In honor of International Women’s Day, we thought it would be appropriate to highlight eleven Italian women that have made history. There are hundreds more that could have been featured, but the list we’ve compiled includes scientists, writers, actresses, activists, models, entrepreneurs, singers and dancers who have all left their mark on society as a whole. Many were true pioneers in their fields and opened doors that had previously been slammed shut to women. Times have drastically changed and much progress has been made but there is still much work to be done. Without further ado, here are eleven iconic Italian women and their stories, in no particular order.
- Grazia Deledda
- Rita Levi Montalcini
- Samantha Cristoforetti
- Maria Montessori
- Sophia Loren
- Anna Magnani
- Franca Viola
- Margherita Hack
- Mariuccia Mandelli, Krizia
- Raffaella Carrà
Grazia Deledda, Nobel Prize Laureate for Literature
Great things are said in silence.
Grazia Deledda won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1926 and at the time, was only the second woman in history to do so. Deledda was born in Nuoro on the island of Sardinia in 1871 and began writing and publishing short stories at the young age of thirteen. She often wrote about her homeland and her own real-life experiences while living in Sardinia. Of her numerous published works, her most popular novels were translated into English including, The Mother and the Priest (1920) and The Reeds in the Wind (translated in 1999). Deledda died in Rome in 1936. A documentary was made about her life in 2021 entitled Grazia Deledda, La Rivoluzionaria.
Deledda’s hometown of Nuoro has paid tribute to her legacy in numerous ways. You can visit her birth home, a museum, a literary park, and also a bronze statue located on Corso Garibaldi.
Nobel Foundation, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Rita Levi Montalcini, Nobel Prize Laureate in Medicine
It’s better to add life to your days than days to your life.
Rita Levi-Montalcini won the Nobel Prize in 1986 for her work in neurobiology. Rita was born in 1909 in Turin to Italian-Jewish parents and also had a twin sister named Paola. She decided to attend medical school when a close family friend died of stomach cancer and was initially discouraged by her father. In 1938, because she was Jewish, she was banned from the university under Mussolini’s Manifesto of Race. When Nazi Germany invaded in Italy in 1943, Levi-Montalcini and her family fled to Florence where they managed to escape deportation thanks to the bravery of friends who hid them. During this time, Rita still managed to continue her scientific research using chicken embryos.
After Italy was liberated, she was invited to Washington University in St. Louis for her published articles on embryonic nerve fibers. In 1952, she published her breakthrough discovery on Nerve Growth Factor and would become an associate researcher and professor at the university over the next thirty years. She divided her time between St. Louis and Rome and would continue to make groundbreaking discoveries in neurobiology and cellular biology over the next several decades. She was appointed a Senator for Life in 2001 and died in 2012 at the age of 103.
In addition to numerous books and documentaries, an asteroid was named after her in 1981: 9722 Levi-Montalcini.
Quirinale.it, Attribution, via Wikimedia Commons
Samantha Cristoforetti, Astronaut
Many times an obstacle is just a message that life gives you. You have to find another way, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get to your destination.
Samantha Cristoforetti is an Italian astronaut who became the first European female commander of the International Space Station during the Minerva Mission in 2022. She was born in Milan in 1977 and completed her schooling in Trento. Samantha earned her Master’s degree in mechanical engineering in Germany. She also earned a degree in aeronautical sciences as part of her training in the Italian Airforce Academy which she joined in 2001. In 2006, she earned her jet fighter pilot wings at Sheppard Airforce Base in the United States during her training at the Euro-NATO Joint Jet Pilot program.
Samantha was accepted into the European Space Academy in 2009 to become an astronaut. Among her numerous contributions, she became the first non-Chinese astronaut to take part in a training exercise in China in 2017. Her first mission to the International Space Station took place in 2012 and she holds the record for the longest mission by any European astronaut-200 days- for the Futura Mission in 2015. She is a UNICEF ambassador and speaks English, German, French, Russian, and Chinese in addition to her native Italian. A documentary came out in 2016 about her amazing career entitled AstroSamantha.
