Rachael Martin writes essays, poetry and short stories and has lived in Italy for many years. She has three countries in her life: Italy, the UK and Spain, and the relationship between place, identity and language often lies at the heart of her work. She is currently working on a series of essays based on her experience of living in Italy and a collection of interviews with women (both Italian and non-Italian) living in Italy today. She writes in English and Italian, depending on the context of what she is writing, and you can find her at rachaelmartincom.wordpress.com.
I took the stereotype of the Italian dream and shattered it, fusing the personal with the political to throw into relief certain aspects of being a woman in Italy today in what can still be a very patriarchal society. I called the piece “dangerous women” because there is more than one dangerous woman in the piece: the central figure and the women who choose not to speak and who are dangerous of their passivity, the so-called good women and women who prefer to accept the status quo and cushion their lives in other ways. Their silence is dangerous for all the wrong reasons as it maintains an unjust status quo. The central figure is dangerous on three levels: as a woman, as a foreign woman – referred to as simply foreigner, as the fact that she is foreign can threaten her identity, position and voice as a woman and indeed as a human being – and as a woman writer.
The reference to the maternity clinic is deliberately ambiguous in an Italy where practising gynaecologists can declare themselves conscientious objectors to abortion and backstreet abortions are on the increase. Religion intrudes into the realm of women’s health choices and while everyone is entitled to personal belief, this cannot be acceptable where it limits personal choice and affects women’s health and rights.
I chose the picture because I feel the image of the winter forest accurately describes the situation ofwomen not just in Italy but worldwide: bleak and without any foreseeable future. Yet it is a forest with a promise of light, and that promise of light will always give hope. The dangerous woman, and I believe the woman writer, always has to speak.
A young woman once got a plane to Italy. An ordinary woman, just like you and me. And there’s a story, just like always. It starts with an experience, travelling abroad, and centres around a theme. It’s a theme we’re all familiar with. Hill-top towns and, if not Tuscan, Umbrian views. Elena Ferrante and pasta all’amatriciana. It’s the dream of middle-aged women and impressionable girls, for we’re all brought up on dreams.
Dream becomes reality. Ice cream makes you fat. Adventure becomes domesticity, the part where Austen stopped. Forward several years and there’s a woman writer. Woman in a context, tapping at a computer. Woman in a society, still attached to a masculine church. A church that propagates, advocates. A church to keep the good woman alive.
There in the maternity clinic. Personal religion (yours) hinders personal choice (mine). The child is sacred, but the mother is expendable. Oh, but the good woman, no, she doesn’t complain. The good woman sacrifices herself for the sake of her family. Wears her veil of suffering with that certain air of stoicism. Stoicism, despite the fact she’s probably quite depressed. She’s sacrificed, she’s marginalised, she rarely gets a choice.
(Women are the teachers, but the headmaster is male.)
The story is specific. The story’s universal. Women who could speak stay silent, women see and choose not to see. These are the prisons we create for ourselves. Buy into the attitude. Gild your cage. Be a good mother, be a good wife. Good and worthy is a most admirable goal. Being part of a community is conducive to personal happiness, they say, and loneliness is a cruel beast where you feel you don’t belong. Woman. Foreigner. Woman writer. (Keeping quiet can kill you.)
The priest says: “the woman is the angel of the house.” (Stand in silence. Flex your wings.)
Living abroad is a question of identity. Living abroad is a question of place.
The good woman knows her place. The dangerous woman has to find her place.
The dangerous woman may not seem dangerous at all, yet Bertha Rochester lives through fire and words spill out on a page.