The long road to equality at universities

A Jahr100Wissen / 100 years ago interview with the education researcher Prof. Dr. Astrid Messerschmidt

October 7, 1920 marks an important change in the educational system of the universities. At Oxford University, the first 100 women were allowed to obtain the same academic degrees as their male counterparts. How did this decision come about?

Messerschmidt: Oxford University can be classified as an elite educational institution. Here the hurdles were particularly high for women in everyday academic culture. Ideals of masculinity, the spirit of the corps and established clubs for the so-called "gent-lemen" shaped campus life. Against this background, the openingexaminatio did not come about through a rethinking within the university system, but was fought for by the women's movements. As early as 1878, the Association for the Higher Education of Women had been founded and various colleges for women had been established. Nevertheless, it still took more than forty years before women were able to obtain an equivalent academic degree and regular membership status at Oxford University. Annie Rogers was the first woman to graduate from Oxford in 1877 with a degree 'Examinations for Women'. Until 1920, women could only obtain these degrees, which were not formally accepted in Oxford. Since 1904, women have been able to have their degrees accepted. However, this was only made possible by an agreement on the equality of (originally male) students between the universities of Oxford, Cambridge and Trinity, according to which the degrees of these students were accepted at all three institutions.
The women had to take more complicated routes and make their way to Dublin to have their degrees accepted, which they had obtained in Oxford and Cambridge. Because they crossed over on a steam-powered ferry, they were called "Steamboat Ladies". More than 700 women made this journey between 1904 and 1907. Since 1870, Cambridge had been running women-only courses at Newnham College. In 1904 the college of the University of Dublin (Trinity) opened its doors to female students. The first attempts of women, to obtain not only a certificate from their college but also an academic degree failed several times in the 1880s. The male students and their supporters demonstrated against the admission of women. At Trinity College Dublin, too, access to academic degrees had been fought hard and failed several times by 1904.
Until the end of the 19th century, the Oxford University directorate was convinced that the student moral would be underminded by the presence of women on a male-dominated campus. Withal, until 1957 the number of women in Oxford was limited. No more than 870 women were allowed to study there. These hesitant openings, accompanied by fears and defensive measures, show how strongly the image of women as foreign bodies was cultivated and defended at the university.

Although Lady Margret Hall was the first women's college to be founded in 1878, can it be said that equality looked different back then?

Messerschmidt: Equality is not an ad hoc issue. Rather, it can be described as a lengthy process that has by no means been unbroken. Ideas about supposedly special characteristics of women - from the perspective of men in the institutions - have been influential in this process and still have an impact on women's academic careers today. Exclusive educational thinking was male-dominated and questioned the intellectual abilities of women. It repeatedly referred to the physical characteristics of the female gender, which allegedly stood in the way of academic activity. Here, too, progress toward greater equality only came about through the commitment of the women themselves. The effects of these excluding images of women reach far into the 20th century. As late as the 1950s, more than a third of the German professors surveyed, considered women incapable of pursuing an academic career. The pseudo-argument of the "nature of women" was repeatedly cited for this exclusion.
Colleges in England that were founded specifically for women, such as Somerville (1879), Lady Margaret Hall (1879), St. Hugh's Hall (1886), and St. Hilda's (1893), offered women a chance to study away from the male leagues. In this respect, I would already classify them as important institutions of equality in education and science. In Germany, girls' high schools were also considered as institutional milestones on the way to gender equality in education. For even though the ideal of "cultivated domesticity" was taught there for a long time, they still offered access to higher education. At the same time, as in England, it is evident here that these accesses were initially only open to the daughters of privileged families. Thus, when we talk about gender history in education, class inequality must also be taken into account, which has always been an important issue and difficulty for women's movements. Gender equality activities in Oxfdord, Cambridge and other European universities are confronted with persisting inequalities in the first decades of the twentieth century that contradict all progress in emancipation. By 1922, the "British Empire" had colonized about a quarter of the world's population, and European colonialism was to continue for decades to come. The colonial populations were largely barred from the path to equality. Since some of the protagonists of the women's movements noticed the contradiction as well, they also addressed this issue. Many, however, remained ignorant of it.

