Italy’s first female leader, Giorgia Meloni, proudly calls herself “a woman, a mother, a Christian.” But she does not want to be “la” presidente.
In the first official communications from her new government, Meloni is repeatedly referred to as “il” presidente del consiglio, the official title of Italy’s prime minister and head of state. Though she is the first woman to hold the title in 76 years of the Italian Republic, Meloni has chosen to use the same male article, il, as all of her predecessors.
Her grammatical choice is in line with her political positions: Meloni is a neofascist who opposes abortion and LGBTQ rights. On the campaign trail, she used sexualized tropes, infamously holding up two large melons in a social-media video on election day. She exploited rape cases for anti-immigrant propaganda and set up a natality ministry, led by an anti-choice advocate (link in Italian), to promote population growth.
Still, her choice of il over la says a lot.
In Italian, the noun presidente (which means—would you believe it—president) does not change between the feminine and masculine. The word presidentessa, which adds the suffix -essa, used for the feminine of other types of nouns, appears occasionally, but is used for comedic effect—for instance, to speak about the wife of a president. This does not mean presidente is a masculine noun: It is both, and the way to identify the gender is by the article that precedes it. The feminine article—la (the) or una (a)—makes a presidente female. Similarly, the masculine one—il (the) or un (a)—makes him male.
Both nouns and adjectives that change according to the gender are more common in the Italian language, and are at the center of a cultural movement that is trying—despite much backlash, particularly from conservative forces—to coin gender-neutral forms of masculine nouns. When it comes to traditionally male-dominated professions—such as avvocato (lawyer) or dottore (doctor)—women sometimes still use the male noun (so a woman might be referred to as “il dottore,” even though she should be “la dottoressa”). This is the exact opposite of using, say, actor instead of actress: In English, actor is neutral, and actress singles out women in the profession, diminishing their role; in Italian, using the masculine for both genders negates the importance of the feminine.
In a way, Italian grammar is a lot more open to gender self-determination than its culture, and certainly than its notoriously anti-LGBTQ prime minister. When it comes to Meloni’s decision to be il presidente, vocabulary and grammar experts have noted (link in Italian) that since it is an established use, she can pick what she prefers, although it is still correct to refer to Meloni as la presidente—as she is, in fact, female (link in Italian).
Yet precisely because of this linguistic flexibility, choosing one or the other article makes a specific political statement. The issue of gender in professions and roles is limited to high-profile ones. No one questions that a female factory worker is an operaia, a female teacher a maestra, or a female secretary a segretaria. But when it comes to their leaders, Italians are far more used to the masculine. Female presidents of any sort are a rarity in Italy, wihch ranks last in the European Union for gender parity, according to the World Economic Forum.
In recent years, feminist representatives have made it a point to use the female versions of their titles, despite being harassed for doing so. Meloni’s choice sends a clear message that ought to be heard clearly by Italian women: It’s not so much that she is choosing the masculine, it’s that she isn’t choosing the feminine.