Veronica Lario, accidental feminist

Silvio Berlusconi's outspoken soon-to-be ex-wife is uniting women across the political spectrum

Published May 14, 2009 1:38PM (EDT)

Earlier this month, Veronica Lario, the soon-to-be ex-wife of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, made headlines by publicly criticizing her husband's flagrant flirtation and promotion of beautiful, unqualified female politicians. Then, she put her denaro where her mouth was and filed for divorce. "I can't go on being with a man who consorts with minors," she said at the time, referring to Berlusconi's appearance at the 18th birthday party of a lingerie model who, nauseatingly enough, calls him Papi. "He is not well."

In an article published Thursday, the BBC notes that Lario's frankness is dividing public opinion in Italy. The piece's author, Annalisa Piras, cites some confusing statistics: While 66 percent of Italians have a favorable opinion of Berlusconi, 67 percent defend Lario's actions. In general, those polled believe in their leader's right to "total privacy when it comes to his own conduct."

But many Italian women, conservative and liberal alike, seem less conflicted in their support for Lario:

For once, the dividing lines between right and left have been blurred. Influential female intellectuals and commentators from across the political spectrum have rallied to Veronica's defence -- albeit on small comment-led newspaper, websites and TV programmes.

"Veronica for President" Facebook groups are springing up everywhere. And even Alessandra Mussolini, right-wing politician and granddaughter of a certain infamous fascist, has spoken out in favor of Lario. Italian women, she told the BBC, have "emerged in a very bad light from this episode." And Lorella Zanardo, a gender studies scholar, who probably never imagined she'd find herself agreeing with Alessandra Mussolini, noted that Berlusconi -- who "controls much of the mainstream media -- has "shaped a popular culture that distorts images of women."

Meanwhile, Lario has said that her outspokenness comes from a desire to show her daughters, both in their 20s, "that their mother can defend her dignity as a woman" and teach her 20-year-old son to respect women.

As a typical, self-centered American, I can't help thinking about Lario's situation in light of such famously jilted political wives as Hillary Clinton, Silda Wall Spitzer and -- of course -- Elizabeth Edwards. Apparently, New York Times television critic Alessandra Stanley couldn't resist the urge either: She published a piece last weekend comparing Lario with her American counterparts. "It’s tempting," Stanley writes, "to see these two political scandals as a contrast of corrupt Europe and puritanical America -- an aging, wily Italian statesman using sex, and sexism, to boost his image, while a young American politician wrecks his career -- and unforgivably wounds his admirable wife -- for a brief, forbidden dalliance."

But, rather than attack or defend this point of view, Stanley would prefer to argue that Lario is embarrassing herself. Italy's first lady "thought she could exact revenge by shaming her skirt-chasing fool of a husband," she writes. "Instead, the skirt-chaser made a fool of her." By contrast, Elizabeth Edwards, in an "Oprah" interview, "spoke bravely about her cancer and her husband’s deceit, explained that she didn’t want his misstep to define her or their 30-year marriage; she made sure, however, that he will never live it down."

I'm not sure discussion of these scandals should be reduced to debating who the "winners" and "losers" are. Personally, after years of watching smart, talented American political wives stand silently (or weepily) by their cheating husbands, I find it kind of exhilarating to watch Lario walk away from a bad marriage and publicly register her grievances. And, as the BBC article shows, it isn't even clear that Lario is playing the fool. In fact, as Stanley conveniently omits, Lario's protestations seem to have resulted in Berlusconi's party dropping many of the unqualified female candidates it originally supported. "It may be a small victory," writes Piras, "but it's certainly seen by some as a symbolic one."

By Judy Berman

Judy Berman is a writer and editor in Brooklyn. She is a regular contributor to Salon's Broadsheet.

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