Women in Early Modern University. The historical roots of the gender-equality paradox in academia

David de la Croix, LIDAM/IRES Université catholique de Louvain, Belgium




Mara Vitale, LIDAM/IRES Université catholique de Louvain, Belgium




Read the full paper here

This is an updated version of an article that appeared in VOX-CEPR. Cf. https://cepr.org/voxeu/columns/women-early-modern-academia-catholic-phenomenon.


Despite significant progress in gender equality in academia over the past 50 years, a gender imbalance persists in certain fields, particularly STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) and economics. Research has shown that men are overrepresented in both academic occupations and publications in these fields dominated (Casad et al. 2021, Hengel, 2017, Eberhardt et al. 2022). Interestingly, studies have also found that countries with high overall levels of gender equality often have greater gender disparities in STEM fields Stoet and Geary 2018, 2020, and related papers). In light of these findings, we have examined the presence of women in preindustrial scientific academies and universities in an effort to uncover the historical roots of women’s participation in academia and better understand this modern gender-equality paradox.

Historically, the representation of women in academia, particularly as university professors or members of scientific academies, has been limited. From a database of 59,000 scholars compiled from manual coding of secondary sources, we have identified 108 women. While this sample size is too small to allow for statistical analysis, these 108 scholars offer valuable insights (De la Croix and Vitale, EREH forthcoming).


Figure 1: Luisa de Medrano, Professor at the University of Salamanca (1508). Detail of a painting by Juan de Pereda, the Sibyls of Atienza

There have been women in academia since universities were first founded during the 11th century. Trotula de Ruggiero (physician, Salerno) and Accursia (law, Bologna) are two examples. Even though some of these figures might be more legendary than real, the fact that they are legends is telling. More certain is the existence of a few women scholars from the 15th century, for example Luisa de Medrano in Spain (Figure 1).

Academies of Sciences and Arts were not indifferent to the great erudition of some women. As these academies expanded in the 17th and 18th centuries, some women scholars were elected academicians.

The women we identified did not always hold formal, full professor positions in universities. Sometimes, they participated as a replacement teacher, or as an invited lecturer. In academies, they were sometimes elected members without the capacity to actually participate in the meetings.

From the quantitative analysis of the data we collected, and the qualitative analysis we conducted on the biographies of most of the women in our database, we made three findings.

The first concerns publications. Calculating the quality of the scholars from their publications in the catalogue of libraries today (Worldcat), we find that the 84 women who have published some work are on average better than the 24,014 published males. Figure 2 shows the probability density functions of the publication-based measure of human capital for both men and women.  The median human capital for women is 3.98, while it is 2.95 for men. Such a gap could reflect some discrimination: to be hired, a woman had to overcome negative views about women by being considerably better than the median man, translated here into additional publications.

Figure 2: Distribution of human capital: men vs. women. All (left), sciences and medicine (center), humanities (right)


Secondly, as already stressed by Nekoei and Sinn (2021), women’s power has sometimes been a side-effect of nepotism: we find many wives, daughters of professors, or women whose family network was very large and influential. The share of these women who married is about the same as in the general population, but a disproportionate share of the women remained childless. This can be partly explained by the fact that being married enabled them to continue their intellectual activity without being subjected to people’s negative judgments. In several cases these scholars shared their scholarly activity with their husband, for example Laura Bassi and Anna Morandi Manzolini in Bologna (Figure 3). In the Protestant world we found that women were often the assistants of their husbands, fathers or brothers (for example Maria Winkelmann-Kirch). Despite their active participation in scientific discoveries, they were never given a place in their own right in academies or universities.

Figure 3: Wax Self-Portrait of Anna Morandi with Brain, Poggi Museum, Bologna. Anna Morandi taught anatomy at the University of Bologna from 1756 to 1774. She was an internationally known anatomical wax modeler (photo: D. de la Croix).


A noteworthy observation in our research is that most of the women we found were affiliated with Catholic institutions. Figure 2 shows when institutions were created, their latitude, and what their religious affiliation was once Protestantism was introduced. The size of the points is proportional to the logarithm of the number of female members. In this picture, we exclude women for whom the link with the institution is “weak”: either there is some uncertainty about the existence of the affiliation, or the connection with the university or academy is distant, as is the case with corresponding members to academies, for example. Very few women were members of Protestant institutions: Eva Ekeblad was the first woman to be admitted to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, for discovering how to make alcohol out of potatoes. Ekaterina Romanovna Dasjkova is linked to both the Royal Swedish Academy and the Leopoldina. Hedvig Gustava Malmsten was elected full member of the Royal Physiographic Society in Lund, Sweden, but it was by mistake, as the statutes stipulated that only men could be members of the society.

To explain the presence of these women in academic institutions, we first considered the autonomy of the institutions. Many protestant universities in Germany were founded in a top-down fashion, whereas early universities such as Bologna and Paris grew from the bottom up. In Germany the Prince had more control and institutions made fewer autonomous and anti-conformist decisions, such welcoming women to a university. However, this does not explain why English and Scottish academia remained so closed to women.

Figure 4: Institutions over time. Universities: squares. Academies: circles. Protestant: yellow. Catholic: purple. Orthodox: white. Size of points proportional to log (nb. of women).


We hypothesized that religion might explain this difference between northern and southern Europe, and scrutinized the differences between religious denominations. There is a tendency to think that Protestantism brought a wave of modernity. This is only partly true. Luther is thought to have fostered the emancipation of women by allowing them to attend school, and after the Reformation more women received an education in Protestant countries than in Catholic countries. However, we know that education only covered the basics and that the shift towards emancipation was slight (Roper 1989).

On the whole, Protestant social norms for women were not too different from Catholic norms. The substantial difference was in the formal centralization of decision making. The Catholic Church could control women’s participation in public space – and it could also make exceptions, which allowed these notable women to emerge. Women in Protestant communities were subject to the judgement and will of their husbands and fathers in the home, and it was difficult for them to achieve visibility in public space.

In considering the reasons for this unusual pattern, we also considered culture and theology. In particular, we noted that Marian devotion is fundamental for Catholics but considered a form of idolatry among Protestants. Thus Catholics have an inspiring woman role model, while Protestants are discouraged from giving her special attention. For Catholics, her out-of-the-ordinary gifts grant her notoriety and consideration on par with men. The exceptional intellectual gifts of some women convinced religious authorities to make exceptions and allow some women to become university professors. The intellectual exceptionality of some women offered some religious and political authorities an opportunity to promote their politics. This is the case, for example, with Cardinal Lambertini with Laura Bassi (professor in Bologna) and Charles III with Maria Isidra Guzman (professor in Alcalá). Hence, the most convincing difference for us is the capacity of Catholic institutions to tolerate exceptions.

Finally, our data challenge the popular idea that the little divergence between Northern and Southern Europe is driven by Protestantism. Nuno et al. (2022) have already shown that Protestant countries did not display a more growth-promoting marriage pattern (contrary to a view promoted in previous research). Here we challenge the idea that Protestantism was necessarily more modern and more liberal than Catholicism, at least where the participation of women in upper tail human capital is concerned.



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De la Croix, David, and Mara Vitale, (2022), “Women in European Academia before 1800 – Religion, Marriage, and Human Capital”, De la Croix and Vitale, EREH forthcoming.

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