Women at Universities: A Long Way

Today, it is quite normal for women to study at universities, get PhDs, do Postdocs and become professors. But that was not always the case – to mark this week’s International Women’s Day, we want to celebrate the contribution of women at the University of Münster, tracing the milestones it took for young women like our WiRe Fellows to be able to do research on an equal footing with men. 

The first female students at the University of Münster

A good hundred years ago, in 1902, women were allowed to enrol at the University of Münster for the first time. However, since they were officially only allowed to be „guest students“, they could attend lectures, but were not allowed to take exams and thus could not receive a degree. Luckily, Prussia changed its legislation six years later in 1908, allowing women to matriculate as regular students at its universities. 

The First Female Graduates

Among the first female students at the University of Münster was linguist Johanna Richter, who completed her studies in 1909 as the first female doctoral student.

Five years later, Hedwig Montag was the first female student to take a higher teaching examination. 

Other female graduates and PhDs followed soon at most of the other faculties, with the exception of the Faculty of Catholic Theology, where it was not until 1962 that the first woman was awarded a PhD. This is in striking contrast to the history of women at our Faculty of Medicine, where the first woman got her PhD in 1925, the Faculty’s founding year.

Female students like Hedwig and Johanna formed a minority at the University of Münster as at most other Universities around Europe for a long time. However, women started early on to form student groups and unions to support each other and fight for their rights – such as the one you can see on the picture above. Today, there are slighlty more female than male students enrolled at the University of Münster.

Hedwig Montag, the first female graduate of a teaching degree at the University of Münster
© Universitätsarchiv Münster

… on their way to a professorship …

Forty-five years after women were admitted to university in Prussia, the zoologist Angela Nolte (1922-2001) became the first woman to habilitate at the University of Münster – traditionally, a habilitation – a kind of a second PhD thesis – has been required in Germany to obtain a professorship at a university. However, women had been teaching at the WWU for a decade by then – starting in the 1940s, when many male professors were missing due to the war. Among those early female lecturers were for example zoologist Ilse Fischer and musicologist Maria-Elisabeth Brockhoff.

Dr Angela Nolte at her habilitation exam in 1953
© Universitätsarchiv Münster

The road to the first habilitation of a female researcher in Germany was long and rocky: highly talented philosopher and theologian Edith Stein submitted her habitilation thesis (to the University of Göttingen) several times in 1919 to no avail – it was rejected each time because of her gender. Edith however did not surrender – as a reaction to her official request, Prussian Authorities changed the guidelines in 1920 and allowed women to sit the habitilation exam. By the way, Edith Stein, one of the most inspiring women of the 20th century, lived in Münster from 1932 to 1933. She worked as a lecturer in philosophy and education and experienced the seizure of power by the Nazis during this time. The Edith Stein College – the guest houses for international PhDs at the WWU – today honors this outstanding female personality.

…And another twenty years pass before women are appointed as full professors and chair holders at the WWU for the first time – but then two in the same year: in 1965 Marie-Luise Dittrich (1911-1999) becomes Professor of German Studies and Ruth Altheim-Stiehl (born 1926) Professor of Ancient History.  Currently, women are catching up strongly in the field of appointments. In 2019, 21 out of 32 appointments went to women at the University of Münster.

The first female university rector

One important office is still missing: In 1990 Prof Dr Maria Wasna becomes the first woman rector of the University of Münster and a university in Germany!