Note: This post was originally titled “Who was the First Female Professor?”, based on my reading at the time that said it was Laura Bassi. However, this was false, as a benevolent Anonymous pointed out in the comments. Sorry for any confusion and misinformation. The very first female professor was the multitalented Beatriz Galindo from 15th century Spain, where she taught at the University of Salamanca. Nevertheless, Bassi was still hugely influential, so this post will remain as a mini-biography of her.
The physicist Laura Bassi (1711-1778) became one of the first women to take a teaching position at a university in Europe in 1732, at the University of Bologna, Italy. She was a rolemodel for the burgeoning feminist movement of the time that was trying to get more women in science, especially in Germany and France.
While we know relatively little of what she accomplished scientifically (to my knowledge, we have no archives of her works), we know that she was a central character in the cultured ccircles of the time: she was admired by such people as Voltaire, corresponded with Alessandro Volta, Charles Bonnet, Paolo Frisi, among others, and her students included Alessandro Spallanzani.
Her scientific work includes experiments on gravity – Newtonian physics had just started to percolate into Italian academic circles – and its effects. In fact, it wouldn’t be hyperbolic to credit the dissemination of Newtonian ideas in Italy as mostly due to her. As of the 1760s, Bologna was one of the leading centers for research on eletricity thanks to her as well.
As I said, not much has survived of her published work. Besides ~50 theses and dissertations, we have five books from her, but these are apparently nowhere near being representative of the breadth of her work. That said, it is generally agreed that her fame is not solely due to her scientific prowess but also due to her having spearheaded the 18th century incorporation of women in academic circles. Nowhere was this movement as active as in Italy, and Laura Bassi exploited this to full effect. Women were already being viewed by most as capable of philosophising – it’s hard to imagine a time when women were thought of as incapable of independent thought, but such a time really existed not that long ago! – and were being actively encouraged by many of the contemporary and progressive philosophers/scientists of the time to join in on discussions, enroll at universities, etc. The women’s education movement was also starting to gain ground, with many arguments put forward by prominent philosophers to start including the sciences among the things women were educated in.
It was in this social climate that Laura Bassi came into. In Italy, it was perfect for a smart woman and always has been, since the Renaissance. Not so elsewhere: in France for example, women of the time were just housewives or prostitutes and were not allowed in universities. Laura Bassi, with her being offered professorship, was a sort of wake-up call to the rest of Europe to realise that female brains are just as capable as male ones. This shouldn’t be underestimated either: we take the attitude of equality for granted now (despite still living in a misogynistic rape culture, but let’s not open that can of worms lest some Oppressed Menz spot this post), but Laura Bassi demonstrated to the men that even though she had to take care of eight kids, teach and conduct experiments, she could manage and contribute significantly to the science world.
The call was heard throughout Europe and the women graduates started increasing in the following decades. Women had moved from being objects, to being allowed access to knowledge to finally being allowed active participation. And we can credit Laura Bassi for playing a significant role in allowing the last bit.