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By Deepa Babington
ROME (Reuters) - Silvio Berlusconi's cutting remark about a female rival's lack of beauty has stirred a rare public backlash from thousands of Italian women who had largely kept silent about the prime minister's womanising and sex scandals.
About 97,000 Italian women have signed the "Women offended by the premier" appeal after Berlusconi told the matronly, bespectacled leftist Rosy Bindi that she was "more beautiful than intelligent" in a swipe at both her looks and brains.
Since then, Facebook sites offering solidarity have sprung up, protests have been held in towns like Reggio Emilia, while Bindi's response -- "I'm not a woman at your disposal" -- has become a rallying cry printed on T-shirts and placards.
"Someone tell Berlusconi he's no George Clooney," centrist Senator Patrizia Bugnano said, calling him a "chauvinist." "It's offensive that he always refers to women in aesthetic terms."
The campaign is publicised by left-leaning newspaper La Repubblica and draws support heavily from the left. It is a rare example of a feminist initiative against Berlusconi that has managed to gain momentum.
Bindi says it signals a "new feminism" taking root in Italy, where Berlusconi's quips about women being "God's most beautiful gift to men" and Italy being "homeland of great lovers, Casanovas and playboys" are usually met with indifference.
Still, pollsters say that without a credible political rival to challenge him, the feminist backlash will do little to lower Berlusconi's support among conservative women voters -- even if they may be less enthusiastic about him than before.
"Berlusconi has not changed his approach to women and it's not the first time he has made such comments about women," said Maurizio Pessato of the SWG polling group.
"It's likely that some of the women already against him were spurred into action since the remark was so harsh, but others are used to this. We're in the phase where those supporting him continue to do so, and those against him are markedly so."
Another pollster, Luigi Crespi, said some female Berlusconi supporters may be disillusioned, but not enough to switch sides.
"WE ARE NOT YOUR CONCUBINES"
In a country where few batted an eyelid when former showgirl Mara Carfagna became equality minister and scantily-clad women are the mainstay on TV, especially channels owned by Berlusconi, his comments on women have so far triggered little outrage.
The only concerted feminist protest Berlusconi faced while battling charges of an improper relationship with a teenager and parties with prostitutes was a failed bid by four academics to have leaders' wives boycott the Group of Eight Summit in Italy.
But the insult hurled at Bindi during a late-night talk show just after a court stripped Berlusconi of his immunity from prosecution unexpectedly opened the floodgates of female wrath.
"We protest against this cretinisation of women, democracy and politics," writer Barbara Spinelli, academics Nadia Urbinati and Michela Marzano wrote in the appeal. "This man offends women and democracy. Let's stop him."
More than 3,000 women sent in their photos superimposed with phrases like "Women offended by a man wearing foundation cream" or "We are not your concubines," says La Repubblica, which dedicates a full page daily to the latest signatures and photos.
A Facebook site offering Bindi solidarity has attracted 2,000 members, while women ranging from journalists to actresses and popular model Michelle Hunziker have rallied to her defence.
One of Berlusconi's own women ministers, Youth Affairs Minister Giorgia Meloni, said she regretted his remark.
For his part, Berlusconi has offered a half-hearted apology and brushed it off as a "joke" in a "moment of disappointment," prompting Bindi to say he had only aggravated the situation.
This is not Berlusconi's first jab at Bindi's looks. Criticised by his wife for fielding a slate of pretty women for the European elections this year, Berlusconi complained: "What's wrong if they're pretty? We can't field all Rosy Bindis."
(Editing by Mark Trevelyan)