Laura Bassi (1711-1778) was an Italian experimental physicist and the first woman to graduate from the University of Bologna. If you’ve read about her before, you’ll know she was Bologna’s first female professor, who received her degree and a professorship at the age of 21.
Histories tend to gloss over the actual struggle that Bassi went through as a female intellectual in 18th century Italy (where, incidentally, the idea of a woman being paid to say smart things was all-too-reminiscent of 16th C Venetian courtesans). I recently read a history of Bassi by Stanford historian Paula Findlen. In the article, she outlines how Bassi’s body in many ways defined the very knowledge people thought she could produce. At the beginning of her career, she was seen as the “virgin doctor” — pure and almost boyish to reflect the “masculine” mind that could engage in scholarly pursuits. Yet as her fame grew, she accumulated male admirers from her famous salon conversations:

For many eighteenth-century male scholars, the idea of sharing knowledge with women was an implicitly and profoundly erotic undertaking.

That was decidedly not good for her reputation. Her image was no longer compatible with the idea of the scholarly “virgin doctor” — so in 1738 she openly discarded the V-card, and got married. This, too, was shocking to the Italian public:

The incongruity of a learned woman marrying produced more than one joyful satire of the sex life of a woman philosopher. Lascivious poems joked about the toga-clad babies Bassi would produce, speaking Latin from the cradle.

In other words, Bassi had to regulate the image of her body to maintain her reputation as a scholar. This was all in spite of her accomplishments as a physicist, and her many appointments to literary and scientific societies all over Italy. According to Findlen, “Bassi’s solution to the problem of her body was to take charge of her sexuality, defining it with the parameters of marriage in order to remove it from the world of public scandal” (p. 227).
In any case, I really liked this article & think Laura Bassi is amazing, so I wanted to write a thing about it.
Paula Findlen (2003), “The Scientist’s Body: The Nature of a Woman Philosopher in Enlightenment Italy.” In Lorraine Daston & Gianna Pomata (eds.) The Faces of Nature in Enlightenment Europe.

Laura Bassi (1711-1778) was an Italian experimental physicist and the first woman to graduate from the University of Bologna. If you’ve read about her before, you’ll know she was Bologna’s first female professor, who received her degree and a professorship at the age of 21.

Histories tend to gloss over the actual struggle that Bassi went through as a female intellectual in 18th century Italy (where, incidentally, the idea of a woman being paid to say smart things was all-too-reminiscent of 16th C Venetian courtesans). I recently read a history of Bassi by Stanford historian Paula Findlen. In the article, she outlines how Bassi’s body in many ways defined the very knowledge people thought she could produce. At the beginning of her career, she was seen as the “virgin doctor” — pure and almost boyish to reflect the “masculine” mind that could engage in scholarly pursuits. Yet as her fame grew, she accumulated male admirers from her famous salon conversations:

For many eighteenth-century male scholars, the idea of sharing knowledge with women was an implicitly and profoundly erotic undertaking.

That was decidedly not good for her reputation. Her image was no longer compatible with the idea of the scholarly “virgin doctor” — so in 1738 she openly discarded the V-card, and got married. This, too, was shocking to the Italian public:

The incongruity of a learned woman marrying produced more than one joyful satire of the sex life of a woman philosopher. Lascivious poems joked about the toga-clad babies Bassi would produce, speaking Latin from the cradle.

In other words, Bassi had to regulate the image of her body to maintain her reputation as a scholar. This was all in spite of her accomplishments as a physicist, and her many appointments to literary and scientific societies all over Italy. According to Findlen, “Bassi’s solution to the problem of her body was to take charge of her sexuality, defining it with the parameters of marriage in order to remove it from the world of public scandal” (p. 227).

In any case, I really liked this article & think Laura Bassi is amazing, so I wanted to write a thing about it.

Paula Findlen (2003), “The Scientist’s Body: The Nature of a Woman Philosopher in Enlightenment Italy.” In Lorraine Daston & Gianna Pomata (eds.) The Faces of Nature in Enlightenment Europe.

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    I’m always amazed at the ways women’s bodies are conceptualized in society.
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    I love how she took the idea of her virginity and said “HEY ITALY, FUCK YOU, I’M A GODDAMN SCIENTIST.”
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    Never heard of this person before. Fascinating.
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    Compare and contrast: then and now.
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