ROME: Italians voting in next week's parliamentary elections will have a greater choice of women candidates than ever before, whatever their political stripes.
"For Italy it's the first time in history that it will go beyond the usual choice of two or three token figures among women," Monica Frassoni, a former MEP for the Green party who will stand for a Senate seat under the banner of the far-left SEL party in the Sunday-Monday vote.
Whether centre-left leader Pier Luigi Bersani prevails -- the most likely outcome -- or veteran right-winger Silvio Berlusconi sweeps back to power, the National Assembly of 630 MPs and the 315-member Senate are set to include far more women.
Valeria Ajovalasit, president of the women's group Arcidonna, says that the current proportion of 20 percent of women MPs -- putting Italy in 50th place worldwide -- could rise to 28 or 30 percent if a centre-right alliance of Berlusconi's party and the Northern League wins, and as much as 38 percent if Bersani's forces win.
Such a surge would be remarkable in a country where only 47 percent of women work compared with a European average of 59 percent.
The rate is 20 percent in Naples, the main city in Italy's relatively poor southern half.
A lack of day care centres and family subsidies helps explain the under-representation of women in most economic sectors.
"This time on the left, there is a real effort, it's not just talk about the place of women," Frassoni said, noting that Bersani's Democratic Party was aiming for a ratio of 40 percent women.
Her party, Left Ecology Freedom (SEL), aims to have women heading half of its electoral lists.
Giacomo Marramao, a professor of political philosophy, said the left previously failed to "shine in its ability to read the signs of the times".
But today there are many women "in good positions, with high-quality candidates coming from civil society, the intellectual world, journalism and the liberal professions", he said.
SEL's left-wing rival Civil Revolution led by Antonio Ingroia "is less brilliant", fielding 18 men and only two women, Frassoni said. "It's proof that the leadership of political parties in Italy is still in men's hands."
Outgoing Work and Sexual Equality Minister Elsa Fornero, one of three prominent women in the government of technocrat Prime Minister Mario Monti, has lamented that no women are vying to become the next prime minister.
"It's the umpteenth lost chance," she said. "Women have a role but the really important decisions are made by men."
Fornero's "boss" has however made an attempt to validate women in a chapter of his platform, the "Monti agenda".
His campaign has posted videos on the Internet in which "Donne-x-Monti" (Women for Monti) explain why they will vote for the austere former European commissioner this weekend.
A web page titled "Ora Basta!" (That's Enough Now!) catalogues sexist remarks by Berlusconi through his 18 years in politics.
For example: "We're happy if a lot of women are in parliament, especially if they are pretty."
In another sign of the changing times, voices on both the left and the right have begun talking about women who could succeed 87-year-old Giorgio Napolitano as president when his term expires in May.
They include Emma Bonino of the liberal Radical Party, Anna Finocchiaro, a PD senator, and Anna Maria Cancellieri, Monti's interior minister.