NASA/Robert Markowitz, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Maria Montessori, Educator
The woman of the future will have equal rights as well as equal duties…Family life as we know it may change, but it is absurd to think the feminism will destroy maternal feelings. The new woman will marry and have children out of choice, not because matrimony and maternity are imposed on her.
Montessori was born in Chiaravalle in 1870 but moved to Rome at the age of four. She enrolled in a technical secondary school with the intent of becoming an engineer, practically unheard of for a female in that era. She received her degree from the University of Rome in mathematics, physics, and natural sciences which allowed her to apply for medical school. She became the first female ever to be enrolled in Rome’s medical school and one of the first in Italy. In 1896, she earned her medical degree and began practicing as a surgical assistant in Rome.
She was especially sensitive to the children she cared for and began working with children in psychiatric asylums. Her observations and work were the very foundation of educating and integrating children with special needs rather than removing them from society. In 1907, she opened her school, the Casa dei Bambini where children were allowed to self-regulate and be autonomous in a stimulating, secure environment. Five more schools opened and Montessori had officially started a movement.
What became known as the “Montessori Method” was the published version of her teaching lectures. It would be translated into twenty different languages and adopted throughout the world. She spent the rest of her life lecturing, teaching, and educating teachers all over the world on her highly successful method. Today, there are over 15,000 Montessori Schools throughout the world that continue to base their curriculum on her principles.
Maria was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize three times but never won. In addition to her legacy in education, she spoke on behalf of women’s rights for equal pay at the International Women’s Congress in Berlin in 1898 and gained a unanimous vote in adopting her resolution.
You can visit her birth home in Chiaravalle (Ancona) which has been transformed into a museum.
The original Casa dei Bambini which opened in 1907 is still operating and can be visited at Via dei Marsi, 58 in Rome.
Public Domain, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Sophia Loren, Actress
Everything you see I owe to spaghetti.
Beauty is how you feel inside, and it reflects in your eyes. It is not something physical.
Sofia Villani Scicolone was born in 1934 in Rome. She grew up in poverty in post-war Naples with her mother and sister and got her first break by winning a local beauty pageant at the age of 15. Sophia’s first acting role was as a slave girl in the American film Quo Vadis in 1951. Producer Carlo Ponti transformed her into “Sophia Loren” and by the late 1950s she was starring alongside major Hollywood actors like Clark Gable and Paul Newman. In 1960, Sophia won the Academy Award for her role in De Sica’s La Ciociara (Two Women in English). Her lifetime accomplishments as an international actress were recognized in 1991 when she received a lifetime achievement Oscar and the career Golden Lion Award from the Venice Film Festival in 1998. She is an honorary citizen of Naples and Sorrento and has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
ETH-Bibliothek Zürich, Bildarchiv / Fotograf: Comet Photo AG (Zürich) / Com_X-L060-007 / CC BY-SA 4.0, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Anna Magnani, Actress
I love my unstable balance, between wisdom and madness, serenity and anger because it makes me bloody real.
Anna Magnani was born in 1908 in a Roman slum where she was raised by her grandparents.
Her upbringing and survival skills were evident in her acting roles in which she portrayed dramatic, earthy women in difficult circumstances. She starred in her first film in 1934, La Cieca di Sorrento (The Blind Woman of Sorrento) but it was Rossellini’s Roma Città aperta that made her an international star in 1945. She won the Academy Award for Best Actress in 1955 for her role in The Rose Tattoo. In 1962, she would forever become known as “Mamma Roma” for her gripping role in Pasolini’s film. Magnani died in 1973 of pancreatic cancer. A bronze bust of the legendary actress was dedicated in 2019 and placed in the Trastevere neighborhood of Rome. Various tours which retrace Magnani’s past in her beloved Rome are available.
I’m not interested in being immortal. I like getting old.
