Celebrating Italian women

International Women’s Day 2024 – Groundbreaking Italian Women

Culture News

For International Women’s Day 2024, we look at 18 Italian women who made an impact in Italy and abroad. From science and mathematics to literature and politics, each of these women made important contributions to their field.

The campaign theme for International Women’s Day 2024 is Inspire Inclusion. The IWD website says, “When we inspire others to understand and value women’s inclusion, we forge a better world.

“And when women themselves are inspired to be included, there’s a sense of belonging, relevance, and empowerment.”

Historical Figures

Despite historical attitudes, many Italian women not only worked in ‘unexpected’ areas, they also were top in their fields, regardless of gender.

These are some of history’s impactful Italian women:

Hortensia (Law)

Hortensia one of the greatest Italian women. A Roman lawyer.

Believed to be the first female lawyer in history, Hortensia defied societal expectations in ancient Rome and paved the way for future generations of women in law.

Hortensia was the daughter of the Roman orator Quintus Hortensius. She is known for her speech in 42 BC, in which she pleaded with the Roman triumvirate to spare the lives of the women of Rome.

Her speech is considered to be one of the earliest examples of a woman speaking in public in a political context.

Matilda of Tuscany (Ruler)

Also known as “The Great Countess,” Matilda was a powerful ruler in medieval Italy who defied Holy Roman Emperors and championed cultural advancements.

Matilda was the daughter of Boniface of Tuscany and Beatrice of Lorraine. She ruled over Tuscany and parts of Lombardy from 1076 to 1115.

She was also a key ally of Pope Gregory VII in the conflict between the papacy and the Holy Roman Empire. Furthermore, she was a patron of the arts and sciences.

Artemisia Gentileschi (Art)

Artemisia Gentileschi , a leading Italian woman in the world of art

A groundbreaking artist in the 17th century, Gentileschi overcame sexism in the art world to become one of the most respected painters of her time.

Artemisia Gentileschi was the daughter of the painter Orazio Gentileschi. She was one of the most successful female painters of the Baroque period.

Her paintings are known for their dramatic use of light and shadow, and their strong female subjects. Artemisia was the victim of rape, and her experience of sexual violence is reflected in some of her paintings.

Trotula of Salerno (Medicine)

A female physician in the 11th and 12th centuries, Trotula was a pioneer in women’s health and education.

She is the author of several medical texts, including the Trotula, which was one of the most widely read medical textbooks in Europe for centuries.

Her work focused on women’s health and childbirth, and she was one of the first physicians to write about the importance of hygiene.

Catherine of Siena (Social Justice)

Catherine of Siena, a leading Italian woman

A mystic and political activist in the 14th century, Catherine played a key role in the Catholic Church and advocated for peace and social justice.

She was a member of the Dominican Order, and played a key role in the Catholic Church during the Great Schism. Also a strong advocate for peace and social justice, she was canonised as a saint in 1461.

Elena Cornaro Piscopia (Philosophy)

Elena Cornaro Piscopia was a remarkable Venetian philosopher who achieved a historic first in the academic world. In 1678, Piscopia became one of the first women to ever receive a degree from a university. Notably, she was the very first woman to be awarded a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) degree.

She was known for her intellectual talents, having a strong foundation in philosophy and theology.  She was also multilingual and accomplished in music, playing several instruments.

Her doctoral thesis defence at the University of Padua drew a huge crowd, a testament to the groundbreaking nature of the event.

Laura Bassi (Science and Mathematics)

Laura Bassi as Minerva

The first woman to earn a doctorate in physics and mathematics in the 18th century, Bassi challenged gender stereotypes and became a respected professor.

Recognised as the first woman to earn a doctorate in science, she became a respected academic and is credited with popularising Newtonian mechanics in Italy.

Bassi defied the educational restrictions of her time. As a woman, she couldn’t attend university, yet through private instruction and public demonstrations of her knowledge, she earned the respect of the academic community and secured a prestigious professorship at the University of Bologna.

Maria Gaetana Agnesi (Mathematics and Philosophy)

A mathematician and philosopher in the 18th century, Agnesi wrote influential textbooks and promoted the education of women.

Agnesi made significant contributions to the field of calculus. She is best known for her work on the “versiera di Agnesi,” a curve that is now named after her.

Agnesi was also the first woman to hold a chair of mathematics at a university. She was appointed to the position at the University of Bologna in 1750, a groundbreaking achievement that paved the way for other women to pursue careers in mathematics.

Virginia Oldoïni (Photography)


A noblewoman and political figure in the 19th century, Oldoini gained notoriety as the mistress of Emperor Napoleon III of France.  However, her influence went beyond the bedroom. She is believed to have used her connection with the emperor to advocate for Italian unification, a significant political movement of the time.