The historian, writer and archaeologist Gertrude Bell, studied in Oxford from 1886. She and her fellow students were able to attend the lectures only as guest students and were usually accompanied to the lectures by a chaperone. And although in 1888, shortly before she turned twenty, she was the first woman to complete her studies of Contemporary History with the highest distinction, she was, as a woman, not granted an academic degree. Were her studies only seen as a pastime for priviledged daughters?

Messerschmidt: The refusal of an academic degree in spite of a successful study shows how male privilege protection has worked. It was clear that the moment women can obtain the same academic degrees as men, the competition on the market will become greater. This had to be prevented for as long as possible, especially by the "priviledged sons", since male studies were also characterized by class inequalities. The fact that the reservation of pastime was hardly ever voiced towards male students shows that male academic achievements were considered more valuable.
Gertrude Bell came from a distinguished family of British industrialists. Her parents enabled her to study at the University of Oxford from 1886 onwards. When she graduated, there was not yet an opportunity for women to obtain an academic degree. She later became known through her trips to the Middle East, about which she reported in detail. From today's perspective, it is remarkable and irritating about her biography, that she was involved in the "British Women's Anti-Suffrage League", a conservative movement that advocated "domestic feminism" and fought against the introduction of women's suffrage. This stood in particular contrast to her extensive travel activities. Suffragettes were seen as a threat to "English femininity" by League supporters. Gertrude Bell's personality in particular, reveals the ties to ideals that were shaped by a fixation of femininity on to specific characteristics and to which women who had taken completely different paths also adhered.

In 1864 the University of Zurich was the first German-speaking university to admit female students, in 1896 female guest students were admitted to Prussia, in 1900 the Grand Duchy of Baden was the first German state to admit women as full students at the Universities of Freiburg and Heidelberg, and from 1909 women were allowed to study in all German countries, and from 1921 also habilitated. Equal rights for female and male students continued to have ups and downs thereafter. What were the reasons for this?

Messerschmidt: In the German Empire, which was fragmented into numerous principalities, the repercussions of the path of women to university was also full of obstacles, which can still be felt in the federal education system. Here too, the male-dominated university culture played a major role. Influential student networks in the form of fraternities and comradeships were exclusively for men and regulated the access to the faculties. This shaped academic customs and had a long lasting effect. Equal rights were not granted, but were fought for through a variety of actions and organizations from within the women's movements. It is important to remember this today, since for many of today's students, the exclusion and discrimination of women cannot be experienced in their own everyday life, or they are not noticed. They have become more indirect and subtle, and are very different from the situation one hundred years ago. The fact that equal rights had to be fought for so laboriously and have been so discontinuous makes it clear that this is a fragile achievement and constantly met with hostility. Anniversaries such as October 7, 1920, can sensitize the memory of society to this fact.

At German universities, women nowadays have the same opportunities as their male counterparts. Would you fully agree with this statement?

Messerschmidt: In 2019, one in four academic chairs at German universities and colleges was occupied by a woman, while the proportion of doctorates was almost half, and the proportion of habilitations a little less than a third. There has been progress in recent years in the equality of women in the academic field. Many women have worked to achieve this, and without the formal steps toward equality that have been enshrined in law, this would not have been possible. The higher up in the academic hierarchy the positions to be filled, the less progress is made. From 1997 to 2017, the proportion of female professors rose from nine to 23.4 percent. Although this is considerable, it has taken quite some time and is still far from real equality. There are still obstacles for women when they start a family. The possibility of pregnancy still causes the decision-making bodies in personnel recruitment to play it safe and to prefer to opt for a man. However, this contradicts the principles of equality that have been introduced, which in fact makes it more difficult to maintain reservations about hiring women scientists at the university. At least this has been achieved.

Uwe Blass (Interview on 24.9.2020)


Prof. Dr. Astrid Messerschmidt habilitated in Pedagogy in 2009 at the Faculty of Human Sciences of the Technical University of Darmstadt. She worked as a professor for Intercultural Education/Lifelong Education at the Pedagogical University of Karlsruhe. Since 2016 she has been researching and teaching as a Professor of Educational Science with a focus on Gender and Diversity at the University of Wuppertal.

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