Rome - In her rapid rise through Italian politics, Giorgia Meloni has repeatedly shattered the glass ceiling and has now become the first woman premier in the still staunchly patriarchal country.
But many women do not consider the 45-year-old an ally, pointing to her advocacy of traditional family values, including her opposition to abortion, and what they see as her failure to challenge the social status quo.
"All things considered it's a positive thing that for the first time it's a woman" leading the government, said Giorgia Serughetti, a professor of political philosophy at the University of Milano-Bicocca who focuses on gender and politics.
"But from there to say this is a step forward for women is another thing," she told AFP.
Meloni's post-fascist Brothers of Italy party won the largest share of votes among women in September elections, in which she played heavily on her own personal brand.
"I am Giorgia, I am a woman, I am a mother, I am Italian, I am Christian," Meloni said at a 2019 rally. The word wife did not feature, as she is not married to her partner, the father of her young daughter.
Serughetti argues this mantra was not a call for women's rights but a "declaration of hostility towards enemies", whether LGBTQ activists, feminists, defenders of mass immigration or others on the political left against whom she often rails.
Meloni has "never played the women's card" in a Catholic-majority country where there is "widespread hostility to feminism", the expert said.
Despite rising to the government's top job, Meloni is not seen as a challenge to "the patriarchy", said Flaminia Sacca, a political sociologist at Rome's Sapienza University.
Meloni is a working mother in a country where only about half of working-age women are employed.
But "she doesn't in any way challenge traditional values, traditional culture and the Catholic culture", said Sacca. "She's more acceptable, she's not a threat."
- No quotas -
Meloni has broken several barriers in her political career.
In 2008, she became the country's youngest minister, aged just 31, when she was given the youth portfolio by then-premier Silvio Berlusconi -- now one of her coalition allies.
A decade ago, she co-founded Brothers of Italy, becoming the first woman to lead a major Italian political party.
As premier, she joins a very small group of women who have reached a position of political power.
Italy named its first female head of the lower house of parliament in 1979, but it took another four decades for a woman to hold the second most powerful constitutional role, president of the Senate.
In her 2021 autobiography, Meloni argued for more women in decision-making roles that would "lift the moral level and productive effectiveness of our leadership".
But she said she won't rely on gender quotas, mandatory today on corporate boards, saying she "detests" them.
"I am a woman, but I confess that in all my history in politics I have never felt really discriminated against," she wrote in her book.
Her new government includes six women among 24 cabinet posts, while her coalition -- which also includes Matteo Salvini's far-right League -- has fewer women lawmakers than any other bloc in parliament.
Some 30 percent of their MPs and senators are women, compared to 46 percent of the centrist bloc and 45 percent of the populist Five Star Movement, according to Sacca.
However, they are almost level with the 31 percent of the centre-left Democratic Party, which actively promotes gender parity and women's rights.
- Focus on mothers -
"Giorgia Meloni is to feminism like a fish on a bicycle: harried, precarious and out of place," wrote prominent Italian-born philosopher and feminist theorist Rosi Braidotti in La Repubblica newspaper in August.
Meloni's discourse on women is nearly exclusively about mothers, with policies supporting birth rates and families, like providing free nursery school, protecting young mothers in the workplace or lowering taxes on baby products.
The focus on maternity is a carryover from Fascism that still resonates among right-wing voters, and is particularly reassuring in times of economic hardship, academics Sacca and Serughetti agreed.
"She's not speaking of empowerment and careers, she speaks of mothers and their right to keep their job," said Sacca.
Small protests, usually involving young people, have been held across Italy, focused on Meloni's opposition to abortion.
Meloni, who is also against same-sex adoptions and surrogacy, says she has no plans to touch Italy's 1978 abortion law, but rather offer more choices to women who feel they have no other option than to abort.
Emma Bonino, a veteran rights activist who leads the +Europe party, fears Meloni will instead "push for the law to be ignored", exacerbating existing difficulties in finding gynaecologists willing to perform terminations.
Despite the criticism, Meloni's strength has been in presenting herself consistently as a leader in control, said Sacca.
"She managed not to frighten an electorate that was not necessarily right wing before her," she said.
By Alexandria Sage