Woman have played a key role in Italian society, dating back to the times of the Roman Empire (800 BC-500 AD). Women were treated as free citizens but were not allowed to vote or occupy political and administrative positions. However, women from affluent families could use their influence for private negotiations. Although women were rarely in the focus of the attention of historians, there is some information about powerful Roman women.
Influential women at this time included the legendary Lucretia, who provoked a revolution against the monarchy; the legendary Claudia Quinta, who was reputed to have rescued a ship stuck in the Tiber River; Livia, who was the wife, mother and grandmother of some of the greatest Roman emperors and acted as their advisor; Fulvia, who led an army and had coins with her image imprinted and the empress Helena, who played a major role for the advent of Christianity in Rome.
Naturally, women of lower social status did not attract as much attention and their lifestyle was not as extensively documented. It is believed that women led relatively calm and happy lives and were respected by their families. There was a segment of Roman society that was only accessible to women, ruled by the priestesses of Vesta, the goddess of the hearth. The role of members of this group of Italian women was considered vital for the empire.
During the Middle Ages, Italian society was largely patriarchal. Women were not well educated, if at all, and were expected to marry, take care of the house, give birth to children and raise them. Few women had a job and those who did were considered strange and suspicious. Catherine de Medici (1519-1589) was an influential Italian woman. Catherine, who was the Queen of France from 1547 to 1559, was also the mother of three Valois kings and became a strong force in French politics during the Catholic-Huguenot wars (1562-1598). Catherine was the daughter of Lorenzo de Medici, the Florentine ruler, who was known as Lorenzo the Magnificent. She was a patron of the arts, with particular interests in literature and architecture. Her personal library was well known in Renaissance France and contained many rare manuscripts.
Women in modern day Italy have equal rights to men in all aspects of social and political life. They were first given the right to vote in 1925 but only in local elections, with full voting rights granted in 1945. There is a relative gender equality in payment, although there are exceptions. The regions situated in the south of Italy are much more rural and traditional than the northern part of the country, which is modern and industrialized. As a result, women in the south have higher rates of unemployment and receive lower wages.
There are many Italian women who have gained worldwide popularity, including actresses Sophia Loren (b.1934) and Gina Lollobrigida (1927), who were considered to be two of the biggest stars of cinema in the 1950s and 1960s. Other well known Italian actresses include Claudia Cardinale (b.1938), Virna Lisi (b.1936) and Ornella Muti (b.1955). Clorinda Corradi (1804-1877) and Renata Tebaldi (1922-2004) were popular Italian singers who sang at the famous La Scala opera house in Milan. Other well known Italian women include designer Donatella Versace (b.1955), who is head of a major fashion house.
Italy has a 98 percent literacy rate regardless of gender. According to statistics, three times as many Italian women graduate from universities, compared with men, and constitute about 60 percent of all university students. Not only are they more numerous than men but they are also equally represented in disciplines such as mathematics and computer sciences, which traditionally are considered "male" studies. Career options for women are directly related to education.
Italy has one of the lowest abortion rates in Europe. According to figures for 2007, even for pregnant girls under the age of 20, the abortion rate in 2008 was 7.2 per 1, 000, compared to 13.5 for Spain, 15.6 for France and 20.5 for the United States. The total rate for all age groups was 3.8 per 1,000. Surprisingly, though, Italy also ranks near the bottom in terms of birth rate - approximately 9 per 1,000. This is partly due to the fact that more women prefer to make a stable career and ensure relatively high income before having children.