The First Woman President

The First Woman President


Alongside Luigi and Ferdinando Bocconi, this is another name that sounds very familiar to anyone attending the University at Via Sarfatti 25 in Milan: Donna Genoveffa Yvonne Manca di Villahermosa, known as Javotte. Wife of Ettore Bocconi, Luigi's brother – to whose memory their father Ferdinando dedicated the establishment of the University in 1902 – Donna Javotte Bocconi played a key role in the University's development after her husband's death. She led Bocconi for twenty-five consecutive years as president, from 1932 to 1957.

Today, as part of the #WomenMatter initiatives and looking ahead to International Women's Day, we wanted to talk about Donna Javotte in an unusual way, imagining that she could speak for herself. The result is an interview that challenges the wrinkles in time, created with the help of the University's 'historical memory,' Professor Marzio Romani.

Genoveffa Yvonne Manca di Villahermosa Sanjust, good evening. I confess I'm a little intimidated being in your presence
For heaven's sake, relax, young man. And call me Donna Javotte, Genoveffa Yvonne is too long.

All right, Donna Javotte. Let's start at the beginning. When and where were you born?
8 October 1879 in Cagliari. My family was from old Sardinian nobility: my father was the Marquis Enrico Manca di Villahermosa and my mother was Caterina Sanjust di Teulada Ripoli.

Not much is known about your childhood and adolescence. Historical chronicles begin to mention you when you married Ettore Bocconi
What do you want me to say, those were different times. The story that connects me to Bocconi begins with that date, 6 September 1906. As you know, a few years earlier, in 1902, my father-in-law Ferdinando Bocconi, the entrepreneur who had introduced the first department stores in Milan and other cities (they were called "Alle Città d'Italia"), had founded Bocconi University in memory of my brother-in-law, Luigi. My husband became President in the mid-'10s. Meanwhile, in '17 he sold the department stores to Ettore Borletti (who transformed them into what is now La Rinascente) and in '19 he became a Senator of the Kingdom of Italy. Then, in 1932 he died suddenly and it was at that moment that I had to make a decision.

What was the decision?
To take on the responsibility of Bocconi University myself. I was the only remaining heir of the family.

That was the beginning of a journey that lasted twenty-five years, from '32 to '57. During that period, the foundations were laid for today's Bocconi
My idea was clear, but I couldn't do it all by myself, nor did I have the necessary skills. So I decided to surround myself with people who shared my vision. They included Giovanni Gentile, who I appointed as Vice President, Calogero Tumminelli, who I designated Managing Director, and Girolamo Palazzina, who I confirmed at the head of the administrative apparatus.

But you didn’t stop there
No. I also wanted to honor the memory of my husband with the creation of a research foundation. So I took advantage of the endeavors at that time to concentrate on economic theory in addition to more business-focused subjects at the University, and I welcomed Gentile, Sraffa, Del Vecchio and Palazzina's idea of creating an institute of higher economic culture named after Ettore Bocconi.

That's how the Ettore Bocconi Institute of Higher Economic Studies was founded, the current Department of Economics. Which brought with it other developments too, right?
The project envisaged teaching by Italian and international professors, preferably chosen from outside the University, in such a way as to also strengthen Bocconi's international character, what you would now call 'internationalization.' And it called for professors teaching who “did not exclusively or principally teach academic lectures and were not tied to an unvarying and unchangeable timetable; but during a certain period of time they should maintain personal contact with students and direct them individually in their studies.” If this was not a modern way of doing things, I don't know what is.

At the end of the '30s the need for a new location arose, because the one at Largo Treves was no longer adequate
Yes, it was a rather long back and forth with the city authorities. Finally, in 1938, work began on the new complex designed by architect Giuseppe Pagano, on the land of the former San Celso gas factory.

After the war, in the '50s, was the last phase of your presidency. Tell me about two years in particular: 1951 and 1957
The first is the year in which the Amici della Bocconi Association was founded, on the initiative of several graduates. One of these graduates was Alessandro Croccolo, President of ALUB, the Association that brought together Bocconi graduates and which had been active since 1906. The aim was to offer tangible support to the Alma Mater, ideally returning the help offered to each recent graduate giving them access to prestigious roles, according to what Leopoldo Sabbatini had established. The first Rector and President of Bocconi, he was very clear on the fact that the University did not finish its task with the student's degree, but that it should also assist students with the commitment to fully develop the relationship between school and life. The Association, of which I was appointed honorary president from the beginning, aimed to promote "cultural exchanges in economics between Bocconi and international universities or bodies, as well as exchanges of professors, graduates and students" and also aimed to create two scholarships to be awarded "to Bocconi graduates who intend to complete their professional education through a stay abroad."

Right, the scholarships. I know there are two for women students today
The Institute has decided to support two female students for the year 2021/2022, one for the programs now called Bachelor of Science and the other for Master of Science programs. They told me that the fund that supports the scholarships is called "Donna Javotte Women's Scholarship Fund". I can only be flattered.

The second date I mentioned is that of the end of your term
Yes, in 1957 I decided that the time had come to take my leave of the presidency of the University. I also decided to leave my assets to the University, entrusting their administration to the Association, which would later be named Istituto Javotte Bocconi Manca di Villahermosa - Amici della Bocconi Association. I also gave the Institute the rights that the Bocconi family had reserved for itself, namely those of appointing both the president and nine of the nineteen members of the University Board.

Development for everyone at the University, promotion of the first exchanges abroad (today we would call them internships), internationalization, promotion of the alumni community: all in all, your twenty-five years as president were very modern
I did my best and surrounded myself with the right people. You know, in those days it wasn't easy for a woman to assert herself. But the fact that Bocconi is considered an excellence in today's world is perhaps in part thanks to the vision of a woman from the 1930s.

by Andrea Celauro
Translated by Jenna Walker

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