By Duncan Kennedy
BBC News, Rome
Rosy Bindi retorted to the premier: "I am not a woman at your disposal"
Nearly 100,000 Italian women have signed a petition expressing anger over an insult by PM Silvio Berlusconi to a female politician on live television.
Mr Berlusconi said the woman, 58-year-old Rosy Bindi, was "more beautiful than intelligent".
The prime minister says his comments were a joke, but he has been accused of chauvinism.
Some view the backlash as a new feminism taking root in a traditionally conservative country.
Others say that it is another example of Mr Berlusconi's ability to offend women, whether he means it or not.
Mr Berlusconi's now infamous comment came as he spoke on a late-night TV discussion programme.
He had phoned into the show after Ms Bindi, of the opposition Democratic Party, had attacked him following the recent court decision to remove his immunity from prosecution.
Ms Bindi - a bespectacled, matronly figure - sat and listened as Mr Berlusconi made his cutting remarks.
"You are more beautiful than intelligent," he told her, in a sarcastic swipe at her looks and intellect.
"I am not a woman at your disposal," Ms Bindi replied, in an apparent reference to his recent scandals involving young women.
'Cretinisation of women'
Mr Berlusconi's comments have caused uproar. Some 97,000 women have now signed a petition saying they were offended by his remarks.
One commentator said: "We protest against this cretinisation of women."
Senator Patrizia Bugnano called him a chauvinist, saying: "Someone tell Berlusconi he is no George Clooney."
Opinion poll companies say Mr Berlusconi's comments will probably not do him too much harm, as his female supporters are used to such colourful remarks.
But his cutting comment against Ms Bindi has stirred a rare public outpouring from thousands of Italian women who, until now, have kept largely silent about Mr Berlusconi's scandal-ridden year.