Are Italian Women really Unhappy?

An article in last Thursday’s Telegraph bearing this provocatively titled article has created a bit of a buzz among my expatriate friends here in Rome. So I'm here to ask the question: Are Italian women really the unhappiest in all of Europe?

Taking a closer look at the article reveals that the title is completely misleading. 4,000 women from 5 countries in Europe were surveyed. 5 countries: Britain, Germany, France, Spain and Italy. There are almost 50 countries in Europe (if you count the baby ones like San Marino and Liechtenstein) so a measly ten percent of those countries can hardly pretend to represent an entire continent. With less than 1,000 women in each country being surveyed, the study is far from representative. Then look at a keyword in the first paragraph: “housewives.” So the article should have been titled: “Based on a small study, Italian housewives are the unhappiest out of five western European countries.” But surely that would not have lured many readers.

Now I am not trying to downplay how difficult life can be for women in Italian society. There’s a long list of things Italian women have to complain about, from lack of benefits for working mothers, to lower salaries than their male colleagues, to sexual harassment and the explicit sexualization of women in the media. But this article makes it sound like the major cause of unhappiness for Italian women is all the fault of the unequal division of household chores.

Here are the statistics that baffled me the most: “Research has found that 70 percent of Italian men have never used an oven, while 95 percent have never emptied a washing machine.” What? Who were they surveying? 60 year-old men who live with their housewives and 25 year-olds still living at home with mamma? The Italian husbands I know, and I will start with my own, do more than their share of housework. The Maritino (as I am only too proud to boast) cooks at least as much as I do, washes the dishes, cleans, does laundry, and even irons my shirts! And he is not, as some have suggested, an exception. I have numerous girlfriends who are married to or living with Italian men, and they also seem eager to do their share of the housework. In fact, in most cases, it is the hubby doing all the cooking! (Let this not reflect poorly on the cooking skills of my fellow Anglo-Saxons.)

Then something dawned on me. My girlfriends and I have one thing in common: we are not Italian. Maybe that is where the change comes in. Then that got me to wondering: Did our Italian men pick us because they were already more open-minded and modern (and therefore more likely to pick a foreign woman), and thus naturally more inclined to shirk traditional gender roles? Or did we pick them in part because we as American/British/Canadian/Australian, etc. women would never put up with a man who was so blatantly sexist? Or is it even simpler? Do American (et al) women simply refuse to wait on a man hand and foot while our Italian counterparts are only too willing to take on the role of slave/supermom/martyr that they watched their own mothers fulfill?

Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t have anything against Italian women, but at the risk of sounding like a victim-blamer, it does seem that they often bring this life of drudgery on themselves. In my own experience, I've seen Italian women regularly insist that no one give them a hand, and that goes doubly for males. They enable the stereotype of the Italian male who is coddled and slaved over, first by his mamma, then by his wife.

A few cases in point? I once met an ancient Italian lady walking to the bus stop in Trastevere. She was lugging a heavy duffle bag, so I offered to carry it for her. In the not-so-brief walk, (I was sweating under the massive burden) she revealed to me that she lived in Naples, and that she took the train up to Rome once a month to do her son’s laundry. Yes, she was taking the massive bag of soiled laundry of her 40 year-old son down to Naples to wash and bring back up to him, neatly pressed and folded. And he didn’t even give her a ride to the station! She had to take the bus, an 80 year-old feeble little signora! When I asked her why she did it, she beamed and said, she wanted to do it, it was an excuse to see her son more often. Now who is the crazy person in this story? The son who let his mother do this? Or the mother who more than willingly offered to do it? I ask you.

This is probably an extreme case, but certainly not unusual. I have noticed with my own beloved Suocerina (mother-in-law), that when someone is so consistently willing to bend over backward to please you, never letting you lift a finger to help, it’s quite easy to get used to. You often become complacent and forget even to offer to help, especially when you know your half-hearted attempt will be met by shouts of “Lascia! Faccio io!” (Leave it! I’ll do it!). Life just becomes too easy when Mammina (or Mogliettina, when the time comes) makes life so convenient. Why should a man offer to help when the women around him have always made it clear that to do so would be ridiculous?

I don’t think there is an easy answer to this, but it is certainly not as cut and dried as this article would have you believe. I'd love to hear your take, so please comment!

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