The modern feminist movement has a long history and a sometimes checkered past and present. Some say it began in the Garden of Eden with Eve’s suggestion being taken up by the whimpish Adam. The ancient Greek dramatist, Aristophanes, in his play Lysistrata, exposes the control women could exercise in a male-dominated society. It is unfortunate that today’s millennial women think that the feminist movement began with them or that it is monolithic in its ideology. It would behoove them to look beyond themselves to history to find the origins of their diverse principles and causes. The Temperance movement, the Suffragettes, and the abolition of slavery are some of the campaigns taken up by women in history. Most of the causes were and are for equal rights for women even though there have been different goals and intentions. Some not as noble as they pretend. Culture and theory differ according to time and place.
Not to be ignored are three “protofeminists” of the seventeenth century. Little known and none to praise, they nevertheless, astounded the male dominated intellectual society of their time with their brilliance and competence. One was the first woman to be awarded a Doctor of Laws, another was the first woman to earn the degree of Doctor of Philosophy and a third was the first woman to attend classes at a university. Even though they were contemporaries, and did not know each other, each chose to seek solitude in religious life. For them, there was something more than the accolades that accompany worldly success. To them, how to achieve the eternal crown, not the temporal one, was the important goal. Contemporary feminists would do well to recognize and respect the choices of these pioneering women who won the acclaim of male institutions yet chose lives of spiritual devotion and service to others.
In seventeenth-century Europe life was difficult. The Thirty Years’ War had seen the death of approximately eight million people; famine and religious persecutions abounded. But even in the center of this maelstrom Louis XIV of France had ushered in the Grand Siècle. Spain experienced the final development of its magnificent Siglo de Oro and in Italy the Seicento saw the patronizing of the arts and architecture, the Baroque era with its advancement of Italian science, philosophy, and technology. The seventeenth century was also considered the Dutch Golden Age. Names like Galileo, Kepler, Caravaggio, Stradivarius, Rembrandt, and Vermeer were in the ascendancy. In philosophy, Descartes, Pascal, and Spinoza among others dominated the age.
The educational system in Europe at the time provided opportunities for boys from wealthy households to attend institutes of higher learning. Girls, on the other hand, were taught by tutors if they were from the upper classes. If not, then the girls received their education from their mothers as was handed down to them from their mothers. But things were changing.
Six years before the turn of the century in 1594 in Barcelona, Spain, a baby girl was born to an upper class Spanish family. The baby, named Juliana, was left motherless at a very young age. She was placed under the tutelage of the Dominican sisters in Barcelona. Following the custom of the time, her education was continued at home by tutors, where she learned Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. When she was eight years old, her father, Morell, was involved in a serious incident that led to the allegation of murder. He fled to Lyon, France, and took his daughter with him. Here she continued her studies in rhetoric, dialectics, ethics, and music. At a very young age she publicly defended her thesis on ethics and dialectics reaching the level of summa cum laude. Morell then moved his daughter to Avignon where she continued her studies in metaphysics and canon and civil law. It was his wish that Juliana obtain her law doctorate. This she did in 1608 at the University of Avignon, which was founded by Boniface VIII in 1303. She defended her thesis in the law at the papal palace of the vice-legate before a distinguished audience and became the first woman to achieve this distinction. Her accomplishment was immortalized by the poet Lope de Vega, a fellow Spaniard.
The same year Juliana received her Doctor of Laws degree she eschewed marriage and entered the convent of Sainte-Praxède at Avignon. In 1609 she received the habit of the order and the following year in June she took her vows. She gave up wealth and status to spend her time in prayer and study. Juliana died in 1653 leaving behind many writings; among them are: Vita Spiritualis of Vincent Ferrer, Exercices spirituels sur l’éternité, the French translation of the Rule of St. Augustine with additional instructions, a history of the reform of the convent of St. Praxedis, including the lives of some of her follow religious, and Latin and French poems. In the convent she was noted for her piety and humility and was much loved by her fellow religious.
On year prior to Juliana Morell receiving her Doctor of Laws degree, 1607 in Cologne, Germany, Anna Maria van Schurman was born to wealthy Dutch parents, Frederik of Schurman and Eva von Harff de Dreiborn. They had left Antwerp due to religious conflicts as they were devout Calvinists. When she was six years of age, the family moved to Utrecht, and then again when she was sixteen, they moved to Franeker in Friesland. Once again, in keeping with the tradition of the time, Anna Maria was tutored at home by her father. What was unusual was that she was educated along with her brothers in the classics. But her education in the usual female subjects was not ignored, expanding her knowledge in both areas. Her father died when she was nineteen and the family returned to Utrecht.
The University of Utrecht opened in 1636 and Anna Maria was asked to write a Latin poem for the occasion. The theme of the poem was about the exclusion of woman from university studies. Her complaint was successful because she was admitted as the first female student provided that she attended classes behind a curtain so as not to distract the male students. She followed classes in theology, medicine, and humanities while showing great facility in languages, including exotic tongues. She excelled in at least fourteen languages, including Dutch, German, French, English, Italian, Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, Syriac, Samaritan, Persian, and Ethiopian. Her knowledge of early languages aided in her study of theology and scripture—her great love. She, too, was immortalized in poetry. This time by Christiaan Huygens, the Dutch scientist and scholar, who wrote a Latin poem in praise of her.
Because of her great intellect and facility with languages Anna Maria became the correspondent of many intellectuals across Europe. René Descartes visited her in Utrecht in 1640 and they became friends even though they disagreed on religious matters. Anna Maria published many writings including: On the End of Life, The Learned Maid/Whether a Maid may be a Scholar, Opuscula Hebraea, Graeca, Latina, Gallica: prosaica adque metrica (her collected works), and Eucleria, or Choosing the Better Part.
