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S.H.E. IS: Maria Gaetana Agnesi, the nine-year-old Advocate for Women’s Education

When Maria Gaetana Agnesi (1718-1799) gave her Academic Oration in Which It Is Demonstrated That the Studies of the Liberal Arts by the Female Sex Are by No Means Inappropriate, she was only nine-years-old. Something uncommon for anyone at such a young age. She was making the case about women’s access to university education, which was not granted at the time yet.

In Maria Gaetana Agnesi’s oration, she states “To avoid this it is best, indeed necessary, that female minds – as they say – having been elevated enough on their own and filled, be kept away entirely from the liberal disciplines and be content with the management of domestic affairs, busying themselves with the needle and the spindle; these things, and others of this kind, are proper to women, unlike pen and paper, since nothing is really more irritating than a learned woman in a debate. Most equitable judges, these things are the fortifications and foundations that must be overturned and destroyed. I dare to promise that the opinion of all your adversaries will be rejected by me as a thing of no importance”.

This passage is extremely important as Maria Gaetana Agnesi outlines the current gender roles of women and calls for change regarding their opportunities. As well, she directly addresses the judges and their adversaries, who are all men. This quotation is powerful as she is attempting to uproot the current social structure and replace it with educational standards for both men and women.

Fig. Artwork by Sergio Di Dio

In my perspective, Maria Gaetana Agnesi’s oration shows that anyone, no matter their age or gender can use their voice to raise awareness. Her example in the 1700s can serve as an example to anyone, especially young girls, that they are capable of discussing for issues which they care about. Maria Gaetana Agnesi was raised in an era entirely different from our own as her opportunities were extremely limited. While it is difficult to compare her to modern figures due to the different forms of adversity faced, I recall important women and girls who are making advancements for society as she did. Maria Gaetana Agnesi reminds me of different young women today who stand for issues they believe in such as Greta Thunberg, Malala Yousufzai, and Emma Gonzalez. Each of these girls are addressing issues which impact the lives of women and girls, as well as men, in the public sphere as Maria Gaetana Agnesi did almost 300 years earlier.

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