Every woman who's studied at university owes something to Elena Cornaro Piscopia, who became the first woman in the world to get an academic university degree, with her PhD in Theology, on this day, June 25, 1678.
Cornaro’s father, Giovanni Piscopia, was a nobleman. Her mother, Zanetta Boni, was a peasant and was not married to Giovanni at the time of Elena’s birth. When Elena was seven, a friend of her family, the priest Giovanni Fabris, encouraged her father to begin lessons for her in Greek and Latin. She later became fluent in French, Spanish, and Hebrew, and she also studied mathematics, astronomy, philosophy, music, and theology.
Upon the recommendation of Carlo Rinaldini, her tutor in philosophy, Felice Rotondi, her tutor in theology, petitioned the University of Padua to grant Cornaro the degree of doctor of theology. Gregorio Cardinal Barbarigo, the bishop of Padua, assumed that Cornaro was seeking a degree in philosophy and supported her pursuit of a degree. However, when he discovered that Cornaro sought a degree in theology, he refused to grant her the degree because she was a woman. He did allow her to pursue a doctor of philosophy degree, however. On June 25, 1678, because of the immense interest in Cornaro, her defense was held in the cathedral of Padua rather than at the university. Cornaro’s defense, which consisted of explaining two passages chosen at random from Aristotle, was successful, and she was presented with the traditional laurel wreath, ermine cape, gold ring, and book of philosophy.
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