Women in higher education

Swedish higher education was long limited to men. The history of women in higher education goes back only slightly more than 140 years. When Sweden’s first university, Uppsala University, was established in 1477, only men were allowed to enrol. Education in those days was mainly geared toward providing the church with clergymen. Young men from the upper classes studied Theology, Latin and Philosophy. Almost 400 years would pass before women could apply to higher education.

Dispensation from the king

In 1871 Sweden’s first female student – Betty Pettersson (1838-­1885), the daughter of a saddle maker from Visby – enrolled in Uppsala University’s philosophy faculty, which is roughly equivalent to today’s humanities and social sciences faculty. To gain admission to the university, she had applied for dispensation from the king.

Higher education opens for women

In 1873 women were finally allowed to study at Swedish universities. They received the right to obtain degrees from the Philosophy and Medical Faculties and at lower levels of the Legal Faculty. According to the Swedish Constitution, they could neither pursue a university career nor assume a higher position within the government. Nor could women study at the Faculty of Theology.

A threat to men’s position

Admission of women to higher education was an issue that provoked lively discussion in both the Swedish Parliament and at universities, many of which opposed allowing them to enrol. Educated women challenged the traditional view that a woman’s place was in the home, while a man’s place was in the public domain. Women at universities also challenged the traditional view that men were intellectually superior to women. Female students were regarded as a threat to men’s position and power at universities.

Lack of preparatory schools for girls

Initially, few women applied for admission to universities. Out of 1,593 students in Uppsala in 1882, only four were women. An obvious reason for this was the absence of any public preparatory schools for girls who wanted to study at the university, because secondary grammar schools were closed to them.

Class conferred priority

As a result, the only young women who could obtain an upper-secondary school certificate and continue to study at the university were those who came from affluent homes where the parents could afford to send them to private girls’ schools. The first women to enrol were mostly daughters of fathers with academic professions.

Allowed to study but not work in the public sector

The few women who enrolled at universities could not, however, use their knowledge in professional life. Until 1925 they could neither pursue an academic career after completing their degree or thesis nor use their education to apply for high positions in the government. Under the Constitution, only native-born Swedish men could hold high-level jobs in academia and government services or departments. Women were relegated to working in the private sector. Female university graduates went to battle over this, organised themselves and began campaigning for the right to practise their professions within the public sector.

Early pioneers

First female PhD

Ellen Fries (1855–1900) was the first woman to receive a PhD in Sweden. Her dissertation on history at the faculty of humanities was publicly defended at Uppsala University in 1883. Fries described her experiences during her studies at Uppsala in diaries and letters. She was excluded from student life, student club parties and university ceremonies, and she was not allowed to be seen on the streets and was hardly allowed to attend lectures without an “apron”.

After receiving her doctorate, Ellen Fries was not allowed to remain at the university. Instead, she became a teacher at various private girls’ secondary schools in Stockholm. She was one of the organisers of Sweden’s first women’s rights organisation, the Fredrika Bremer Association.

First female physician

Karolina Widerström (1856–1949) was Sweden’s first female physician. In 1888 she received her degree of licentiate of medical science at Uppsala University. She was also the first female physician to open a private practice.

Widerström was chairwoman of the Academically Educated Women’s Association (ABKF), which was established in 1904. The association’s purpose was to advocate for women to have the same rights as men in professional life and society. The organisation still exists, but now it is called the Swedish Association of University Women (KAF). She also was active in other women’s issues, such as women’s suffrage and sex education.

First female professor – private higher education institution

Sonja Kovalevsky (1850–1891) was appointed a professor of higher mathematical analysis in 1889 at Stockholm University College (now Stockholm University). The reason she could become a professor was that Stockholm University College was non-governmental and so did not need to comply with paragraph 28 of the 1809 Swedish Constitution. That paragraph stipulated that only Swedish men could hold governmental positions at departmental level or higher. Kovalevsky also became Europe’s first female professor.

First female professor – public higher education institution

Nanna Svartz (1890–1986) became the first female professor at a public university. She became professor of medicine at Karolinska Institutet in 1937 and conducted research on rheumatic diseases that proved very successful. Svartz discovered the medicine Salazopyrine, which has been used to treat both rheumatism and gastrointestinal diseases. The medicine became a success and is still used today.