Religion and education have always been the main buttress of the patriarchy. These two forces are central to the idea of controlling the society. Ergo the forebearers of patriarchy made sure to stave off religion and education from female presence. Elena was the shieldmaiden who conquered the two fortresses and threw open their gates, to the upcoming generations of ladies. In history, she is known as ‘The first woman to receive a Ph.D. degree’.
Elena Cornaro Piscopia was born on 5 June 1646 in Venice, Italy (then, Republic of Venice). Hailing from a noble background, she showed an early aptitude for learning. Her education begun at home by the family priest, who taught her Philosophy and Theology. Other teachers were also called to teach her languages, arts, mathematics, sciences, astronomy and music. Her excellence in language was acknowledged by the title ‘Oraculum Septilingue’. Which means, she spoke and read seven languages- Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Spanish, French, Arabic and Chaldaic. At the age of 19, she was widely known as the most learned woman in Italy.
In the movie Dangal, there’s a very beautiful conversation between Geeta-Babita and their friend who is getting married. The sisters criticise their father for strenuously training them. To which their friend, unhappy about her marriage, replies- ‘what your father is forcing you for, will give you a life of freedom… unlike, what my father is forcing upon me.’
Elena’s life also went through a turning point, as in the movie. She took a secret vow of chastity at the age of 11, which she followed all her life. As she was grew up studying theology as a subject, at a point of time, she was so enthralled by the theology that she wanted to become a nun. She asked her father to give permission to do so. Her father, ascertained of her daughter’s intelligence, refused and told her to focus on her higher education. He sent her to the Universiry of Padua and bought her a house to live, near the university.
She continued her studies in theology and became matriculated from the university. She enjoyed her debates with the scholars. Her debates became widely famous across the Europe. In 1677 she held a debate in front of the entire university of padua. In the audience were many members from the senate of venice, respected citizens of venice and people from other parts of the continent. In this debate, she held her nerve against Doge of Venice (Duke of venice) and Fathers of church. This debate garnered him much fame. One year after this debate, she earned all the credits required to get a Ph.D. But the university did not award her the Ph.D. The bishop of Padua learned that she was studying theology. He refused on the grounds of her being a woman. The Roman Catholic Church thought the study of theology by women as improper.
This action of church received a strong criticism from members of the university. The senior members came up with an solution that, instead of theology the university can award her a Ph.D. in Philosophy. After a brilliant course in philosophy, Elena Cornaro Piscopia received her Phd in Philosophy. At the age of 32, she became the first documented woman in history to obtain a Ph.D.
She received her Doctorate on 25 June 1678. After that, she started teaching Mathematics at the University of Padua. She served academia in Padua till her last breath. And at the age of 38, she went to glory on the same day as today, 26 July, in 1684. She is an inspiration to all the women in the world, who are matching it neck to neck with men…