Group photo in 1936 of the first female academics employed by the Vatican Apostolic Library 

By Gudrun Sailer

Mar 8 2024

In 1929, the Vatican Apostolic Library employed a group of young women with doctoral degrees, marking a first for Vatican City State. Their experiences were positive, but the project came to an end twelve years later due to the Second World War. Today, over 50 percent of the staff at the Vatican Library are women, many of whom hold leadership positions.

It all began with a trip to America in 1927.

For nearly three months, Eugène Tisserant traveled through the most important libraries in the United States. Not for reading, although it greatly tempted him.

The French priest and orientalist, a scholar (“Scriptor”) at the Vatican Apostolic Library, blessed with a keen interest in innovation, sought to review the significant changes in library practices that had taken hold in North America.

Tisserant returned with a plan to align the venerable Vatican Apostolic Library with user-centered principles: a catalogue, reference service, streamlined ordering process, well-organized storage, and a spacious reading room.

This included a secure repository for rare books and manuscripts, with access for scholars as before — and more. Tisserant aimed to bring usability to the Vatican, ushering it into the modern era of libraries.

Women as librarians: Avant-garde in the USA

Another observation made by the highly-educated priest in America’s libraries was the presence of women.

Educated women working as librarians. This was unheard of in the Vatican.

However, 1929 was a year of innovation in the Vatican.

The Lateran Treaties guaranteed the Pope territorial independence from Italy, sparking a construction boom and an influx of innovation unseen in the Vatican since the Renaissance.

Innovations that were very much in line with the tastes of the scholarly Pope Pius XI; Achille Ratti had himself been the Prefect of the Vatican Library in his younger years.

Now he said “yes” to all the changes and “yes” to the first “signorine“—or “young ladies” as they were called—at his library in the process of modernization. The first female academic to clock in at the Vatican was the French medievalist Jeanne Odier in October 1929.

Raffaella Vincenti, the first female secretary of the Vatican Library, in office since 2012, summarized the experience thus: “In total, there were 24 women. They were hired over the years and worked on the manuscript catalogue.”

“We know that most of them obtained their degrees from the University of Rome, La Sapienza, and some also from the Vatican School of Library Science, which Pope Pius XI opened in 1934, incidentally also a result of Eugène Tisserant’s trip to the USA.”

US foundation’s assistance

The sponsor also came from the United States, the same one that had been instrumental in funding Tisserant’s overseas trip.

The still-operating think tank “Carnegie Endowment for International Peace,” founded in 1910 by the steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, assisted in the reconstruction of Europe after World War I.

“The foundation specifically supported cultural activities, as they were considered pivotal for rebuilding,” explains Raffaella Vincenti.

The Americans saw particular potential in modernizing the Vatican and its influence on the scholarly world of Europe.

The fact that female librarians were no longer rare in the United States may have been one reason why American foundation funds were now benefiting qualified women in the Popes’ library for the first time.

They had the education, and they were doing solid work.

“They were chosen because they were experts in the field of manuscripts and palaeography,” emphasizes Raffaella Vincenti.

“The task of these women was to describe and catalogue the manuscripts.

In addition, they created a set of rules to ensure consistency in recording.”

This was demanding library work. After all, the bibliographic exploration of the world’s largest manuscript collection lay in the hands of these women.

Working women in fascist Italy

In surrounding Italy, female academics hesitantly made their way into the professional world.

Most women with doctoral degrees in the humanities became teachers; rarely did a woman in the fascist 1920s and 30s achieve a career as a university professor.

Although fascism promoted a conservative view of women – Mussolini famously referred to the working woman and the machine as the two greatest threats to Italian men in a notorious pamphlet in 1934 – the idea gradually took hold in families that a daughter with a university degree would be better provided for if she remained unmarried.

Thus, the number of female students at universities during fascism rose rapidly, in both absolute and relative terms.

And here and there, a woman with a doctoral degree in could find a position at an antiquities authority, an archive, or a library.

Therefore, female academics in the neighbouring Vatican were an innovation but not a revolution – in the established ecclesiastical manner.

A new generation of women in the Church’s service

The two dozen “signorine” at the Vatican Library did not receive permanent positions; they worked on an hourly basis.

They were also not “the first women in the Vatican”: according to everything the Vatican records suggest, this primacy belongs to the seamstress Anna Pezzoli in 1915, and it is also known that nuns in the Vatican operated the carpet restoration workshop of the museums since the 1920s.

However, Jeanne Odier and her colleagues were the first female academics in the Papal State. They represented a new generation of women in Church service, and their example quickly caught on.

Five years later, the German-Jewish archaeologist Hermine Speier began her service as a photo librarian at the Vatican Museums, also initially only as a “permanent freelance employee” despite all qualifications. Unlike her colleagues in the library, Hermine Speier remained long enough to achieve a permanent position with pension entitlement in the Vatican, presumably becoming the first woman to do so in 1964.

The era of the first female academics at the Vatican came to an end in 1941. Already in 1939, with the transition from Pius XI to Pius XII, a change was evident.

In any case, the declaration of war by Italy and Germany against the USA in 1941 played a role, according to Raffaella Vincenti.

Communication broke down, and priorities in the Vatican as well as in the American foundation changed.

Today, the Vatican Library has nearly 100 employees, “with more than half of them being women, and most of our departments are led by women,” says Ms Vincenti.

Archivist and librarian of the Holy Roman Church, prefect, and vice-prefect are men, but the departments for manuscripts, printed works, restoration, reproductions, IT, and also the secretariat, where all threads converge, are in the hands of women.

“This is certainly due to the fact that women are more represented in the humanities, reflecting an objective situation, says Ms Vincenti.

The appointment of the first female academics in the Vatican in the momentum of the library’s modernization 95 years ago was just the beginning. – Vatican News