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Beyond Inspiring: History’s Female PhD Pioneers

Detail of the Great Window in the Thompson Memorial Library at Vassar College. The large stained-glass window depicts Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia defending her dissertation in 1678.

While the stories of history’s first female doctors of philosophy are inspiring, they also highlight the galling realities of women’s centuries-long struggle to obtain equal educational opportunities and professional and intellectual respect. Seen as a whole, they have the power to light a fire beneath armchair inspiration and provoke similarly bold and progressive action.

By Victoria Martínez

On June 25, 1678, thousands of people crowded into Padua Cathedral in northern Italy for an event that was likened to a coronation. At the end of the long ceremony, a laurel was placed on the head of the honoree, along with an ermine cape on the shoulders, and a gold ring on a finger. A triumphal carriage procession followed, concluding at a palace for a celebratory feast.[1]

But this was no monarch. It was a female scholar. And the honor conferred on her was not hereditary. It was a true crowning achievement. Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia[2] had just become the first woman in history to earn a doctor of philosophy degree (PhD).[3]

Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia

During the ceremony, Cornaro had defended her dissertation — a discussion of the works of Aristotle — in classical Latin for over an hour to rapturous applause. In the following years, her accomplishment and her undoubted talents and abilities earned her praise and admiration throughout Europe. She was a credit to herself and, by association, the University of Padua, which also received much praise for its part.[4]

Almost immediately, more women began applying to study and obtain degrees at the university. They were refused, and women were barred from attending the university.

Cornaro’s achievement had been chalked up to a miracle, and few were willing to test that belief by allowing other women to prove that innate ability nurtured by equal education — not divine intervention — was the cause.

The Age of Enlightenment that took place in the 18thcentury served female scholars little better. Against the backdrop of a female awakening that saw an increasing number of women effectively articulating the argument that the ideals of liberty, equality and education were not being extended to them, two women fought against the odds to earn recognition as doctors of philosophy.

Laura Maria Caterina Bassi

In 1732 — half a century after Elena Cornaro Piscopia — Laura Maria Caterina Bassi[5] became the second woman to be awarded a PhD. Cristina Roccati[6] followed in 1751. The two women had a great deal in common. Both were Italian and had fathers who not only recognized and cultivated their abilities, but were also extremely ambitious to see them achieve official recognition as scholars. Although widely accomplished, the two women excelled in physics and were awarded their doctorates of philosophy in that field by the University of Bologna in northern Italy.

In women’s quest to obtain equal education, the brilliance of Bassi and Roccati can be seen as something of a double-edged sword. While they secured their degrees and cemented their reputations as serious and capable scholars, effectively blazing a trail for other women, their accomplishments also fomented jealousy and distrust among their male colleagues, who quickly built barriers to prevent them and other women from inclusion and participation.

Cristina Roccati

When Bassi overcame these obstacles to become history’s first female university professor at the University of Bologna, and therefore fully participate as an academic, it was thanks to the intervention of a powerful longtime ally — Prospero Lambertini, aka Pope Benedict XIV.[7] Roccati also benefitted from this highly-educated and forward-thinking patron of female intellectuals. When the pope died in 1758, the power vacuum was quickly filled with traditionalists who opposed women’s intellectual and academic equality. As Bassi biographer Monique Frize (herself an academic and a biomedical engineer) wrote:

“Progress for women’s access to education and public roles has always depended on the attitude of people in power and has been cyclical throughout the ages, with progress often followed by regress.”[8]

The regression that followed Bassi’s and Rocatti’s successes was long-lived, lasting well into the 19thcentury. The beginning of the end came in 1867 when the University of Zurich in Switzerland became one of the first universities of the modern era to allow women to receive degrees.[9]

Finally, in 1875, more than a century after Roccati received her PhD in Bologna, Stefania Wolicka-Arnd[10] of Poland was awarded her doctor of philosophy degree in history by the University of Zurich. Her accomplishment was particularly significant because of the efforts by the Russian Empire to prevent women from studying and receiving university degrees. To this end, a decree was issued by the Russian government in May 1873 that compelled all the female subjects of the Empire then studying at the University of Zurich to leave Switzerland by January 1, 1874.

Helen Magill White

Due to complete her degree in August 1874, Wolicka-Arnd appealed to the Russian Minister of Education to be allowed to stay until that time.[11] Her request was refused, but she managed to complete her degree nonetheless, and went on to become an advocate for women’s rights in Poland.

