Elena Cornaro Piscopia, that’s who. The first woman in the world to earn a university degree was from Venice.
I’ve read that some others have been named as the first woman to earn a degree, and I came across an article that outlined the competitors for the title: “Learned Women of Early Modern Italy: Humanists and University Scholars” by Paul Oskar Kristeller.
Novella d’Andrea, daughter of Giovanni, a professor of canonical law at the University of Bologna, sometimes presented her father’s lectures at the university, when he was ill or otherwise occupied. While she may be one of the first women to lecture at a university, she never was granted a degree. In a 1521 book titled “The Boke of the Cyte of Ladyes” it tells that her father “sent Nouvelle his doughter in his place to rede to ye scolers in ye chayre and to ye entente ye her beaute sholde not hurte ye thought of them she taughte she had a lytell curtyne before her and by such manere she fullylled (sic) ye occupacyons of her fader.” I guess the “scolers” were not safe from her good looks and needed a curtain to shield them so they could concentrate on their studies.
There is a Trotula who taught in a school of medicine in Salerno and supposedly composed a work on gynecology in the eleventh or twelfth century. But there is not enough solid evidence to prove that “Trotula” was a real person. She may have been an amalgam of a few people or even a title for a position rather than the name of a person. As early as 1307, there is evidence of women who were granted licenses to treat people for specific diseases, but they didn’t apparently have university degrees. Another interesting woman of note is Costanza Calenda, who held a doctor of medicine title from Salerno in 1422. Yet Kristeller argues that this university wasn’t fully organized or accredited like Padua was, so her accomplishment doesn’t fit the same definition as that of Elena Cornaro Piscopia.
We also have Alessandra Scala, who attended courses at the University of Florence, but she never attained a degree. It looks like our Venetian still holds the precedent. On June 25, 1678, Elena Cornaro Piscopia stood before her examiners and, in Latin, answered their questions on Aristotle’s Posterior Analytics and his Physics. They awarded her a degree in philosophy, though her initial wish was to garner one in theology. There was no question of a woman earning a theology degree because it would have allowed her to teach, and that possibility was absolutely forbidden. Elena remained the only woman to earn such a degree until 1732 when Maria Caterina Laura Bassi earned a degree in philosophy from the university in Bologna.
Venetian women may not have had many opportunities outside of marriage or the convent, but Elena Cornaro set a precedent that women could be every bit as erudite as men. An ermine mantle was place on her shoulders and a laurel wreath on her head.
Palazzo Loredan on the Grand Canal, Elena’s home.