Barriers and stumbling blocks
In Sweden, as in most other countries, science and higher education used to be primarily male domains. It was only in 1870 that women gained the right to graduate from high school, and thus the possibility of being admitted to university. Women were widely thought to lack independent scientific ability, and their presence at university was regarded as a distraction for the male students
From 1870 up until the 1920s women could only graduate from high school as private students, as the state schools remained closed to them. But even though the barriers were many, women could now obtain an academic education and take a higher degree. At first the women studied primarily medicine and a few other subjects. In 1883 Ellen Fries defended her dissertation in history at Uppsala University – the first woman in Sweden to obtain the modern doctoral degree.
After graduation, it stops
During the last three decades of the 19th century more than 150 women were enrolled as students at Uppsala University. The female students had a precarious existence. In the 1890s they formed their own student society in Uppsala and in 1906 the Kvinnliga akademikers förbund, KAF (Women’s Academic Association), was founded.
After graduation the women had to leave the University. They could not be employed as state high school teachers, as many of their male fellow students were. According to the 1809 constitution only native born Swedish men could be appointed or promoted to higher government service. This law was challenged by the growing Swedish women´s rights movement, but the resistance to allowing women “into the state” was strong.
Few career oportunities for female academics
Among married women it was still unusual to work professionally. But many unmarried women with a university education chose to become teachers at the private girls’ schools, research assistants, or doctors in private practice. Many of the female academics also became politically engaged in the suffrage movement.
In 1884, Stockholm University College, an independent institution outside state control, appointed the Russian mathematician Sonja Kovalevsky as professor. She was the first female mathematics professor in the world.