Women in Early Modern Academies: A Catholic Event

Like other professions, the academy has seen significant progress in gender equality over the last 50 years, but has not achieved equality. STEM discipline (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) and economics are largely male-dominated (Casad et al. 2021, Hengel 2017, Eberhardt et al. 2022), where men are over-represented in both the academic profession and publishing (Thelwall) Blade. 2020). Unusually, countries with higher overall levels of gender equality exhibit greater gender inequality in STEM (see, for example, Stoyet and Gerry 2018, 2020, and the papers cited there).

We have adopted this modern gender-equality paradox and studied the presence of women in pre-industrial scientific academies and universities to explore the historical roots of women’s participation in academia.

In the past, very few women were university professors or members of scientific academies. When we started our project to create a database of European scholars in the pre-industrial era, covering both universities and academies during the 1000-1800 period, we did not expect to find any women. Over the years of our project, we have a database of 56,000 manually encoded scholars from secondary sources, including 108 women. Although this is a very small number to handle any meaningful statistical estimate, there are several lessons to be learned from these 108 scholars (De la Croix and Vitale 2022).

Figure 1 Luisa de Medrano, professor at the University of Salamanca (1508). Details of a painting by Etienne Cibils Juan de Pereda

There have been women in academia since the first universities were established in the 11th century. Trotula de Ruggiero (Physician, Salerno) and Accursia (Law, Bologna) are two examples. While some of these figures may be more legendary than real, they are legends. More certain of the existence of a few female scholars of the 15th century; For example, Luisa de Medrano of Spain (Fig. 1).

The academies of science and art were not indifferent to the great scholarship of some women. As these academies expanded in the 17th and 18th centuries, some female scholars were selected as academics.

The women we have identified have not always held formal, full-time professorships at the university. Sometimes, they participate as substitute teachers or invited lecturers. In academies, they are sometimes elected members without the ability to attend meetings.

From the quantitative analysis of the data we have collected and the qualitative analysis we have performed on the biographies of most of the women in our database, we have created three results.

Publication of first concern. Calculating the quality of scholars from their publications in today’s (WorldCat) library catalog, we find that 84 women who have published some work are on average better than 20,984 published men. Figure 2 shows the potential density function of the publication-based measurement of human capital for both men and women. The average human capital is 3.91 for women and 2.85 for men. Such gaps may reflect inequality: for recruitment, a woman had to be significantly better than a middle-aged man to overcome negative attitudes about women, translated into additional publications here.

Figure 2 Probability Density Function of Publication-Based Human-Capital Index for Male and Female Academic Scholars

Second, as Nekoei and Sinn (2021) emphasize, women’s power has sometimes been a side effect of kinship: we find many wives, professors’ daughters, or women whose family networks were large and influential. The share of these married women is equal to that of the general population, but an unequal number of women remain childless. This may be partly explained by the fact that marriage has enabled them to continue their intellectual activity without being subjected to negative judgment by the community. Sometimes these scholars share their scholarly activities with their husbands, as in the case of Laura Bassi and Anna Morandi Manzolini of Bologna (Fig. 3). In the Protestant world, we have seen that women were often the helpers of their husbands, fathers or brothers (e.g., Maria Winkelman-Kirch). Despite their active participation in scientific discoveries, they have not been given a place of their own in academies or universities.

Figure 3 Morandi’s wax self-portrait brought with Brain; Poggy Museum, Bologna

Comments: Anna Morandi taught anatomy at the University of Bologna from 1756 to 1774. He was an internationally known physiological wax model (Photo: D. de la Croix).

A notable observation in our study is that most of the women we found were associated with Catholic organizations. Figure 4 shows the birthplaces of female professors (green) and educators (blue). Light colors indicate a weak link, such as being a corresponding member of an academy. Very few women were members of the Protestant organization: Eva Ekblad was the first woman to be admitted to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences to discover how alcohol could be made from potatoes. Ekaterina Romanovna Daszkova is associated with both the Royal Swedish Academy and Leopoldina. Hedwig Gustava Malmstein was mistakenly elected a full member of the Royal Physiographic Society in Lund, Sweden: the constitution states that only men can be members of society.

