A Tribute to Womanhood

Welcome to "I Am Woman"...a tribute to all those women who had the courage and perseverance to stand up and fight for their rights. Thanks to those who came before us we enjoy a freedom unknown to women not too long ago. But, sadly, in many parts of the world, women continue to be repressed. In fact, even in this country there are women living today under the threat of violence...completely controlled by a violent spouse. Some may make it; others won't. Hopefully, one day ALL women will be free. May that day come soon.


Elena Lucrezia Cornara Piscopia

 (first woman to earn a doctoral degree)

She was born June 5, 1646 in Venice, Italy to a noble and intellectual Venetian family.  Her own grandfather had a library of nearly 2,000 volume, so it was at an early age, that Elena began her own studies even though women, at that time, were not encouraged to go to school.  It was a privilege reserved for men only. It was her father who began her training.

At the age of seven she began the study of Latin and Greek and soon became proficient in both languages.  She also mastered Hebrew, Spanish, Arabic, and French.  Her later studies included mathematics, the sciences, and she fell in love with theosophy and philosophy. And, she didn't focus all of her energies exclusively on books.  In fact, by the time she was seventeen, she could sing, compose music, and was adept at playing the violin, harp, clavichord, and the harpsichord.

Elena was not only brilliant, she was also beautiful, and she had any number of suitors. But marriage was the farthest thing from the young scholars mind.  She turned down marriage proposals and took a vow of chastity, and when she came of age, she wanted to enter the Benedictine Order, but her father refused permission.  Instead, he sent her to the University of Padua to further her studies.  

Because she had never experienced university life (no school at the time admitted women for advanced studies), her preparation in the highest disciplines of philosophy and theology were comparable to that of any man schooled at a university.  And, by now, she had gained a reputation throughout Europe for her intellect.  In fact, foreign visitors sought her out for demonstrations of her learning. There was one occasion in 1677, while in the presence of the entire college, that she held a philosophical debate in Greek and Latin.  This demonstration prepared the way for her to receive a degree in theology, but that effort was blocked because of her sex. Eventually, she received a degree in philosophy instead.  In addition to the degree, she received the doctor's ring, the teacher's cape, and the poet's laurel crown.

So, at the age of 32, Elena had become the first woman in the world to receive a doctorate degree...and the university did not offer another degree to a woman for another seventy years. After receiving her degree, she spent the last seven years of her life focusing on learning and ministering to the poor.  She died on July 26, 1684 of tuberculosis.  She was only 38 years old.

In memory of this remarkable woman, her likeness was created on a stained glass window at Vassar College, and she is immortalized in a statue at the university from which she received her degree.  For many years, she was considered a phenomenon as the time and place in which she lived had no way of explaining her, but the amazed opinions of her many admirers go to show how far women had to come before casting off their intellectual shackles. 

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