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18 Working Paper

What Should Women Ask of the Law: Italian Feminist Debate on the Legal System & Sexual Violence

1989 – Elisabetta Addis


In this paper the author examines the two theories and agendas of feminism which surfaced in the debate over the new Italian law on sexual violence. Ten years ago, facing an archaic patriarchal law on sexual violence, Italian feminists asked for a new law in which rape, like murder and assault, would be counted as a "crime against the person." A raped woman would then be obliged to testify in a trial against her rapist if the prosecutor decided to press charges. Now, as the new law is about to be approved, other feminists and women of the left are arguing in favor of the old alternative, revealing a political and generational shift. For them, the decision to press charges and to testify should be left to the victim, even at the risk that some rapes might go unpunished, and that trial would be more difficult for women who press charges.This division has its roots in two different feminist intellectual traditions which coexist in the Italian feminist movement. One is the cultural tradition of the socialist and communist left, which borrows from the concept of class struggle and considers changes in the legal system as material advances and as a prerequisite for further theoretical developments. The other descends from a French philosophical and psychoanalytic tradition, and holds that only that which a free woman is willing to say to other women is an advance for feminism. This paper examines the pitfalls and strengths of both traditions, and also their contributions to recent feminist growth. It assesses the political consequences of the present divisions for the feminist movement, and the likely developments of feminist politics in Italy.