Adele Hartmann: Germany’s first female lecturer

10 Dec 2019

In the early 20th century, most resistance to women on campus came from faculty members. Many famous academics rejected the idea of women intruding on ‘their’ domain. Germany’s first "Privatdozentin" had to fight hard for her position.

Fotografie von Adele Hartmann beim Lesen einer Zeitung

Adele Hartmann | © -

When LMU’s iconic Main Building was being renovated a few years back, the toilets on either side of the Audimax were refurbished. They were also reassigned – for an eminently practical reason. The existing Gents’ toilets took up much more space than the Ladies‘, but by the time of the renovation, women already made up the majority of students at LMU.

The first cohort of women admitted to the University – in the Winter Semester of 1903-1904 – consisted of 15 pioneers, all of whom matriculated in Medicine. Only 30 years before, an earlier member of the LMU Medical Faculty, the anatomist and embryologist Theodor von Bischoff, had vehemently argued that women lacked the intellectual, emotional and physical abilities required to study the subject.

In 1919, 100 years ago, physician Adele Hartmann became the first woman in Germany to qualify as a university lecturer.

Professor von Bischoff was by no means alone in his conviction that women were ‘by nature’ ill-equipped for academic careers. His views were shared by many leading scholars and scientists in his own time (he died in 1882) and later. Little wonder then that female university students were often subjected to mockery and discrimination. In fact, discrimination against women was rife at the pre-university level at this time. Very few, highly privileged, women had the chance to complete their secondary education.

Adele Hartmann was permitted to take her university entrance exam (Abitur) only as an ‘extern’, largely working on her own. Once embarked on her medical studies however, her academic career proceeded rapidly. Her doctoral thesis on the development of the embryonic mesenchyme received a summa cum laude. Her academic supervisor, the anatomist Siegfried Mollier, referred to Hartmann as “an author who is captivated by her intellectual inquiries”.

Rough winds doth shake the darling buds of May …

Eine Karikatur, auf der eine Frau abgebildet ist, die von Männern in einem Vorlesesaal umringt ist.

Among the arguments most often used to disqualify women from taking up such intellectual pursuits was that the rigorous demands of scholarship and academic competition would cause them to lose their ‘lily-like delicacy’ (Lilienhaftigkeit). Indeed, one of the references cited in support of the proposal to appoint Hartmann as an Adjunct Professor appears to have been designed expressly to refute this imputation in her case. It noted that: “Over the course of her academic training, Dr. Hartmann has always retained the tactful and sensitive personality of the true gentlewoman.“

But the appointment was ultimately a tribute to the candidate’s qualifications. Some observers contended that the decision was a response to the upheavals in the immediate aftermath of the First World War. Adele Hartmann herself emphatically challenged this notion: “I reject the idea that the revolution was responsible for the nomination of the first female university lecturer in Germany,” she wrote.

She herself attributed the distinction to her “years of intense effort”. And although her subsequent career was not especially remarkable, her appointment makes 1919 a red-letter year in the fight for gender equality in education.

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