Beyond her political manoeuvring, Oldoini was a major figure in the early days of photography. She actively collaborated with photographers, particularly Pierre-Louis Pierson, meticulously controlling her image through poses, costumes, and even retouching negatives. This level of artistic direction earned her recognition as a pioneer in photographic self-representation.

Modern Figures

As we can see, women have been influential even in times when they were considered to be nothing more than chattels.

This has continued in the modern age with women leading the way in their fields. Some have smashed the glass ceiling to take top positions in government and their industries.

Maria Montessori (Education)

Maria Montessori

A physician and educator in the early 20th century, Montessori developed a revolutionary educational method that is still used today.

Maria Montessori started her career as a physician, even becoming one of the first women in Italy to do so. But her path took a fascinating turn when she began working with children with disabilities. This experience sparked her interest in education, and she developed her now-famous Montessori method.

The Montessori method emphasises self-directed learning in a carefully prepared environment. Montessori believed children have a natural drive to learn and explore. Her method provides them with the tools and freedom to do so at their own pace. This focus on child-centered learning has had a lasting impact on educational philosophies around the world.

Grazia Deledda (Literature)

An Italian novelist and short story writer, Deledda received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1926.

Known for novels that explore powerful emotions like love, loss, and death, her work is set in her native Sardinia. It reflects the region’s harsh landscape and strong social codes.

Her work is also considered to be influenced by literary movements like Verismo and Decadentism. However, it is also unique in its blend of realism and lyrical elements.

Nilde Iotti (Politics)

Nilde Iotti

A politician and women’s rights activist in the 20th century, Iotti was the first woman to become president of the Italian Chamber of Deputies.

Nilde Iotti was a pioneering figure in Italian politics. She held the position of president of the Chamber of Deputies for 13 years. Iotti was a member of the Italian Communist Party and played a key role in the country’s postwar political landscape.

She was also a staunch advocate for women’s rights. She was instrumental in the passage of several landmark laws, including the 1975 law that legalised divorce in Italy. Iotti was also a vocal critic of the Mafia and other forms of organised crime.

Margherita Hack (Astrophysics and Social Justice)

In addition to being a renowned astrophysicist, Margherita Hack was also a vocal activist for social justice.  She championed progressive causes like feminism, LGBTQ+ rights, and euthanasia. Her outspoken nature, particularly regarding her atheism, made her a controversial figure but also a powerful advocate for change.

Making scientific discoveries wasn’t Hack’s only driving force; she was also passionate about sharing her knowledge with the public.  She wrote popular science books and articles, and was a frequent guest speaker.  Her efforts to make astronomy accessible helped to ignite a love of science in countless people.

Rita Levi-Montalcini (Science)


A Nobel Prize-Winning neurobiologist, Levi-Montalcini’s most significant achievement was the discovery of Nerve Growth Factor (NGF). This protein plays a crucial role in the development, survival, and maintenance of nerve cells. This groundbreaking discovery earned her the 1986 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine,which she shared with Stanley Cohen.

Levi-Montalcini’s life and career were marked by both brilliance and perseverance.  Despite facing challenges due to her gender and the rise of fascism in Italy, she continued her research with unwavering dedication. This tenacity and passion for science ultimately led to her groundbreaking discoveries.

Samantha Cristoforetti (Space and Engineering)

Samantha Cristoforetti is a European Space Agency astronaut who holds several impressive records.  She holds the record for the longest uninterrupted spaceflight by a European astronaut (199 days). Previously, Cristoforetti held the record for the longest single space flight by a woman. 

Cristoforetti has achieved a number of ‘firsts’ throughout her career.  She is the first Italian woman in space and the first non-Russian to perform a spacewalk using the Orlan spacesuit in over a decade.  Furthermore, she became the first European commander of the International Space Station during Expedition 68.

Giorgia Meloni (Politics)

Giorgia Meloni in a red suit, who has expressed astonishment at a Catania court ruling

Italy’s first female Prime Minister, Giorgia Meloni won the General Election in 2022. A member of the Chamber of Deputies since 2006, she has led the Brothers of Italy (FdI) political party since 2014, the first woman to lead a major Italian political party.

She has been the president of the European Conservatives and Reformists Party since 2020.

According to Forbes, Meloni was the fourth most powerful woman in the world at the end of 2023.

Elly Schlein (Politics)

Schlein is secretary of the Democratic Party (PD) party with 54% of the vote, becoming the first woman to lead the party.

She graduated in law at the University of Bologna in 2011. From 2014 to 2019, Schlein was a Member of the European Parliament. Schlein is a member of Italy’s Chamber of Deputies and was previously the vice-president of Emilia-Romagna.

Alessandra Todde (Politics)

The new governor of Sardinia, Alessandra Todde is the first woman to hold the office.

An engineer with two degrees, she previously served as deputy head of the Five Star Movement. Todde also worked as deputy industry minister under Mario Draghi.

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