I missed the anniversary of Elisabetta Caminer Turra’s death by a couple days, but that’s no reason not to commemorate her today. She died on June 7, 1796, of complications related to breast cancer. Her doctors contended that the cancer was initiated by a blow to the chest. There must be a story there that is now lost to time. In a letter from February 21, 1796, Elisabetta dictated, “For nearly two months now I have been unable to get out of bed.”
But who is this generally unknown woman that I’m remembering today, and why should you care about her?
Elisabetta Caminer Turra was an early journalist and editor who championed writing by and for women. Born July 29, 1751, she profited from the Enlightenment, as the door creaked open slightly to allow women a place among scholars. Elisabetta’s father encouraged her to forage in his books and work alongside him as he compiled and edited a range of periodicals. When she was but 19, she wrote to a fellow scholar, “I am at an age and in a situation that do not allow me to hope for mediocre knowledge, to say nothing of great learning, and yet I am full of desire to cultivate my mind.” She dabbled in writing poetry, copied manuscripts for her father, a successful editor, and then became a skilled translator of works into French. She went on to oversee productions of some of these translations, though she wrote about the idea of penning plays herself, “I will never have the temerity to have a work of mine performed if I think it bad or mediocre.”
Believing stridently in women’s education, Elisabetta also thought it was about time that women became more than mere ornaments for men. “It is pitiful to see how gallant women torture themselves to invent fantastic decorations and to look like frauds or something worse,” she wrote. Elisabetta proposed such ideas before Mary Wollstonecraft published her A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. In fact, in 1792 Elisabetta announced its publication in her Nuovo giornale enciclopedico d’Italia. “Her book proves for the millionth time that women might deserve the honor of being considered part of the human race,” she wrote. Do you notice a hint of exasperation in her tone?
Of course, Elisabetta experienced criticism and censure from some male scholars, as did any women venturing into the literary world at that time. Carlo Gozzi and Cristoforo Venier in particular attacked her audacity and lack of formal education, in spite of the fact that women were not allowed to attend the university. Others claimed she wasn’t feminine enough as she entered this “man’s” world. (Can I just insert a GRRRR! here?) She even had a portrait done that made her look more feminine (see it above). I go into more detail about these pressures in my chapter on Elisabetta in A Beautiful Woman in Venice.
At a time when women couldn’t access most of academia, Elisabetta’s editing and journalism provided informal albeit important education for scores of women. “Journals were the principal means by which most readers obtained access to new ideas,” points out Catherine Sama, who writes about Elisabetta’s contributions. Calling for more women to educate themselves and share their great minds, Elisabetta declared, “There is no reason for us to hide ourselves.” Despite women’s progress, this still rings true today.