A Deformed Emancipation: Lea Melandri and the Lie of Gender Equality

By Mary MannJuly 9, 2019

A Deformed Emancipation: Lea Melandri and the Lie of Gender Equality

Love and Violence by Lea Melandri

LEA MELANDRI WAS BORN in the town of Fusignano in 1941, the same year that Italy declared war on the United States, four years before Italian women were granted full voting rights. She would eventually move to Milan, become a feminist revolutionary, and help found and run the influential magazine L’erba voglio as well as the Free University of Women. But before all that, she grew up in a two-room house occupied by eight people, which meant she roomed with her parents,

sleeping next to a bed where everything happened, in the poverty of my family, in the violence that there was, inevitable, between man and woman, I witnessed sexuality and violence, I never understood where [one] ended up and the other one began. [1]

These are the origins of one of Italy’s preeminent feminist activists and the seeds of Love and Violence: The Vexatious Factors of Civilization: originally published in Italy in 2011, it is the first of her 13 books to be translated into English (by Antonio Calcagno) as well as a window into Italian feminist theory and history.

It may be a book shaped by her upbringing in the 1940s and ’50s and informed by her years as a 1960s and ’70s revolutionary, but Love and Violence is also very much a book of its time. Former prime minister and current leader of the Forza Italia political party, Silvio Berlusconi, is referenced in the preface as the protagonist of “a series of events that could not have left us indifferent.” Among other offenses — bribery, tax fraud, Mafia ties — Berlusconi allegedly gave political positions to women he wanted to sleep with. He coerced them with offers of power, an exchange that revealed for Melandri that the liberation experienced by women today is “an emancipation that we must recognize as deformed.” The freedom won by 20th-century feminists, in other words, has been warped such that the notion that we are equal because a woman may now hold public office simply “serves to obscure the power of men over women.”

The nature of this deformed emancipation and how it came to be is the overarching subject of Love and Violence, as Melandri traces the power imbalance between men and women back to the beginnings of politics and public life, which “has as its founding act the exclusion of women.” She finds roots for this exclusion in a logic that separates a thinking person from their body — the body being that which is made by the mother’s body and thus “identified with a ‘lower’ nature” — such that we naturally speak of our bodies as things that we have rather than things that we are; for example, my body hurts, control your body with this diet, she has a nice body. This argument is similar to Judith Butler’s presentation of woman as body versus man as mind, but Melandri takes it further by indicting both men and women in this separation: in our world of warped equality, we all speak about our bodies as separate from ourselves, objects to be groomed and legislated, “when in reality,” writes Melandri, “we are bodies, we are thinking bodies.”

We are also bodies that hit and smash, bruise and break; we are bodies that kiss and hold and intertwine. Love and violence are inextricable from the body and, Melandri argues, from each other. “Violence,” she writes, “is contained within eros itself.”

It’s not a new argument, per se, but it is an uncomfortable one, especially for any of us in loving relationships, or really any of the scores of us who love love itself — we listen to songs about it, watch movies about it, read books where love is the driving force of the protagonist’s life. We even structure travel around this emotion: there are some 90,000,000 Google results for the search “romantic places in Italy.” We are legion. Knowing this, Melandri shores up her text with the words of other scholars, from Freud to Woolf to Bourdieu, whose words support the idea that, as Bourdieu puts it, love is “the subtlest, most invisible form of violence.” She brings the words of these scholars into the reality of her culture, where family ties are paramount to such a degree that it’s common for adult males to continue to live with their mothers until they’re married. The mother must “be disposed toward self-sacrifice in order for the individuality of the son to flourish,” and thus Melandri sees as much potential for violence — much of it largely self-inflicted — in this love between mother and child as she does in the love between partners.

That said, the latter is certainly what we hear about most often, as the twinning of love and violence takes its most obvious form in “domestic violence”: the beating, rape, and murder of women (typically) by their partners. In the United States, 20 women die each week at the hands of current or former domestic partners, and more than 20,000 calls are made each day to domestic violence hotlines nationwide. [2] Things are no better in Melandri’s country: over 3,000 women were murdered in Italy between 2000 and 2017, and partners or family members were responsible for more than three-quarters of these deaths. [3] And yet, as Melandri notes, “the family continues to be exalted as refuge, security, and the guarantee of healing and comfort.”

But family-as-refuge is an incredibly difficult concept to let go of, even for those of us who have experienced fear and violence from family members in the past. When news breaks about a famous person who abused his or her wife, some commentator will inevitably ask, “Why didn’t she leave?” Because it’s easier to imagine that this is the problem — this singular person, this monster — than to acknowledge the pervasiveness of violence in the home and between people who love each other.

Melandri is not married. She was once, for three months at the age of 25 — a marriage that was agreed upon between her husband and parents, but which she opposed, documenting her opposition so thoroughly that the Catholic Church eventually annulled the union. [4] She left her home region for the more cosmopolitan Milan, became an activist, and has since lived a public and prolific life that, to her parents, always resembled that of “an eternal student” because it lacked marriage and children. In Love and Violence, she remembers those early years of freedom and immersion in feminism, and carefully parses what 1970s feminism in Italy was really about from its legacy: “Feminism in the 1970s is almost always misremembered as the struggle to acquire certain rights vis-à-vis divorce, family relations and property, abortion, women’s health clinics,” she writes, before clarifying that “[n]one of us wanted abortion or divorce to be ‘reduced to a piece of reform.’”

The dream of Italian feminism in the 1970s was much larger and more amorphous than the revision of existing laws. As Melandri puts it, they wanted “to redefine the economy and politics on the basis of what had been rejected, confined to the private realm, defined as belonging to nature — that is, the body and the person.”

Essentially this means overhauling not just dominant structures of power but also the ways we see the world and understand reality. It’s a massive mission, and one that Melandri is still engaged in, pushing readers of Love and Violence to not stop at acknowledging domestic violence but to look deeper, to see that the entangling of love and violence is “a relation expressed in the claims that one must destroy in order to preserve, that one kills out of excessive love, that one’s group, nation, or culture is superior to, even the enemy of, another’s.” Both men and women have helped to nourish this way of being in the world, such that love and violence have merged to form a volatile clannishness, expressed in everything from a man hitting his wife for speaking with another man, to the response of a Trump rally attendee when a rhetorical question was posed on how to stop illegal immigration: “Shoot them!”

Melandri does not have an easy solution to this. It would be suspect if she did, as what she’s talking about here are ways of being and thinking that have lasted for millennia, so long that what has been created — the division of the sexes, the devaluing of the body — has come to seem like fact. What she suggests instead is a return to the goals of 1970s feminism and the point of view that characterized these goals: “[T]he perspective that saw the originary structure of all dualisms in the relation between the sexes.” The implication is that only by finding and working loose this oldest of knots can we begin to undo the tangled mess we’ve woven ourselves into.


Mary Mann is the author of Yawn: Adventures in Boredom (FSG Originals). She works reference at the Brooklyn Historical Society.


[1] http://www.unacitta.it/newsite/intervista.asp?id=2677

[2] https://lithub.com/is-masculinity-a-terrorist-ideology/

[3] https://www.thelocal.it/20171123/114-women-murdered-in-italy-this-year

[4] https://www.lunadigas.com/testimonianza/lea-melandri-76-anni-i-parte/

LARB Contributor

Mary Mann is the author of Yawn: Adventures in Boredom (FSG Originals). She works reference at the Brooklyn Historical Society.


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