1158: Bettisia Gozzadini
First Known Woman to Have Taught at a University
Born: 1209, Bologna, Papal States (Present-day Bologna, Italy)
Died: 2 November 1261, Bologna, Papal States (Present-day Bologna, Italy)
Bettisia taught at the University of Bologna after obtaining a law degree. She was reportedly so skilled as an orator that she quickly outgrew her lecture hall and had to give speeches in crowded stadiums instead. When one of the most prominent members of Bolognese society died, Bettisia was asked to give his funeral eulogy.
According to Fulbright Year Italy (article linked below): According to reports, Gozzadini showed such intellectual promise from such an early age that scholars from the university approached her and encouraged her to earn a doctorate in law. Later, she turned down the university’s first offer to teach before finally agreeing to head her own studium. Unlike the feminist heroes of the 20th and 21st centuries, Gozzadini did not need to claw or “lean” her way into a man’s world; they practically begged her to join them.
However, things were not as easy as it might seem for her on the surface. Bettisia attended classes as a student dressed as a man, and after she became a teacher, she at first lectured from behind a curtain so as not to be a distraction to her students.
Bettisia died when her house on the riverbanks collapsed on her in a flood. The city was so stunned by her untimely death the entire community went into mourning, and lessons at the university were suspended for a day in order to honor her.
Today, Bettisia’s bust is held in a museum in Bologna. Hers is one in a series of several prominent Bolognese women from the 13th to 18th centuries.
Little else of Bettisia’s life story is known today, which is to be expected given how long ago she lived. Unfortunately this leaves many questions about Bettisia and her life which will most likely never be answered.