How powerful is a degree from Oxford University

The long road to equality at universities

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

Astrid Messerschmidt: “Oxford University can be classified as an elite educational institution. Here, the hurdles for women in everyday academic culture were particularly high. Ideals of masculinity, corps spirit and established clubs for the so-called “gentlemen” shaped campus life. Against this background, the opening up did not come about through a rethinking within the university system, but was fought for by the women's movements. The Association for the Higher Education of Women had been founded as early as 1878 and various colleges for women had been set up.

Nevertheless, it took over forty years for women to obtain an equivalent academic degree and regular membership status at Oxford University. The first attempts by women to obtain not only a certificate from their university but also an academic degree failed several times in the 1880s. The male students and their supporters demonstrated against the admission of women.

By the end of the 19th century, Oxford University leaders believed that the presence of women on a male campus would undermine student morale. Incidentally, the number of women in Oxford was limited until 1957. 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 has been cultivated and defended at the university. "

The first all-women college was founded in 1878 with Lady Margret Hall, but equality looked different back then, wasn't it?

Astrid Messerschmidt: “Equality is not an ad hoc event. Rather, it can be described as a lengthy process that has by no means been unbroken. The ideas about supposed special characteristics of women - from the perspective of men in the institutions - were influential and still have an impact on the academic career paths of women today.

The exclusive educational thinking was male-dominated and questioned the intellectual abilities of women. In doing so, reference was repeatedly made to the physical qualities of the female sex, which allegedly stand in the way of academic work. Here, too, the progress towards more equality came only through the commitment of women themselves.

Colleges in England established specifically for women, such as Somerville (1879), Lady Margaret Hall (1879), St. Hugh's Hall (1886), and St. Hilda's (1893), gave women a chance to study outside the men's covenants . In this respect, I would classify them as important institutions of equality in education and science. In Germany, the girls' high schools were also institutional milestones on the way to gender equality in education.

Because even if the ideal of “cultivated domesticity” was taught there for a long time, it still offered access to higher education. At the same time, here, as in England, it can be seen that these approaches were initially only open to the daughters of privileged families. So when we talk about the history of the sexes in education, class inequality must also be taken into account, which has repeatedly been an important topic and a difficulty for the women's movements. "

In 1864, the University of Zurich was the first German-speaking university to admit female students, in 1896 female auditors were admitted to Prussia, in 1900 the Grand Duchy of Baden was the first German state to admit women as regular students at the universities of Freiburg and Heidelberg, and from 1909 women were allowed to study in all German countries. from 1921 also habilitation. The equality of students has had ups and downs again and again afterwards. What were the reasons for this?

Astrid Messerschmidt: “In the German Empire, which was fragmented into numerous principalities, the aftermath of which can still be felt today in the federal education system, women's path to university was also full of obstacles. Here, too, the male-dominated university culture played a major role.

Influential student networks in the form of fraternities and comradeships were intended exclusively for men and regulated access to the faculties. This has shaped academic customs and has had a long-lasting effect. Equal rights were not granted, but fought for through various campaigns and organizations from the women's movements.

It is important to remember this today because for many of today's students, the exclusion and disadvantage of women cannot be experienced or not noticed in their own everyday lives. They have become more indirect and subtle, and are very different from what they were a hundred years ago.

The fact that equality had to be fought so hard and that it was so discontinuous makes it clear that this is a fragile and repeatedly hostile achievement. Anniversaries such as October 7, 1920 can sensitize society's memory to this. "

Today women at German universities have the same opportunities as their male fellow students. Would you fully agree with this sentence?

Astrid Messerschmidt: “In 2019, every fourth chair at German universities and colleges was held by a woman, while the proportion of doctorates accounted for almost half and that of post-doctoral qualifications a little less than a third. There has been progress in the field of equality for women in academia in recent years. Many women have advocated this, and it would not have come about without the formal steps towards equality that have been enshrined in law.

The higher up in the academic hierarchy the vacancies are, the less this progress will be. From 1997 to 2017, the proportion of female professors rose from nine to 23.4 percent. This is considerable, but it took a long time and is still a long way from real equality. There are still hurdles for women when they start a family, and the possibility of pregnancy still means that decision-making bodies in recruiting can play it safe and prefer to speak out in favor of a man.

However, this contradicts the principles of equality that have been introduced, which actually makes it more difficult to let the reservations against the recruitment of female scientists at the university continue to come into play. ”That was at least achieved.

Uwe Blass