Time for Equality’s Review

Paola Di Nicola, La Giudice. Una donna in magistratura (The female judge. A woman in the Judiciary) Ghena, 2012

Photo by Silvia Guzzetta

Photo by Silvia Guzzetta

“I felt as if everybody was looking at me because I was out of place, out of context, wearing that flower-patterned shirt that my sister Elisa had given me and the pearl necklace from my aunt Luciana. My lucky charms for difficult days which, when inside, clashed inappropriately with the dark-blue uniforms of the prison officers. There couldn’t be bright colours in prison, bright blue eyes and slightly dishevelled blonde hair, accompanied by the frivolous sound of shoes clacking on the floor. I understood that with that kind of appearance, that way of walking and filling the corridors, I would be risking not being taken seriously for who I was and for the institution that I represented.”(p. 15)

This is how Paola Di Nicola describes the sense of inadequacy that she felt walking along the corridors of Poggioreale prison in Naples; an inadequacy not based on a lack of professionalism, but on the insecurity that her femininity instilled in her, in complete contrast to the prison environment, which made her think that the mere fact of being a woman would mean not being respected or considered authoritative in her role. This sensation sparked an internal duel between the insecurity that her blonde hair and high heels made her feel and the need not to lose sight of her institutional role, a duel that De Nicola started to fight while supervising a detainee that she had to interrogate, and which continued during the interrogation. Only when she had won this duel would she regain perspective about herself, her own body and her choice of career.

What was the reason for this doubt about not appearing authoritative as a woman? Why did these worries go round and round in Di Nicola’s mind, making her wonder if the people present in court would have preferred a man in her place?

“The women and men present in court didn’t know that a woman would examine, question and judge them. Only an initial and a surname appeared on the document they had received at home. Anonymous and undifferentiated, like the judge’s black robe. […] I am a woman and my name is Paola. I would like to get inside the mind of the person in front of me, to know whether he or she had been hoping to be faced with a Pietro, a Patrizio, a Paolo, a Pierluigi or a Piercamillo, and not a Paola. But even more I would like to know why: the question encompassing centuries of prejudice.”(p. 41)

So why did Di Nicola, as a judge, come to ask herself whether belonging to the female gender made her less authoritative in front of those accused of offences and in court? She offers a clear response over and over again in her book: like other female judges, she has inherited a history of exclusion from the judiciary and, like other women, she also brings with her a millennium of subordination and marginalisation.   

Di Nicola is herself the daughter of a judge and since childhood she has been surrounded by her father’s colleagues, authoritative men with a profound sense of the State, who provided her with a model and inspired her to enter the judiciary, but who couldn’t explain to her that the judges’ robes they wore would have a completely different meaning when worn by a woman instead of a man (interview).Her points of reference couldn’t explain to her the weight of gender difference, for the simple reason that they had never experienced it.

“While for men there is – one could say – only the objective difficulty of putting themselves to the test for that which they represent, in other words for their professionalism, for women there is another factor which necessarily precedes this difficulty: to be recognised by the interlocutor, whoever that is, as a judge and not as the “other half of the sky” who, for millennia, were excluded from all decision-making because they were thought to be inadequate, incapable and irrational” (p. 29)

Women and judiciary in Italy : The story of an exclusion

Eine junge Rechtsanwältin sitzt an ihrem Schreibtisch im BüroBefore she joined the judiciary, Di Nicola did not know that this profession had been closed to women by a conscious decision to exclude them. History, however, preserves the memory of this discrimination and La Giudice doesn’t shrink from re-examining the work of the Italian Constituent Assembly and its debates to decide whether or not to grant women the right to become judges. Di Nicola thus takes us to the library of the Court of Cassation, to the section holding the Assembly’s work, and offers us a glimpse of this fundamental episode in the history of the Italian Republic, retracing the variety of gender stereotypes used on this particular occasion, which painted a picture of women as hysterical and passionate or as a lovely kind of “sidekick” of masculine institutions. At the time the Assembly opted for a generic statement about equality, remaining silent on the issue of allowing women to become judges. Subsequently, the first public exams open to women were held in 1963. (fact sheet: Women and Judiciary in Italy).

