At first I made excuses. "Well, you can't consider the exact translation," I told myself trying desperately to downplay the word that kept coming out of my male boss's mouth. "It's no big deal," I rationalized, "that's just Italy."
Soon enough, though, I actually started believing my excuses when I noticed that the women were saying it too.
The last straw came when, shockingly, I even let the word slip out of my mouth, la ragazza, or the girl; the word used to describe any woman under 40 in my office.
As an American working in Italy, I'd gotten caught up in a free fall of sex and age discrimination. It was monkey-see-monkey-do confusion that women who marry foreign men often slip into when they find themselves in a new workplace on another side of the planet.
My emancipated brain had been transplanted into the Old World. My love affair with Italy had been transformed into Italianization.
Embarrassingly, this went on for about a year. Until one day the self-made woman who had once been a TV news anchor in politically-correct-post-Anita Hill America jumped out and scared me.
It happened during a staff meeting when my boss nervously rushed in and began counting us like chickens. "Where is, you know, what's her name, la ragazza?"
It was that word again. The label.
The girl sounded like teeth breaking on concrete. It hit me that that ragazza was a 30-year-old wife and mother with a PhD.
I snapped. "HER NAME IS ESTER!"
Naturally, he didn't even notice my outburst and neither did my female colleagues.
My honeymoon with Italy was over. So I decided to pick on this ragazza situation.
Italy is the mother of matriarchal societies. It's wired into the language, "Mamma Mia!" It's in the way my mother-in-law obsesses over and often pries into every detail of my Italian husband's life. It's in the image of the Madonna that seems to lord over the nation.
Italy is one of 28 countries with an official "women's" holiday, March 8. It honors women, unofficially obliging the men in their lives to come home after work bearing flowering mimosa branches.
Lawmakers so prize the role of women in the family that they sanction a mandatory five-month maternity leave that can be extended (sometimes extensively).
But this seemingly overt love for women is ultimately unconvincing. After my unsuccessful office shakeup, I began noticing some commonplaces that my fascination for Italy had covered up: the primetime near-nudity on public television, the former showgirl who is also equal opportunities minister, the colorful ads plastered all over the city selling everything from socks to satellite TV subscriptions via the female body.
"Call Oprah Winfrey! Call the FCC!," I wanted to scream. How can a rich European nation, vintage 2008, continually bombard its women with images of nudity and perfection?
The reporter in me had one question: Why do women accept this?
My neighbor's daughter, Ariel Mafai Giorgi, a 41-year-old PR consultant in Milan, had a theory, certainly not new, that beauty was the key to success. Never mind that feminism ruled Italy for much of the 1970s, ushering in divorce and abortion rights. That was gone. "Women already had little solidarity in my opinion," she told me. "The excessive use of the body has certainly accented the typical female cattiness, such as, 'Look at that woman over there and the cellulite she has.'"
I talked to Angela Ibbadu, a 32-year-old bank employee in Rome. She blamed envy for the lack of sisterhood among Italian women. "To build a career you often have to diminish many aspects of femininity in favor of an aggressive and cynical behavior which until not long ago was attributed only to men," she said.
Workplace competition hinders women. According to a 2006 report of 38 nations issued by the OECD, only Mexico, Turkey and Chile had fewer women in the workplace than Italy. While the maternity leave laws might sound nice from an American perspective, the five-month-plus leave has a downside. Many employers think twice before hiring women of childbearing age.
That was bad news for me, a just-married ragazza with a rapidly-ticking biological clock and on the lookout for a new job.
When I landed my first interview, I pulled out some of my old TV anchor-wear and presented myself as a full-fledged professional.
To my surprise, my new potential boss simply ignored me and spent the entire interview hour talking about himself. Finally, he said, "Look, what I really need is a personal secretary. Why don't you send me a proposal." He then walked me to the door and casually said goodbye with the words, "Ciao princess."
My mouth dropped. Mr. Ciao Princess had my four-page resume. No matter. It was in his eyes: Woman plus office equals secretary. I hit the street below in the primary phases of that aggressive and cynical state that the Italian women had warned me about.
Where, I wondered, were the normal jobs?
"Fashion, communications and advertising," said Mafai Giorgi. The media world, she told me, had made serious room for women. The caveat was pay. It wasn't equal. (That must be why the waiters always bring the check to my husband, I thought sarcastically.)
While I carried on with my search armed with Mafai Giorgi's insights, I still secretly sought an "American" solution. I dreamed of a million-woman march through downtown Rome, the launching of an FCC with fines for every TV station, offices ransacked, bosses sued and scandals played out on primetime news, complete with blue Gap dresses.
But my vivid imagination still didn't put my recurring question to rest: Why didn't Italian women feel the same way?
Franca Macci, a mid-level manager from Campagnano, said the answer lies in the absence of choices. "It's not that women are complacent," said Macci, 56, "rather they are subject to this because they don't find alternatives."
Most attribute this standstill to the collapse of the feminist movement in Italy. For Fabiana Chiari, 23, who works with Ibbadu, feminism doesn't exist. Mafai Giorgi said it is a matter of degrees. Feminism, she suggested, was associated with the mass protests of the 1970s. "Today," she said, "I think feminism needs to be screamed less, but sustained more."
The European Parliament recently condemned promotional ads in which women are exhibited in sexually discriminatory ways. It hardly seems like a solution.
My answer is a personalized form of social disobedience. Now, when my boss says, "ragazze, I have a visitor, we need some coffee in here," I ignore him. After all, hes not talking to me; I'm Jessica, not ragazza.
If he repeats the same request I still ignore him, and the ragazze (aka: the women who respond to this name) make the coffee. Hows that for cattiness? I recommend it to all working women in Italy.
As for Mr. Ciao Princess, I did send him a proposal, one that emphasized professionalism. It was also well out of his financial league. Needless to say, he never responded.
At home, Italian variety show TV is now completely banned. When my husband and I go out to dinner and the waiter brings him the check, I immediately take it and ask, "Can I pay with a bank card?"
And as for that biological clock, I've decided that when I do have a baby and take my five-month-plus maternity leave, I want a boy. That way I can teach him that ragazza is no way to address a lady.
Editor's note: Jessica Carter has since found new employment, and relief.