Pioneers who paved the way for women in academia

Svenska 2019-10-14

At a time when nearly all doors in academia were closed to women, a few still managed to make their way through. Paradoxically, several of the earliest women to have a research career in Sweden can be found within fields that are now the most male-dominated.

Sonja Kovalevsky was appointed Sweden’s first female professor – in mathematics. The physicist Eva von Bahr was celebrated internationally for her research into infra-red radiation. According to Christina Florin, Professor Emeritus of Women’s History at Stockholm University, it is not a coincidence that the first prominent female researchers were to be found in natural sciences in particular.

“In the 19th century, humanities subjects, such as classical languages and theology, were considered the most prestigious ones. They were the most difficult ones to enter. The field of natural sciences, on the other hand, was still finding its feet in academia, and this made things easier for women. And of course these early female researchers were geniuses, and their knowledge was incomparable.”

Not allowed to have a research career

Up until 1925, women were prohibited from holding senior governmental positions in Sweden. Women were therefore not allowed to have careers as researchers or teachers at governmental higher education institutions.

“Many thought, quite simply, that women were too weak to study, and not sufficiently gifted theoretically. Women as a group were regarded as having smaller brains and less stamina. The view of women that emerges from discussions in the Riksdag is often hair-raising,” says Christina Florin.

The first female pioneers in academia breached strong societal norms, and often also the expectations of their own families. In academia too they met strong resistance. At the same time as they were prevented from having a career, they were openly questioned by colleagues who were not ashamed of their disdain for women.

First female docent of physics

Eva von Bahr was one of the very first women to hold a position at a governmental higher education institution in Sweden – although she was quickly shown the door. In 1908, she became Sweden’s first female docent of physics, and started teaching as assistant to the progressive professor Knut Ångström in Uppsala. When he died, Eva von Bahr soon had to leave.

Because she was a woman, she was denied a professorship at both Uppsala and Chalmers School of Technology, which meant she headed abroad. In 1912, she left Sweden for Germany and a position at the University of Berlin.

In Berlin, she became a close friend of the prominent physicist and Jew Lise Meitner, who she later also helped to flee from Nazi Germany to Sweden.

Lise Meitner discovered the theoretical explanation for fission (nuclear division) when she visited Eva von Bahr during Christmas 1938 in Kungälv. Meitner was nominated several times for the Nobel Prize in Physics and Chemistry, but was never awarded it.

Private institutions more progressive

Although it was impossible for women to have careers at governmental higher education institutions in Sweden until well into the 1920s, things were different at private institutions.

“They were more progressive on this issue. They considered competence more than gender, and their independent position gave them more freedom to choose their employees,” says Christina Florin.

It was therefore no coincidence that the first female professor, Sonja Kovalevsky, was active at Stockholm University, which was then private.

Sonja Kovalevsky (published in English as Sophie Kowalevski) was born in Moscow in 1850 and begun her studies in St Petersburg. She then went on to several major universities in Germany, and came to Sweden in 1883.

Awarded prizes several times

Considering the spirit of the times, the story of her life sounds almost like a fairytale. She was awarded several prizes for her research. One example was the prestigious science prize Prix Bordin for her thesis “On the rotation of a rigid body around a fixed point”.

The thesis was considered to be of such high standard that she was awarded double the prize amount. Kovalevsky was elected to the Russian Academy of Sciences, but was given the cold shoulder by the Swedish Academy of Sciences. Several members opposed her election, due to the fact she was a woman.

“We shouldn’t think that we were any better and more progressive on women’s emancipation here in Sweden than in other countries. Because we weren’t.”

Close to political power

The fact that governmental higher education institutions were later than private ones at allowing women in was due to their closeness to political power, she thinks.

“State and status were linked together. The state universities produced knowledge that served power, and there was no room for women in that context.

The women who tried to get ahead as researchers or university teachers despite the opposition usually hit a wall. Women were considered unsuited to research by their nature,” Christina Florin explains. Some statements in the Riksdag also indicate that there was a worry that morally doubtful situations would arise if women were allowed into academia.

“Should women and men be members of the same departments? Stand side by side, and work together? This did not fit at all into 19th century perceptions of gender, which were strongly characterised by the idea that men and women should be kept apart as far as possible, in particular while young.”

Gender norms were changing

Gender norms were strong, although they did begin to change as the new century was approaching, she summarises.

“This was a time when lots of things were happening. The education system was changing, and new routes opened up for women as time passed,” says Christina Florin.

She mentions the qualification legislation of 1925 as particularly important, as this gave women access to most professions and education programmes on the same terms as men. The pioneers who made a career in academia all came from well-to-do homes and environments, where education was considered important. They were also very driven personally, Christina Florin establishes.

“They had good resources, were gifted and very brave. They dared to enter into entirely male environments and fight the system.”

Sham marriage the solution

The need to sometimes come up with creative solutions in order to advance can be seen in Sonja Kovalevsky’s story. When she wanted to leave Russia for studies abroad, she hit a wall of opposition. It was considered unsuitable for her to travel, as she was unmarried. The solution was a sham marriage with the paleontologist Vladimir Onufrievich Kovalevsky.

Besides Sonja Kovalevsky and Eva von Bahr, Christina Florin mentions Ellen Fries, a doctor of history, and Elsa Eschelsson, a docent of law, as important female pioneers within academia in Sweden. Elsa Eschelsson was the first woman to be appointed a docent of law, but to then obtain a position in academia turned out to be impossible.

She fought for several years to obtain a professorship, but died in 1911, shortly after having once more been overlooked. Some sources say that Elsa Eschelsson died due to illness, while other sources claim she took her life.

“Elsa Eschelsson’s fate has made her important in the women’s movement, as a sort of innocent victim.”

Deserve to be highlighted

She thinks that the really early female researchers in general have not received very much attention – neither in a scientific context, nor within the feminist movement.

“The fact that they have not been recognised is perhaps due to them having been perceived as slightly too solitary, but their stories and experiences really deserve to the highlighted. We need to be reminded that the right to education has not just been handed down as a gift from above, but that brave persons have led the way, taken the punches and fought for change,” says Christina Florin.

Text: Charlie Olofsson
Photo: TT Nyhetsbyrån

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