For International Women’s Day 2023, we look at thirteen 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.
Italy has a remarkable history of women excelling in their fields. Particular strength appears in STEM subjects with many firsts for women attained by Italians, which is reflected in this year’s theme of innovation and technology for gender equality.
Trotula of Salerno (11th and 12th centuries)
Trotula was one of the most famous physicians of the time and a pioneer in women’s health. She is considered the world’s first gynaecologist. She was also the first to believe that women should not suffer relentless pain during childbirth, advocating the use of opiates to dull labour pains.
Catherine of Siena (1347 – 1380)
One of two patron saints of Italy, Catherine of Siena was a scholastic philosopher and theologian. She also acted as an ambassador and counsellor to Popes Gregorio XI and Urbano VI. Along with being responsible for bringing back the Pope to Rome, she is one of only three women saints declared Doctor of the Church.
Artemisia Lomi Gentileschi (1593 – 1653)
The first female painter to become a member of the Accademia di Arte del Disegno in Florence. This was at a time when women did not have the possibility of studying anatomy or drawing from life. Gentileschi is considered one of the most accomplished painters in the generation after Caravaggio.
Elena Cornaro Piscopia (1646 -1684)
Piscopia was a Venetian mathematician and the first woman in the world to officially receive a university degree. She graduated from Padua university in 1678.
Laura Bassi (1711 – 1778)
Bassi was an Italian physicist and academic. She was the first woman to have a doctorate in science and the second woman in the world to earn the Doctor of Philosophy degree.
Maria Gaetana Agnesi (1718 – 1799)
Credit goes to Agnesi for writing the first book discussing both differential and integral calculus. She was an honorary member of the faculty at the University of Bologna.
Virginia Oldoïni (1837 – 1899)
Oldoïni – Countess of Castiglione – was active in politics. In 1871, just after the defeat of France in the Franco-Prussian War, she had a secret meeting with Otto von Bismarck. She explained to him how the German occupation of Paris could be fatal to his interests. La Castiglione was also a significant figure in the early history of photography.
Maria Montessori (1870 – 1952)
Montessori was a physician and educator best known for the philosophy of education that bears her name, and her writing on scientific pedagogy. One of the first women to attend medical school in Italy, she graduated with honours in 1896.
Grazia Deledda (1871 – 1936)
Deledda won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1926 and one of the leading figures of the verism movement in literature. The first Italian woman, and only the second in the world to receive the award, others do not acknowledge Deledda as a feminist writer. This may be due to her tendency of depicting women’s pain and suffering as opposed to women’s autonomy.
Rita Levi Montalcini (1909 – 2012)
Rita Levi-Montalcini was a neurologist and one of Italy’s leading scientists. Alongside biochemist Stanley Cohen, she received the 1986 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their discovery of nerve growth factor (NGF). Their discovery plays a significant role in understanding cancers and diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
Nilde Iotti (1920 – 1999)
A member of the Italian Communist Party (PCI), Iotti was the first and only woman member of the PCI to become President of the Chamber of Deputies. She held the office for three consecutive legislatures from 1979 to 1992, becoming the longest-serving post-war President of the Chamber.
Samantha Cristoforetti (1977)
Cristoforetti is a European Space Agency astronaut, former Italian Air Force pilot and engineer. She holds the record for the longest uninterrupted spaceflight by a European astronaut (199 days, 16 hours). She is also the first Italian woman in space. Cristoforetti took command of ISS Expedition 68 in 2022.
Giorgia Meloni (1977)
Italy’s first 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, and she has been the president of the European Conservatives and Reformists Party since 2020.
In 2022, according to Forbes, Meloni was the seventh most powerful woman in the world.