Margaret Giannini: The extraordinary woman of Italian parliament

Margaret Giannini was the first woman to be elected to parliament in Italy, and led the Italian parliament for 19 years. Here, Italian author Orhan Pamuk says she made a permanent contribution to the…

Margaret Giannini: The extraordinary woman of Italian parliament

Margaret Giannini was the first woman to be elected to parliament in Italy, and led the Italian parliament for 19 years. Here, Italian author Orhan Pamuk says she made a permanent contribution to the shaping of Italy’s country. Margaret Giannini was a woman in a man’s world from the start. She was a one-off who made a lasting contribution to the shaping of the country. She was a frail figure. She wore uncomfortable shoes and often dressed as she did. She used her hands to gather her husband’s confiscated stock from bank offices. She won Italy’s first female parliamentary seat at the age of 38. Now called “Giannini, the banished”, she continued in her role as leader of the parliament for more than 20 years. To the end she loved to give speeches in parliament and defend the rights of ordinary people. The make-up of the Italian parliament made it impossible for a woman like her to occupy the number one spot. But she could not accept that. And she never showed any bitterness. Hardly anyone had actually asked her why she had won such a lofty seat. But after she retired in 2002 she announced that she felt she had given 40 years of her life to the parliament as head of the building’s Women’s Commission. This was her inaugural speech to the new parliament in what was to be her last. She left without grudges, without aspirations or without any regrets. She hoped that when she died, her political colleagues would acknowledge her contributions to the nation and the humanity of the people. That is what she told me when I interviewed her for a BBC radio documentary in 2006. A survivor of a political mafia – the Sicilian gangs – she had escaped from Siena, the town where her parents were murdered in an attempt to wipe her out, a few years before I met her. The day she met me, she was still deeply fearful of the men who had taken her life and the fate of the family – a man who had robbed her by forcing her to sign over all her family’s possessions. She refused to speak of the memory of her murdered parents. But when the attackers sent her to Florence in 1938, she was determined to take up the revolutionary party which was then the greatest body among the unemployed women of her Sicilian city. It was a political challenge to Sicilian aristocrats, all of whom at the time believed the only way to escape poverty was to marry into one of the nation’s official political clans. The first party leader to visit her in Florence was a right-wing councillor. At a later meeting of Italian communist activists, he told her he would protect her and only allow her to resume her life as a doctor if she joined the party. And so Margaret Giannini did become a communist. She loved God and knew that her personality, her personality, had saved her when she was almost forgotten. Long before the end of her life, I asked her whether she had concluded that a life of old age was a more favourable condition than a life of violence. She retorted: “No, but it is better to have fought and won my right to live than to stay like a statue for the rest of my life.”

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