her deeply reactionary reproductive politics with attacks on Italy’s LGBTQ+ communities. Like Republicans in the U.S., Italy’s first woman prime minister is a fervid enforcer of traditional gender roles. Brothers of Italy, alongside other far-right parties, last year voted down a bill that would have made violence against queer and trans people a hate crime.
Meloni has consistently denounced “gender ideology” — a term used with increasing frequency by anti-trans ideologues who deny the fact that neither gender nor sex function as strict binaries. “Yes to natural families, no to the LGBT lobby,” Meloni said earlier this summer. “Yes to sexual identity, no to gender ideology. Yes to the culture of life, no to the abyss of death,” she added, while campaigning on a platform that will endanger the lives of immigrants and Italian minorities.
For those who would like to defend women’s reproductive freedoms but not support trans rights, Meloni, like the U.S. far right, offers another reminder that these issues must not be disentangled. Attacking gender-divergent people is as much a centerpiece of fascism as is pro-natalism. And, as with the Brothers of Italy’s entire program, it’s no less fascist when a woman says it.