How women rocked the foundations of universities

Just as in most European countries, Catalan women had to fight their way into university. However, the possibilities in which women could shape their lives were clearly determined by the course of Spanish history.

The first students
In the beginning women entered university by enrolling in medical studies; later on they chose exact sciences. The first woman ever to set foot in a Catalan university classroom was Elena Maseras who enrolled in the Medicine Faculty of the University of Barcelona in 1872 (see pictures below). Allegedly she was applauded when she made her appearance in the lecture room. Some six years later she finished her studies and requested to be examined in order to obtain her degree.

This seemingly simple petition threw the bureaucratic organs of the university into a state of great confusion. It took them three years to sort things out and in February 1889 she finally got permission to present herself at the exams where she obtained the qualification ‘excellent’. Nevertheless, these obstacles had disheartened her, and she decided not to continue her medical studies and gave up her aspirations of becoming a doctor. During the three years of bureaucratic silence she had followed a teacher training and worked in this capacity in secondary institutions till her death.

The fact that a woman was studying at university raised a whole range of issues, as this phenomena rocked moral principles of a society that was not prepared to let men and women share the same classsroom. Also ideologic and economic principles were at stake, or so it was believed, when reality sank in: studying women not only wanted to acquire knowledge, but they also intended to exercize a profession.

When women expressed their desire to enter an educational institute, whether it was a secondary school or a university, they not only had to listen to speeches about the limited capacities of the female brain, but they also had to swallow a large variety of insults, like ‘butch’, ‘degenerate’, ‘dragon’, ‘know-all’, ‘rattler’ and ‘bluestocking’, uttered by people who did not understand their pursuit. It was even said that if women’s aspiration to obtain a diploma was so strong, why not give them one purely honorary.

To defy prevailing opinions and overcome all these stumbling blocks women needed a lot of courage, resilience and perseverance. In those early days two Catalan women, Dolors Aleu and Martina Castells, showed stamina and did become the first female Doctors in Medicine in 1882.

What followed
But how was it possible that women were admitted to university, and such a centuries old and respected one as the Faculty of Medicine, in the first place? The idea that women would want to study had never crossed the mind of the legislators, so the law did not expressly forbid it. Women just seized the opportunity that offered this legal vacuum as well as the perplexity provoked by their desire to study. Of course this ‘chaos’ could not last and the legislators felt they had to regain control of the situation. The solution was not long in coming. Between 1882 and 1910 new rules and regulations were issued concerning the frame within which female presence in secondary and university studies was permitted.

In 1882 a Royal decree was published that prohibited women from entering secondary and university studies. A year later this law was repealed, to be followed by another that banned women from university only. Because all in all it could be a good idea that women received an kind of education of some sort (or so the more liberal men believed), as in the end they were destined to become mothers and especially mothers of citizens (that is male citizens) who in the long run were going to bear responsibilities in public life.

Success and disillusion
It was not until 1888 that the access of women to study at university was acknowledged as a right. Finally in 1910 graduated women were granted authorization to freely exercize their profession in all the institutions that came under the Ministry of Public Instruction. Later on the Second Spanish Republic, the democratic government that ruled from 1931 till 1939, created a political and social situation that clearly favoured the protagonism of women in all areas, among which science. This positive development was sadly cut short by the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939); the options were to go into exile or submit to the mentality of the nationalists: the rebel faction that at the end of the armed conflict established a military dictatorship under general Franco determining the lives of generations to come. For women in general it meant back to square one. For women engaged in science it meant becoming invisible for years.

Fortunately nowadays women are participating again in university studies and projects of international scope, where their contribution is decisive and indispensable. On this blog you can find two portraits that illustrate this development. Shortly an article dedicated to an early mathematician called Montserrat Capdevila i d’Oriola will be published; click here for a post on Carlota Dobaño who is a valued researcher of malaria immunology, currently working in Barcelona.

Montserrat Capdevila

Some of the consulted sources:
Catalanes del XX, Pilar Godayol (ed.), Eumo Editorial, 2006
Lleida és femení. Dones per a la història, various authors, introduction by Conxita Mir, Alfa. Serveis Lingüístics i Editorials, S.L., 2009

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