At This Textile Laboratory in Puglia, Traditional Craft Is a Vessel for Women’s Empowerment

As well as the fort-like laboratory, the Villa Carmosina grounds also house a bed-and-breakfast and restaurant. When I arrive for a visit, there’s a lunch prepared—in classic Salentine tradition— of fresh mozzarella, local tomatoes, and wine, and Rizzo instructs me in the proper way to eat frisella, the local, biscuit-like bread: dip it in water, slice a tomato, rub it against the wet bread, and top it generously with olive oil and oregano. Soon, an array of local cheeses arrive at the table, delivered by Rizzo’s husband, Giovanni, and a few of the women who help Rizzo administer the weaving initiative. They share a handful of its success stories—women who, thanks to the program, have found new opportunities—and praise Rizzo’s dedication to sustaining the foundation. Fundraising is key, with money coming from a mix of private donations and intermittent government support. Earnings from product sales help keep things going, too.

Rizzo’s official title is “president,” but she prefers to be called a “fighter.” She’s experienced the pernicious effects of gender inequality firsthand and decided at a young age that she wanted to join the battle against it. “I have a strong aversion to any form of injustice, and that includes gender-based injustice,” she says. Rizzo had to enroll in university in Milan behind her parents’ backs; after receiving a degree in law in 1984, she returned to Salento, a region where opportunities for ambitious young professionals were in short supply. “I wanted to give back to my land,” she says.