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Portraits in a book on women of the twentieth century

The uncomfortable daughters of Eve

 Le scomode figlie di Eva  DCM-002
03 February 2024

They were branded as “the inconvenient daughters of Eve”: a diverse group encompassing both lay and religious individuals, including “historians, anthropologists, philosophers, theologians.” Their collective determination aimed to revitalize a Church entrenched in outdated notions of “the natural inferiority of woman,” as reiterated by figures like St. Thomas Aquinas. In the late 20th century, these women stood as a formidable challenge to the traditional Church, often viewed as a “thorn in its side.” Yet, they also emerged as the catalysts for profound change—a transformation that reverberates to this day.

Liliana Madeo, a journalist and essayist, recounts this narrative in a richly detailed chapter of her book Donne 'cattive' [Bad Women], which serves as a diverse tapestry of female figures spanning fifty years of Italian history from the late 1940s to the end of the century. Within this mosaic, one may find unexpected profiles such as theologian Adriana Valerio, hermit intellectual Adriana Zarri, and nun Theresa Kane—individuals who boldly responded to Pope John Paul II's call for the inclusion of women “in all sacred ministries.” Their presence alongside figures like murderess Rita Fort and environmentalist Anna Donati, the first woman appointed to the board of directors of a state company, may appear surprising at first glance. However, the rationale behind this juxtaposition becomes clear when considering the disruptive emergence of laywomen engaged in theological discourse and religious women who refused to be confined to the traditional role of “maids of God.” Though their actions may have caused dismay and scandal, they ultimately played a pivotal role in stimulating the dialogue surrounding women—a dialogue that culminated in the pontiff's groundbreaking acknowledgment of the female “genius” in the 1990s.

Originally published in 1999 and now reissued by Miraggi publishing house, Madeo's essay retains its original vitality and relevance. In fact, its significance has only deepened with time, offering fresh insights into figures like Franca Viola. Viola's courageous refusal to marry her kidnapper and rapist sparked a transformative process that eventually led to the removal of outdated patriarchal practices such as reparatory marriage from the penal code. This narrative serves as a poignant reminder of the progress made by women and society as a whole in Italy. Just six decades ago, discussing the birth control pill in newspapers was prohibited, yet there was little outcry when twelve deputies honored a deceased camorrista with wreaths at his funeral. Madeo's essay provides a valuable lens through which to gauge the distance traveled in confronting societal norms and challenging entrenched systems of oppression.

by Bianca Stancanelli