Women in Uppsala University history

Women appeared only late in the many centuries of Uppsala University history.

Not until the early 1870s was the first female student enrolled at Uppsala University. By royal decree women had been granted access to the universities.  Her name was Betty Pettersson and she came from the Baltic island of Gotland. After taking her degree she became a teacher.

Emmy Rappe (1835–1896) got her education at the Florence Nightingale Training School and Home for Nurses at Saint Thomas’ Hospital in London 1866. In 1867 she became Head Nurse of Uppsala University Hospital’s recently opened surgical ward, and Director of the Red Cross’ newly founded nursing school at the hospital. The first secular nurses in Sweden were being trained. Because Emmy Rappe was introducing a new professional group and a new training programme she met resistance from public authorities and physicians. She worked without pay and so hard that her health later suffered.

In 1883 Ellen Fries took a doctorate in history. She was the first woman in Sweden to be granted a PhD. Many people praised her as a pioneer, but others were sceptical. One male academic teacher said that she may be the first of her kind but – he hoped – also the last. Ellen Fries continued to write works of history, including the book Remarkable Women.

Toward the end of the century there were more and more women students, making a total of 153 admissions for the 19th century. But their life in Uppsala was not untroubled. They were not allowed to take part in parties thrown by the student nations (student clubs), and it was long questioned whether they should rightly wear the white ‘student cap’.

A number of these women took PhDs. The first one to follow Ellen Fries was Elsa Eschelsson, who became Doctor of Laws in 1897. She was a prominent researcher and teacher and rose to the position of reader. But when she aspired to a professorial chair, she hit the glass ceiling. The resistance from patriarchal society was compact, and she never got the post. She died as early as 1911, probably by her own hand.

Astrid Cleve von Euler was a chemist, geologist and botanist. She got her Bachelor’s degree at Uppsala University in 1894 and her Licentiate degree in 1898. Astrid Cleve received her PhD 27 May 1898, the same year as the first woman in Sweden within a natural science discipline. In 1948 she became the University’s first female jubilee doctor (50 years after taking her PhD).

Lydia Wahlström (1869–1954) was a historian and a well-known champion of women’s rights. She was admitted to Uppsala University in 1888. Three years later she received a Bachelor’s degree in history, Scandinavian languages and government, and in 1898 she took her PhD in history – the second ever Swedish woman to do so.

Upsala Kvinliga Studäntförening / Uppsala kvinnliga studentförening
Uppsala Women’s Student Association at its 50th anniversary in 1942. Photo: KvinnSam, Gothenburg University Library.

In 1892, Lydia Wahlström founded ‘Uppsala Women’s Student Association’ and became its first chair. The members of the association were the first female students in Sweden to wear the white student cap in public, which was considered improper.

Eva von Bahr (1874–1962) enrolled at Uppsala University in 1901 and took her PhD in physics 1908. In 1908 she also became the first woman in Sweden to be made reader of physics. From 1909 she worked as reader at the Department of Physics in Uppsala, under professor Knut Ångström. But after Professor Ångström’s sudden death in 1910 she was no longer allowed to teach, other than as a substitute for her colleagues. Not until 1925 were women allowed to hold positions at the Swedish universities. After having been denied professorships in Uppsala and at Chalmers University of Technology for being a woman, she instead applied for a position at the University of Berlin 1912.

In 1956, Sonja Lyttkens became the second woman in Sweden with a Doctor’s degree in mathematics. She later became a reader and became Sweden’s first female senior lecturer of mathematics 1963. Sonja Lyttkens was very committed to improving conditions for women in the academic world. In 1970 she became Uppsala University’s and Kalmar student nation’s first female ‘inspektor’ (honorary chair and overseer).

The first woman to hold a professorial chair at Uppsala University was appointed as late as 1949. She was the geographer Gerd Enequist. Over the decades she has had many successors, but the proportion of women among full professors at Uppsala University is still lower than the proportion of men. On the other hand, in recent decades female students have become steadily better represented in undergraduate education and PhD programmes.

In 2012, Uppsala University got its first female Vice-Chancellor – Eva Åkesson, Professor of Chemical Physics. The photo shows her inauguration in 2012, when former Vice-Chancellor Anders Hallberg handed over the traditional symbols to the new Vice-Chancellor Eva Åkesson: the Vice-Chancellor’s chain, keys and books.