Mina Anna Mazzini was born in the Varese province of Lombardy in 1940 but grew up in the city of Cremona. She is widely considered the greatest female singer in Italian history and has recorded over 1,500 songs in numerous languages. She gained widespread appeal after her performance at La Bussola, a famous nightclub in Forte dei Marmi on Tuscany’s famous Versilia coast, which was also known to host Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald. Her songs are legendary and are still being sung and appreciated by the new generation of Italians. Although she officially retired in 1978, she continues to release albums almost yearly.
Franca Viola, Activist
I am no one’s property. Honor is lost by those who do certain things, not by those who suffer them.
Franca Viola was born in 1947 in Alcamo, Sicily. Her story and courage would forever change Italian history. In 1966, at the age of 17 she was kidnapped, raped, and held captive for eight days by a former boyfriend. At the time, social norms in Italy forced women to marry the man to whom they lost their virginity, even in the case of rape. Article 544 of the penal code actually forgave men of their crime of rape if the victim agreed to marriage. It was known as matrimonio riparatore or literally translated, a “rehabilitating marriage”. Franca refused and also pressed charges against her assailant. The law wouldn’t officially change until 1981 and not until 1996 did sexual assault change from a crime against “public morality” to a crime against a person. It’s fair to say that Franca Viola became an activist, not by choice, but as a consequence of her courage after being the victim of a heinous crime.
Margherita Hack, Astrophysicist
I tell women never to feel inferior and to proceed as I have always done: combative, full of self-confidence and respectful of colleagues or opponents, but uncompromising in the face of any underestimation of their work.
Born in 1922 in Florence, Margherita showed from an early age that she was destined for extraordinary things. She began studying physics at the University of Florence and wrote her thesis on variable stars. In 1964 she became an astronomy professor at the University of Trieste and then the director of the observatory. She was the first woman to be given such a position. Throughout her career she worked with world-renowned astrophysicists and published numerous papers, 400 of which are included in the NASA archive. The “Lady of the Stars” is most known for her contributions to the fields of stellar spectroscopy and radio astronomy.
She died in 2013 at the age of 91. In 2022, a statue of her was erected in Milan and was the very first in Italy dedicated to a woman of science.
Cirone-Musi, Festival della Scienza, CC BY-SA 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Mariuccia Mandelli, Krizia, Fashion Designer
I’ve never thought of fashion in reference to age. I wear what I like, what fits me well, what I feel good in, without any relation to what the journalists declare to be more or less fashionable.
Maria Mandelli was born in Bergamo in 1925 and officially began her career in fashion in 1954. Out of a small apartment in Milan, she and her friend Flora Dolci designed and sewed pieces and sold them door-to-door and out of her Fiat 500. In 1957, she presented her first collection at a fashion show in Turin and by 1964 she was hosting her own fashion show in Florence’s Palazzo Pitti. She was the first woman to earn the “Critica della moda” fashion award. Mandelli died in 2014 at the age of 90 and her fashion house was purchased by the Chinese retailer Shenzhen Marisfrolg.
She was an icon of Italian fashion and is credited with inventing the knitted pullover.
Manuelarosi, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Raffaella Carrà, Entertainer
My career has been a continuous surprise, and that’s the best part: enjoying a small or a big thing means living.
Raffaella Maria Roberta Pelloni was born in Bologna in 1943 and by the age of eight was enrolled in a dance school in Rome. She also began acting at the age of nine and by the early 1960s she was starring in French and Italian films. In 1965 she moved to Hollywood after signing with 20th Century Fox Studios and starred alongside Frank Sinatra and others. Through the 1990s Carrà starred and hosted Italian television network variety shows and regularly appeared on Spanish tv and in other South American countries. Of her hundreds of songs, her most famous are probably “A far l’amore comincia tu” also known as the Italian “happy birthday song” and her smash hit “Fiesta”. Carrà died in 2021 of lung cancer.