Amazons of the pen

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Long before the bra-burning 60s, equal rights were topical for Enlightenment women in the 18th century, who challenged male preserves of politics and science.

In 1732, Laura Bassi was awarded a doctorate in natural philosophy from the University of Bologna; a few months later she was appointed to a professorship there. For 45 years she taught philosophy, mathematics and Newtonian physics. She received two further professorships and corresponded with leading scientists across Europe - all this while producing eight children, five of whom survived infancy.

To her many admirers, Bassi was an icon of female achievement, but she was by no means alone. Between 1730 and 1770 the Bologna Academy of the Institute for Sciences admitted many well-known women scientists and mathematicians, including Maria Agnesi, author of an influential mathematics textbook, and Voltaire's mistress Emilie de Châtelet, translator and commentator on Newton's Principia Mathematica, notorious for her daring conciliation of Newtonian physics with the metaphysics of Leibniz. "She was a great man," Voltaire wrote of his brilliant lover, "whose only fault was in being a woman."

But new research reveals a very different picture. Enlightenment has been democratised. No longer the prerogative of a few, mostly French theorists, historians now portray it as a broad, multi-faceted movement crammed with intellectual innovators of all sorts, from novelists, poets, theologians and artists, to booksellers, teachers, journalists, and even pornographers. In place of a frozen philosophical canon we see a living world with women clearly visible, as originators and purveyors of enlightened ideas, and as the subject of intensive investigation and debate. Throughout the 18th century, from Edinburgh to Naples, Paris to Philadelphia, enlightened minds of both sexes challenged conventional assumptions about women's nature and entitlements, and imagined new modes of relating between the sexes. Luminaries of female learning such as Bassi were celebrated in their own right and as symbols of women's intellectual capability.

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