To explain the presence of these women in academic institutions, we first considered the autonomy of the institutions. Many protest universities in Germany were founded in a top-down fashion, with elementary universities such as Bologna and Paris rising from the bottom up. In Germany, the prince had more control and institutions made less autonomous and hostile decisions, such as welcoming women to a university. However, this does not explain why the English and Scottish academies were closed to women.

Figure 4 Birthplace of female educators

Note:: Blue: Educator. Green: Professors. Light color: weak link.

We assumed that religion could explain this difference between northern and southern Europe, and we examined the differences between religious communities. There is a tendency to think that Protestantism has brought a wave of modernity. This is only partially true. Luther is thought to have encouraged women’s emancipation by allowing them to attend school, and more women were educated in Protestant countries than in Catholic countries after the Reformation. However, we do know that education only covers the basics and there was little change towards liberation (Roper 1989).

Overall, Protestant social norms for women were not very different from Catholic norms. There were significant differences in the formal centralization of decision-making. The Catholic Church can regulate women’s participation in public spaces – and it can make exceptions, allowing these significant women to emerge. Women in the Protestant community were subject to the judgment and will of their husbands and fathers at home and it was difficult for them to gain visibility in public places.

Considering the reasons for this unusual pattern, we have also considered culture and theology. In particular, we note that Marian devotion is fundamental to Catholics but considered a form of idolatry among Protestants. Thus, Catholics have a role model for an inspiring woman, while Protestants are discouraged from paying special attention to her. For Catholics, Mary’s extraordinary gifts give her notoriety and consideration on an equal footing with men. The exceptional intellectual gifts of special women allow religious authorities to be exceptional and allow some women to become university professors. The intellectual exceptions of some women have given some religious and political authorities the opportunity to propagate their politics. This happens in the case of Charles III with Laura Bassi, Cardinal Lambartini (Professor in Bologna) and Maria Isidra Guzman (Professor in Alcala). So, the most believable difference for us is the ability of Catholic institutions to tolerate exceptions.

Finally, our data challenges the popular notion that the slightest difference between Northern and Southern Europe was driven by Protestantism. Nuno et al. (2022) showed that Protestant countries did not exhibit more growth-promoting types of marriage (as opposed to a view promoted in previous studies). Here we challenge the notion that Protestantism was necessarily more modern and more liberal than Catholicism, at least where the participation of women in high-tailed human capital is concerned.

Author’s Note: This project is funded by the European Research Council (ERC), under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation Program Grant Agreement No. 883033, “Has Elite Human Capital Trigger the Rise of the West? Insights from a new database of European scholars. ”We are grateful to David Cantoni for instructing us to think about the gender equality paradox.


Casad, BJ et al. (2021), “Gender inequality in academia: problems and solutions for female faculty in STEM”, Journal of Neuroscience Research 99 (1): 13-23.

De la Croix, D and M Vitale, (2022), “Women – Religion, Marriage, and Human Capital in European Academies Before 1800”, CEPR Discussion Paper No. 17229.

Eberhardt, M, G Facchini and V Rueda (2022), “Women are ‘hardworking’, men are ‘brilliant’: stereotyping in the economic job market”, VoxEU.org, 08 February.

Hengel, E (2017), “Evidence from Peer Reviews that Women Are Holded to Higher Standards”, VoxEU.org, 22 December.

Nekoei, A and F Sinn (2021), “The Origin of the Gender Gap”, VoxEU.org, 28 May.

Stoit, G. and DC Gerry (2018), “Gender-Equality Paradox in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Education”, Psychological science 29 (4): 581-593.

Thelwall, M and A Mas-Bleda, (2020), “A Gender Equality Paradox in Academic Publications: First-Writer Gender Inequality in Fields in Countries with High Proportion of Female First-Writer Journal Articles”, Quantitative science studies 1 (3): 1260–1282.

Palma, N, J Reis and L Rodrigues (2022), “Historical gender inequality does not explain comparative Western European development”, VoxEU.org, 27 February.

Roper, L. (1989), Holy Family: Reform Women and Morality in AugsburgClarendon Press.

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