Friday, July 27, 2018

Female Academics in the Eighteenth Century

I was alerted on Twitter that yesterday was the anniversary of the death of Elena Cornaro Piscopia - which is as fun a name to spell as it it is to pronounce, but alas, many are still unfamiliar with Elena.

Elena was a Venetian who, in 1678, was the first woman to receive her PhD.  Her doctorate was in Philosophy as her true love, Theology was deemed inappropriate for woman - baby steps toward progress, I suppose.  She was awarded it at the age of 32 which I personally think an excellent age to gain a PhD *wink*.  Elena's successes has made me wonder about female academics in the age of Enlightenment, though.  Sadly, sexism and gender division was still rampant during the so-called Age of Enlightenment and that unfortunately didn't produce many female academics.  However, that did mean the few to come out of the eighteenth century, were exceptional women indeed.

Dr Laura Bassi, was another Italian woman who earned her PhD in 1732.  Unlike Elena, Laura was interested in the Sciences, more specifically, Physics.  She defended her thesis at the age of 20 (!), becoming the second woman to hold a doctorate, 54 years after Elena.  She devoted much of her academic career to spreading the study of Newtonian mechanics to Italy.  In 1776, at the age of 65, she applied and was appointed to the chair in experimental physics by the Bologna Institute of Sciences, making her the first woman to earn a professorship.  Perhaps the best part: her supportive husband, who also had his doctorate, became her teaching assistant.

The mathematician, Maria Gaetana Agnesi, like Laura Bassi, would also be elected to a chair.  In 1750 she became a professor of mathematics,natural philosophy, and  physics at the University of Bologna which was apparently a very forward-thinking university in the eighteenth century.  Maria was an amazing mathematician, the likes of which I could never convey as someone who struggles with basic arithmetics.

If you're not Italian and starting to feel ashamed for your country of origins' historic lack of female empowerment in academia, have no fear, there is one more female academic.  Oh wait...she's Italian too.

Dr Maria Pellegrina Amoretti was awarded her Doctor of Law at the University of Pavia at the age of 20 (!) in 1777.  She initially applied to the University of Turin but was turned away because of her sex - get with the times, Turin!  Sadly, she only lived for a decade more after receiving her degree but in that time she worked on dowry laws, meaning she used her privileged position to help make other women's lives better.

Friday, July 13, 2018

British and French Print Media's and the Death of Marat

On this day in 1793 a young French woman named Charlotte Corday sought a meeting with the prominent French revolutionary, Jean-Paul Marat, promising information on an future uprising.  After being turned away in the morning, Corday was admitted in the evening to Marat's bathroom, where he conducted business now due to a debilitating skin disease that kept him submerged in his bathtub.  Corday recited the names of dissidents while Marat wrote them down, proclaiming that they would soon be guillotined.  This was Corday's cue; she drew out a kitchen knife hidden in her clothing and stabbed Marat in his chest, killing him almost instantly.  She then calmly waited for the police to apprehend her and was guillotined four days later.

Corday hoped that this act of violence would put an end to the violence of the French Revolution which she felt was now out of hand.  She blamed Marat for the excessive and repulsive bloodshed and she was not alone in this sentiment.  A search in the British Museum's collection of prints reveals a stark contrast in how France and Britain interpreted the assassination. 

Anonymous, 1793

Paul André Basset, 1793

Corday is often portrayed in French prints as a savage (though well-dressed) beast of a woman.
Isaac Cruikshank, 1793

William Holland, 1793

Whereas in British prints she is often depicted as a pretty young woman stabbing a buffoon.  One example is my favourite image of Corday, by James Gillray which portrays her with the dignity and grace of an eighteenth-century heroine. 

There are many depictions of the event by French and British printmakers that survive and of course, not all of them can fit within these two categories.  Notably this French print which is thought to have been printed a few years after the dust had settled and seems to give an accurate representation of Corday's arrest.  She sits patiently, next to victim while men rush in to apprehend her.

Jacques Swebach-Desfontaines, c. 1793-8