In the United States, the first woman to earn a PhD was Helen Magill White[12], who graduated from Boston University in 1877 with her doctorate of philosophy in Greek. The progressive attitudes of the Quakers toward women’s rights and equal education were a key in this milestone, as was the fact that Helen’s father, Edward Hicks Magill, was an educator himself. As the second president of Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, he said:

“Nothing short of co-equal, co-educational advantages and the same degrees conferred upon both sexes for equal attainments will meet the demands of the times.”[13]

Progress was slow around the world throughout the remainder of the 19thcentury, but women were gradually being permitted to enter universities and obtain degrees, including doctorates. In Scandinavia, Ellen Fries became the first woman in Sweden to receive a PhD in 1883, earning it in history from Uppsala University. In 1903, Emma Sophia Baker was the first woman to receive a PhD in Canada, graduating with a degree in psychology from the University of Toronto.

Unsurprisingly, it took until 1921 for an American university to confer a PhD on an African American woman. However, it wasn’t one, but three African American women who earned the distinction that year. Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander earned her PhD in economics from the University of Pennsylvania. Georgiana Simpson received her PhD in German from the University of Chicago. And Eva Dykes earned her PhD in English from Radcliffe College.

Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander (left), Georgiana Simpson (right), Eva Dykes (center)

While these women’s accomplishments are inspirational, their struggle for equal treatment and opportunities continued long after they earned their PhDs. Most faced a lifelong battle against everything from attitudes like skepticism and suspicion to blatantly sexist professional roadblocks. Many were never able to work at the same level or with the same support as their male colleagues. For all of them, the achievement of earning a PhD was never a final victory.

Even today, women cannot claim victory in the quest for equal education. In the United States, it has only been within the last 10 years that women have equaled and slowly exceeded men in the attainment of doctorate degrees.[14] Elsewhere in the world, Saudi Arabia conferred a PhD on a woman for the first time in 2013. Without a doubt, many barriers still stand in the way for the full realization of equal educational opportunities for women, up to and including the PhD level.

As far as these women can inspire other women to believe in themselves and seek to achieve the highest level of education possible, they are undoubtedly inspiring. However, their stories should never be reduced to final victories, either for themselves or womankind. A laurel, cloak and ring are merely trappings. A triumphal procession and celebratory feast come to an end. Applause and fame mean nothing if they are not supported by genuine respect and equal treatment.

And inspiration should amount to more than just a fleeting sense of admiration. It should inflame the hearts of others to act in a way that gives credit and justification to those who came before.


[1] Guernsey, Jane Howard. The Lady Cornaro: Pride and Prodigy of Venice. New York: College Avenue Press, 1999, 149–157.

[2] Born in Venice in 1646 to a wealthy and powerful family. Her father was, at the height of his career, the second highest-ranking official in the Republic of Venice. Elena did not marry, and died in Padua in 1684. Agnes Scott College has a good online biography of Elena.

[3] The first woman to receive any type of university degree was Juliana Morell, a Spanish nun who received a doctorate in Canonic law from the University of Avignon in 1608.

[4] Guernsey 153–158

[5] Born in Bologna (in modern-day Italy) in 1711 to a wealthy family. She married a fellow academic and bore 12 children. She died in Bologna in 1778. The University of Bologna website has a brief biographical tribute to Laura.

[6] Born in Rovigo, Italy in 1732 to a noble family. She died in Rovigo in 1797.

[7] Findlen, Paula. “Science as a Career in Enlightenment Italy: The Strategies of Laura Bassi.” Isis, vol. 84, no. 3, 1993, pp. 457–458.

[8] Frize, Monique. Laura Bassi and Science in 18th Century Europe: The Extraordinary Life and Role of Italy’s Pioneering Female Professor. New York: Springer Science & Business Media, 2013, 164.

[9] That year, Nadezhda Suslova of Russia graduated from the university with her doctorate in medicine.

[10] Born in Warsaw in 1851; died after 1895.

[11] Johanson, Christine. Women’s Struggle for Higher Education in Russia, 1855–1900. Kingston and Montreal: McGill-Queen’s Press, 1987, 56–58.

[12] Born in 1853 in Providence, Rhode Island; died in Maine in 1944.

[13] Edward Hicks Magill, Swarthmore College Presidents — Swarthmore College

[14] National Center for Education Statistics, “Degrees conferred by degree-granting institutions, by level of degree and sex of student: Selected years, 1869–70 through 2019–20


Originally published at abitofhistoryblog.wordpress.com on September 27, 2017.