Let me tell you two stories, the first about the first woman inscribed to the Association of Lawyers, the second about the first woman to hold a closing statement in front of the Court of Assizes.
Being first is an alluring idea. It often is the benchmark with which we measure achievements. A single moment, suspended in history, a single person elevated above the rest. These stories are easy to tell, have a clear narrative structure and are compelling by default. Rarely do we focus on all the other stories, those made of failures, of trying, again and again, that led to the big achievement. Let me tell you two stories, the first about the first woman inscribed to the Association of Lawyers, the second about the first woman to hold a closing statement in front of the Court of Assizes.
Lidia Poët is born in Traverse in 1855, in a rich family, so well off to be nicknamed “the Lords of the Valley”. During these years Italy is just coming together as a country and the population is mostly illiterate. The valley of St. Martin is an exception, as it is home to a big Waldesian community that is very keen on educating its own children. Lidia is a very high spirited girl, quite stubborn and always ready to argue and defend her opinion. At 13 she declares the intent to continue to study, beyond what was normally considered appropriate for women. Her parents find a socially acceptable compromise and convince her to get a degree as a teacher. She seems to settle and gets not one but two degrees, the second in teaching languages after a period spent abroad. But Lidia is not satisfied and demands to be allowed to further her education again. Her family gives in, and she studies furiously and passes the equivalent of a then high school diploma in 8 months. She goes on to enroll in the faculty of Law at the University of Turin. She is a trailblazer, the ink on the law that allowed women to access the university had not dried yet. It is her brother Enrico, also a lawyer in Pinerolo where the family had relocated, who accompanies her to the faculty. Lidia was quite the novelty in class, both courted and mocked. She graduates with a thesis on the female condition and goes on to complete all the tasks to be able to register in the Association of Lawyers. She is the first woman to do so and catches them completely unprepared.
Lina Furlan is born in Venice in 1903. Once old enough to attend university she follows her brother to Turin. He persuades her not to study medicine, a faculty filled with fools he thinks, so her choice falls onto law. She first enrolls in Bologna and then in Turin while also attending the Hochschule in Dresden where she studies German, Literature and Art History. She was very smart but also quite cunning. An example for all: as her professors were very famous intellectuals such as Einaudi or Segrè, she would not sit down during her exams hoping that they would cut the exam short moved by compassion for a young girl having to stand that long. She finishes her degree in 1926 and in 1929 she passes her exams and starts practising law. She is the first woman to actually wear the lawyer’s gown.
There were no actual laws that prohibited Lidia from joining the Lawyers Association, but the debate was still quite heated and found its resolution in a bout of modernity: with 8 votes in her favour and 4 against for a few months Lidia was Italy’s first female lawyer. She did not have the time to start working though, the royal prosecutor appealed the Association’s decision. The legal dispute reaches the Highest Court of Appeal which decides in favouring the royal prosecutor: women cannot be lawyers. First of all, it is an offence to their dignity, furthermore, it would not be appropriate for a woman can be subjected to marital authorization, and lastly, the laws that regulate lawyers, as they do not address the matter of sex, are to be interpreted as regarding men only. For her entire excellent argumentation, Lidia cannot vanquish the stereotypes against her sex. She goes on to work with her brother in his legal studio and finds other ways to work for the rights of the downtrodden: women, children and prisoners. She travels all around Europe, representing Italy at various congresses. At the beginning of the First World War, she volunteers as a Red Cross Nurse, her efforts are rewarded with a Silver Medal. In 1919, a law for the judicial capability of women is passed, that finally annuls the marital authorization opening all career paths, the only exception being the judiciary fields, to women. Lidia is 64 and she will never work as a lawyer, but, nonetheless, on the 20th of November 1920, she applies for the Association of Lawyers and this time she gets in.
Often times Lina is asked what she is doing inside the courthouse. She answers simply that the law of 1919 allows it. Slowly they stop asking. Generally, she is on good terms with her colleagues, strategically she is on better terms with their mothers and sisters. She is not a showy lawyer, she does not make big scenes, rather she argues in a composed manner always trying to present the human side of her clients. She convinces with the force of truth. Her first clients are all men, and then slowly also women start showing up. She is often a public defender for those who can’t afford a lawyer. Some of her cases cause quite an uproar: such as the case of the priest, that wrongly enrolled in the infantry, refused to kill and thus deserted. Lina appeals to the law, but mostly as a woman of faith in the Gospel. The whole court cannot hold back the tears and the trial has to be postponed after the war. The priest, this time assigned as chaplain, will die as he intended, carrying a wounded soldier on his shoulders. Another trial saw a mother wrongly accused of having helped her husband kill a man. Her only witness was her small child, who was not accepted as a witness by the court. Lina manages to convince the judge to let the child stay with her during the trial as no one could look after him. At the right time, the child spontaneously spoke up, giving his mother a much needed alibi. The charges were dropped. In 1938 Lina meets Pitigrilli, a journalist and quite the character, he was supposed to write a piece about her. He is a jew and they marry in secret in 1940. The years of the war are quite harsh, they have to hide, and in 1943 she is forced to flee to Switzerland with her small child while her husband is in confinement. This is the beginning of a series of pilgrimages all around the world, first to Paris, then to Latin America. In 1960, she finally goes back to Italy and applies again for the Lawyers Association, but she finds that everything has changed. With words that will surely surprise today’s readers, she condemns the equality of the sexes and women being judges. She says she does not want to be equal to men, she’d rather keep her own virtues and flaws and not add also those of men, and thinks that being a woman is not very compatible with the act of accusation. She will nevertheless work until 1993.
Let’s go back to the 30th of October, 1929, in Turin. It’s Lina’s first trial, she is the first woman to pronounce a closing statement in front of the Assize Court. She is defending a labouring woman that killed her child, who was in turn a victim of a very abusive father. Sitting in the front row is Lidia Poët. Lina manages to get the trial dismissed. In the end, Lina and Lidia go toward one another and, happy and moved, hug each other in the very court of law that had denied her access for 40 years and where Lina just talked for the first time and won. Two women who arrived first in their own rights, whose achievements followed one another and fate willed for them to be able to meet and rejoice together for this shared victory. As I remember all the women that came before them, most of whom could never see the results of lifelong battles, it is not them being the first women, but them hugging the true symbol of the struggle for a better world.