Her work, Choosing the Better Part, was an explanation of why she left the intellectual community and the fame her ideas and writings brought her. At a young age she had promised her father on his death bed that her life’s theme would be “My love is crucified.” She first spent twenty years caring for her two elderly, blind aunts and then joined the Labadists, a newly formed contemplative religious group. In this group the practice of piety was paramount. It was founded by the Pietist Jean de Labadie, a Jesuit who had converted to Protestantism, and who was intrigued by Jansenism and drawn to Calvinism. For five years, from 1652 to 1657, he was pastor and professor of theology at Montauban in southern France, and after that served as a pastor in Geneva. It was in Geneva that he began to draw followers. Anna Maria became intrigued with his ideas, joined the group and became one of his most faithful disciples. They were exiled from various cities but finally settled in Wieuwerd in Friesland. Anna Marie died in Wieuwerd in 1678.
Ten years after the opening of the University of Utrecht, June 1646, in the Republic of Venice, Elena Cornaro Piscopia was born in the Palazzo Loredan. She was the third child of Giovanni Battista Cornaro-Piscopia and his wife Zanetta Boni. Giovanni Battista held the high office of Procurator of St. Mark’s and because of his position he came into contact with many European scholars. Through the efforts of a priest friend of the family, Elena began to study Latin and Greek at a very early age. Her instructors tutored her in French, Spanish, Hebrew, and Arabic. Because of her linguistic accomplishments she was given the title of “Oraculum Septilingue” (master/oracle of seven languages). She also studied mathematics, philosophy, and theology. At the age of nineteen she became a Benedictine Oblate which allowed her to keep the monastic rule while still living in society. She also spent time translating the writing of a Spanish Carthusian monk into Italian (Dialogue between Christ Our Redeemer and a Devoted Soul).
As her fame spread she was invited to take part in many scholarly societies including the Accademia dei Pacifici (Academy of the Peaceful). Her philosophy tutor had recommended that she be given the opportunity to defend for her degree in theology from the University of Padua. When the Archbishop of Padua as the chancellor of the university and the one who would confer degrees learned of this, he immediately refused on the grounds that she was a woman. She then proceeded to defend in philosophy. Her presentation was to be in the University Hall of the University of Padua but due to the great numbers who wished to attend, it was changed to Padua’s Cathedral of the Blessed Virgin. Before the College of Doctors of Arts and Medicine, she defended on Aristotle’s Posterior Analytics and Physics. Elena spoke in classical Latin, explicating the two Aristotelian passages that were chosen at random. Standing before most of the Venetian Senators, and many invited guests from other universities, on June 25, 1678 she was awarded the laurea—the placing of the laurel wreath on her head, the ring on her finger and the ermine mozetta on her shoulders—all symbols of Magistra et Doctrix Philosphiae, her extraordinary achievement.
Elena, like Anna Maria Schurman, attracted scholars and noblemen from all over Europe. However, for many years she had been secretly serving the poor, the sick, the orphans and all in need. She retired from public life to continue her works of charity and to be faithful to her religious obligations as an Oblate of St. Benedict. She died at the age of 38 from tuberculosis and her funeral was attended by thousand of people who lined the road of the cortege. The citizens of Padua and Venice expressed great sorrow as her coffin passed by. “The saint is dead” was the cry in the streets.
Unlike her two “learned sisters” there is no record of Elena Cornaro ever being immortalized by a famous poet. However, her memory is perpetuated in the West Wing of the Thompson Memorial Library of Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York. The main stained glass window depicts the diminutive Elena Cornaro Piscopia defending her thesis before the great scholars and doctors of Europe. Unfortunately, many of her manuscripts were dispersed. What remains of her prolific writings are her translations from the Spanish, Italian, Latin, and Greek, some of her poems, and her surviving letters written in various languages. The story of her life was written by a Vassar graduate, Jane Howard Guernsey who wrote The Lady Cornaro: Pride and Prodigy of Venice. A review of the book was featured in Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature (Vol. 19, No. 1, Spring 2000). The Museo Civico Padua has a portrait of Lady Cornaro by the sculptor Jacobus Franciscus Cassionus. The legend in Latin reads:
Think not this is a portrait of Minerva
You have the name inscribed: none the less you will
Be as many-eyed as Argus.
Helena Lucretia Cornaro Piscopia, laurel-endowed in Philosophy at Padua, in the year 1678, June 25, by Carolo Renaldo, Philosopher and first ranking Professor.
For her Tercentenary (1975) the University of Pittsburgh published a book in her honor which featured a mural of Dr. Cornaro-Piscopio along with the symbols of her learning.
Historians regard the seventeenth century as the very beginning of the Modern Age. Perhaps this is so, marked by the settlements in the New World such as the permanent settlement at Jamestown (1607) and the Plymouth Colony settlement (1620). The intellectual feats achieved by Juliana Morell, Anna Maria van Schurman, and Elena Cornaro Piscopia introduced their own “modern age.” All three coupled their intellectual prowess with a spiritual hunger. The feminists of our own time would do well to realize that the past is prologue. They, in a way, stand “on the shoulders of giants” and should recall Ecclestiastes: “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. Is there anything of which one can say, ‘Look! This is something new?’ It was here already, long ago, it was here before our time” (1:9-11).
Editor’s note: Pictured above, from left to right, are Juliana Morell, Elena Cornaro Piscopia, and Anna Maria van Schurman.