In Italy, women were excluded from court not only as judges, but even as victims, and the author doesn’t leave the memory of these wounds behind, lingering for this reason on the well-known Latina rape trial. In 1978 the then 18-year-old Fiorella took four men, who had imprisoned and raped her for an entire day, to court. The proceedings were filmed and then broadcast the next year by RAI with the title Processo per stupro (Trial for Rape), offering the Italian public an image of violent justice towards women, to the point of seemingly acquiescing in the chumminess between the men present in court ­– the lawyers, the accused and the judges – but above all the transformation of the woman from victim to accused. (fact sheet: Rape trial).

The glass ceiling

From the time when women were admitted to the judiciary, to the trial for rape and through to the present day, “We have witnessed a silent revolution […] this is the upheaval caused by the large-scale appearance, after millennia, of an excluded point of view, a hidden history, an abused culture, at the heart of what is the epitome of a male preserve.” (p.68)

The revolution, nevertheless, is incomplete. Even if the number of women in the judiciary has increased exponentially between 1963 and today, Di Nicola notes that in her 20-year career she has never had a female colleague who was the head of her own office, and the numbers confirm this simple, empirical finding.

“In 2010 only 12 out of 153 court presidents were women (1.8%), and of the 158 chief public prosecutors only 11 (7%) were women; within just two years the number of women supervisors of judicial offices has almost doubled, to 18%, while the figure is now 11% for public prosecutors’ offices. There are currently three female chamber presidents at the Court of Cassation (out of 44) and 59 counsellors (out of 230). […] There are four women and 52 men in the Public Prosecutor’s Office at the Court of Cassation […] and only two of them are currently representatives of the Consiglio superiore della Magistratura (Council of the Judiciary).” (p. 101)

If there were more woman at the so-called “higher levels”, the author asks herself, would things be different? In answering this question she immediately reveals herself to be highly sceptical about reducing the problem to a quantitative question; as her own personal experience has taught her, “being there” as a woman isn’t enough: “You need to be there with the courage and awareness of your own point of view, after sharpening and enhancing it.” (p. 104)

Gender in Language

Towards the conclusion Di Nicola returns to reflecting on language, and on the use of the masculine form as neutral, absorbing the feminine and cancelling it out (fact sheet: Gender in Language). This happens in the legal codes, where the offender and the victim are always a “man”, even where this also generates logical paradoxes, such as in the legislation condemning female genital mutilation, which refers to the victim using the masculine form. How can it be that female genital organs are injured on a “male” minor (“un” minore) or a “male” citizen (“un cittadino” in Italian), Di Nicola asks rhetorically.

“‘Man’ is an all-embracing category; female beings are ‘indifferent elements’, at most a body which reproduces human beings. And so, with a stroke of the pen, we cancel out all the women who are killed for being women because their men don’t accept the end of a love story or their desire for autonomy.”  (p. 128).

But the neutralisation of the feminine in language happens even in everyday usage and in the way in which we refer to certain professions, an example of which is “the judge” (“il giudice” in Italian), which claims to be both masculine and feminine.

At the end of an arduous journey towards awareness and enhancement of sexual differences in a context that claims to be neutral, Di Nicola chooses to call herself the “female” judge.

“The neutral masculine in the language, in law, in words, blotted me out without asking my permission, and I, in turn, accepted it without protest, without questioning, as I did when I was studying my criminal law texts, without holding anyone to account.” (p. 158)

Today, aware of her own gender and her own role in the world, she can go to the printshop and ask for a stamp with the words “The female judge Paola Di Nicola.”

After all, what man would agree to be referred to by the feminine article?


Carla Fronteddu, Time for Equality 2013


Carla Fronteddu
Gender specialist


Connect with me: linkedin twitter skype academia.org




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