The women I met: A journey through half of Italy

I will try in this brief blog to portray the many women I met in the last few days. Their lives span almost 90 years and show the possibilities and impossibilities of being a woman then and now.

On Thursday morning I left home at 5.30am for Rome. The journey was an uneventful Ryanair flight punctuated by the usual waiting on the stairs before boarding, the many useless announcements and the fanfare for having arrived on time. At Ciampino, Shirley and I decide to get a taxi to our hotel. The first woman is the taxi driver (there would be another woman taxi driver later on). It is pleasing to see that in a country where the refrain ‘donna al volante, pericolo costante’ (a woman at the wheel is an ongoing danger) is ubiquitous, women have actually managed to own the streets of Rome, albeit in their cars.

At 3pm I am at the Ministry of Education, Universities and Research to meet the first woman. She is young, mid-thirties, educated, full of ideas, supportive of my project and helpful. We share a dream of making the voice of students heard, not just as consumers, but as citizens. If these are the young women of Italy, the country has improved.

I spend the rest of the afternoon visiting the parts of Rome that I never had a chance to see. Dinner is on the north side in a restaurant by the river Tiber. My friend, L organised it since she knew I was in town. The group is mixed gender, but there are three further women worth mentioning. L is now retired, an emeritus professor but still a pro-rector for inclusion and disability. In her life she has been involved in setting up two of the newest universities in Rome, established partnerships between her university and key partner institutions in other countries in the world and occupied positions of authority in the Italian HE sector. We have an Erasmus agreement with her, but when she came to visit us she was not even asked what she teaches. An old woman, I suppose. The other two women at the table are younger in their mid-thirties. One is a brilliant administrator for L, and L ensures that she travels around the world. M is a researcher who L sent to Brussels to spend time working at the EC to learn how to write European proposals and to develop her work. She would like to do a Marie Curie fellowship with us and I look forward to it.

On Friday Shirley and I work with 4 other women and one man at ANVUR. The women are colleagues from three different universities and different disciplines all interested in setting up professional development opportunities in teaching for university staff. They are all members of the management and leadership in their universities, but clearly teaching and learning is a woman’s job. We nurture, I suppose. The fourth woman is a representative of the ANVUR. The day is a brilliant experience. The discussion about the need to ‘professionalise’ teaching is strong and we all acknowledge the challenges, excitement and pitfalls. I finish the day with a stronger view that we are not alone and that we as a university are actually rather ahead of the game.

Friday afternoon I get a train to Udine where I arrived at 10pm. V’s husband picks me up and I join a late dinner with V, my friend and colleague working on student voice and evaluation, and her two guests, R and her mother, both English. The next day, we travel to Trieste to pick up S who joins us from Rome for a meeting about the Erasmus Plus project on student voice in HE. S, V and I will be joined by T who travels from Ljubljana. T works for a national research centre and is an expert on the use of social media for teaching and learning. She is V and I’s age. All three of us are quite strong-willed. S works for a private research centre, determined and strong-willed and very professional and efficient. In less than 3 hours we have lunch, discuss the project, catch up with life, welcome children back from school and feed them, and wish each other goodbye. We now have a better plan to share with the other partners. Tasks 1 and 2 of the visit to Italy are over.

In the evening we have dinner with J who is younger than V, S and I but with plenty of experience in the field of technology for learning especially in HE where she works. We met on Facebook and the conversation we started on the changes happening in HE continues to the point of planning a visiting fellowship with us.

On Sunday I visit my relatives: my aunt, 87 years old, my cousins, my age, and my aunt’s grandchild, 14 years old. This is a world apart from the one I have lived in for the last few days. My aunt was born during the 1920s, a time of poverty especially in the North-east of Italy. My grandmother, 94, tells quite some stories about the poverty, hunger, and emigration soon after the second world war. Neither my granny nor my aunt went to school beyond primary school and while one stayed to work on the land, the other was sent to work as a child-maid in Turin. Their lives were lives of toil, labour, little money and great hopes for their children and grandchildren. These are the women who raised families, worked the land, did extra work on the side and now are the last ones left to bring back to life the memories of almost a century of Italian women’s lives. And such lives finish with little G who next year will have to choose which school to choose. When asked for a piece of advice, I could not say. What can this young woman achieve more and better than her grandmother and her mothers and cousin?

All the women I have come across so far have fought for getting where they are. They are all different and still they share the same struggle to get out of the four walls of the family kitchen. Reflecting on 100 years of history, we achieved much and yet I can see how the road ahead is steep still, winding, full of opportunities, possibilities and dangers.

Blog post by Cristina Devecchi, Associate Professor

Twitter: @dmc_devecchi

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