“Women have burnt like beacons in all the works of all the poets from the beginning of time. Indeed if woman had no existence save in the fiction written by men, one would imagine her a person of the utmost importance; very various; heroic and mean; splendid and sordid; beautiful and hideous in the extreme; as great as a man, some would say greater. But this is woman in fiction. In fact, as Professor Trevelyan points out, she was locked up, beaten and flung about the room. A very queer, composite being thus emerges. Imaginatively she is of the highest importance; practically she is completely insignificant. She pervades poetry from cover to cover; she is all but absent from history. She dominates the lives of kings and conquerors in fiction; in fact she was the slave of any boy whose parents forced a ring upon her finger. Some of the most inspired words and profound thoughts in literature fall from her lips; in real life she could hardly read; scarcely spell; and was the property of her husband. (Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own.)”
Only one hundred years ago the admission to culture for a woman was not for granted. Virginia Woolf herself had received a different education from her brothers who were sent to prestigious colleges, while her sisters and she were mostly home-schooled in English classics and Victorian literature. After all, nobody expected a woman at those times to become a scientist, run a company or simply be freed from patriarchical conventions to achieve her own independence. The famous passage from Austen’s Pride and Prejudice about the definition of an “accomplished woman” still fitted somehow the idea of what a woman should be like:
A woman must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, all the modern languages, to deserve the word; and besides all this, she must possess a certain something in her air and manner of walking, the tone of her voice, her address and expressions, or the word will be but half deserved.” (Pride and Prejudice)
In short, a pretty monkey to be exhibited in society whose accomplishments aimed at attracting a man and make him eventually her husband. Yet, there had been women in the past for whom education had meant more than playing an instrument and embroidering a cushion and had struggled for their share of learning. Actually, if we want to find the first graduated woman in the world, we have to go far back in time to the seventeenth century and, oh my god, in Italy. She was Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia.
Born in Venice in 1646 , she was the fifth of seven children. Her father, Giovanni Battista Cornaro, was an ambitious and intelligent nobleman who was not afraid of going against the flow. He had chosen, in fact, to marry a woman much below his station, Zanetta Giovanna Boni, thus defying the gossipy and exclusive Venetian society. Such an unconventional father will have a fundamental influence on the girl.
Even if she knew that women were not allowed to achieve a degree in theology at those times, she really didn’t care much about it. She just wanted to continue her learning, but it was her father who wanted the world to recognize and celebrate his daughter’s incredible knowledge and insisted on her getting the deserved degree. So, Elena applied for a Doctorate of Theology degree, but her application met the resistance of Gregorio Barbarigo, bishop of Padua, whose authorization, as Registrar of the University, was binding. He refused the idea of conferring the title of Doctor of Theology upon a woman, an act that, he believed, would have made them look ridiculous at the eyes of the world. Elena insisted again, but this time the Church compromised and allowed Elena Piscopia to apply for a Doctorate of Philosophy instead.
A woman with a university degree became soon common talk, so the day of Elena Piscopia’s examination there were so many spectators that rather than being held in the University Hall of the University of Padua, it was transferred to the Cathedral of the Blessed Virgin in Padua. Throughout her examination, Elena’s brilliant answers amazed and awed her examiners, who determined that her vast knowledge surpassed the Doctorate of Philosophy. On June 25, 1678 Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia received the Doctorate of Philosophy degree from the University of Padua. At age thirty-two she was the first woman in the world to receive a doctorate degree. In addition, she also received the Doctor’s Ring, the Teacher’s Ermine cape, and the Poet’s Laurel Crown.
Being a woman, however, she was not allowed to teach at university, yet, she became an esteemed member of various academies throughout Europe, and received visits from scholars from all parts of the world. Elena enjoyed debating, giving lectures in theology, and composing music. After successfully receiving her degree Elena Piscopia devoted her life to charity. She will die in Padua on July 26, 1684.
Two more centuries will have to pass before women can enter universities. Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia has been the first who initiated a long and very slow process of inclusion of women in the world of culture, demonstrating that intelligence and brilliance do not have gender.