International Woman’s Day: The Venetian Lioness, PhD.

, by Federico Pisani

International Woman's Day: The Venetian Lioness, PhD.
Credit: Freepik

This International Women’s Day, Federico Pisani draws attention to a woman forgotten by history: Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia, the first woman to earn a PhD.

Like every year, today we look around us and find with surprise and curiosity new and old stories we may have missed: knowledge that has become so deeply intrinsic to our thought and mindset, that we forgot where it came from and who produced it. Especially if it was a woman.

My example of greatness, this year is Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia (or Helen Cornaro), one of the first women to receive a degree from a University, and the first to earn a PhD.

Who was she?

Elena was a Venetian noblewoman, born in the golden age of the Republic on June 5, 1646. She was fluent in Greek and Latin from the age of 7, eventually mastering 7 languages and earning the nickname “Oraculus Septilingue”. Elena was a musician, mathematician, a philosopher, theologian, writer, and a translator. Now, I hear you think, “I could do all that if only I wasn’t hooked by that series on Netflix”, and I have complete faith in your judgement.

Despite her many talents, or maybe because of them, she came to face the worst aspects of a deeply male-dominated society and soon had to fight for her acknowledgement. She travelled far and wide, moving from the main Universities of the time, to finally settle on Padua, where she managed to impress everyone and build an unmatched reputation.

Navigating a rocky path

On her path to earn a Doctorate, a Cardinal stood in her way, stating that having a female Doctor in Theology (her main field of work and the subject she most cared about) “would ridicule us in front of the whole world”. The University of Padua didn’t bat an eye, and awarded her with a doctorate in Philosophy. She would become the first woman to ever earn one, but she wasn’t allowed to teach the subject. The ceremony was itself an event that attracted the highest political and economic profiles of the city and reverberated throughout the rest of Italy.

However, having a woman teaching in a University would have not been a first, as it had already happened centuries before when Bettisia Gozzadini, another Italian woman, lectured at the University of Bologna from about 1239 until her death due to a flood in 1261. Bettisia Gozzadini is considered to be the first woman to have ever taught in a University. This was no small feat, considering how few University students and scholars there were at the time. Just imagine, that at the dawn of the 1900s, France only had 29 000 students in the whole country. And of course, at the times of Gozzadini, very few Universities would accept women in the first place.

To this day, Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia is an example to all who want to excel in their field, an example of courage, social engagement, and academic virtues. Education and social emancipation have always gone hand in hand, and we should keep it in mind as we fight to improve the Europe we live in today. Even a prodigy with noble ancestry and a wealthy family backing her up faced insurmountable hurdles to the rightful recognition of her talents. Most women, however, were less fortunate and are now lost to history because of the way history both remembers, and forgets.

Barriers to European women today

Deep and difficult structural changes need to be made in order to tackle the gender imbalance in science. As the latest She Figures 2021 Report shows, “while, in 2019, the share of tertiary educated population is gender-balanced in the EU (53.7%), women were less represented among employed scientists and engineers (41.3%)”. However, the European Union has pushed forward significantly in the last decades, with a number of initiatives such as, among others, the Gender Equality Strategy 2020-2025, Women TechEU or additional criteria to the disbursement of grants from Horizon Europe.

Overall, the phenomenon affects the entire spectrum of activities, and if women are about half of all the employees in the EU, only 18% of senior executives across the Union are women. When considering the largest publicly listed companies, only 7.9% had a woman as CEO.

An imbalanced continent can hardly be a stable foundation for the future, and a Federal Europe needs empowered women and a society that stands with all its citizens. Building a Federal Europe needs expert architects, and if we keep leaving some of the best out, because of deep rooted legacies of discrimination, the roof will rightly fall on our heads.

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