Portrait History

History of women as university students

The University of Bern played a pioneering role in women's studies. As early as 1870, the University of Bern had one female Russian student on its register.

Female pioneers at the University of Bern


On July 28, 1868, Ernestine Schröer, a "lady from Germany", was enrolled in the matriculation ledger of the University of Bern without the slightest difficulty. However, she never arrived in Bern and nothing is known about her identity.


The first woman to register as a student in the "alma mater bernensis” in 1870, if only for two semesters as a guest student, came from a good Russian home. Catharina Gontscharoff was the niece of Pushkina, the wife of the great Russian poet, Alexander Pushkin.


Anna Galvis-Hotz, daughter of the Colombian Nicanor Galvis and the Swiss Sophie Hotz, enrolled as the first regular female student; she completed her studies in Bern, graduating in 1877. She then returned to Bogota, where she practiced all her life as the first female Colombian physician.


In the fall of 1872, a number of Russian women arrived in Bern, including Valérie von Hohenastenberg-Wigandt, Marie Walitzky, Barbara Tscherbatscheff and Raissa von Swiatlowsky. After Russia had issued an edict, a "ukase” that practically forbade Russian women to study in Zurich, a few dozen, then eventually a few hundred women came to Bern. 


Rosalia Simonowitsch was the first female Russian doctor to graduate in medicine at the University of Bern in May 1874.


A second wave of Russian students swept into Central Europe after the murder of Alexander II in 1881. The opposition was persecuted and, in recognition of the connection between education and the development of revolutionary ideas, admission regulations to Russian universities had become more restrictive. This resulted in an exodus from Russia of young, education-starved people and the so-called "tide of Russian women" arriving in Bern in the 1890s.


At the end of the 19th century, the Bohemian Anna Bayer was the first woman to open a medical practice in the Kramgasse in Bern, later moving to Bern's Gerechtigkeitsgasse.


Finally, the first Swiss woman, Hedwig Widmer-Zimmerli from Zofingen, completed her studies in medicine at the University of Bern, graduating with a Ph.D. In 1894, a second Swiss woman, Clémence Broye from Estavayer, graduated from the University of Bern.


Anna Tumarkin

The first woman to graduate as a professor from the University of Bern in 1898 was the philosopher Anna Tumarkin. In 1906, she also became the first female honorary professor and in 1909 she became the first associate professor. Unlike the great Sofja Kowalewskaja, who was the first female professor to be awarded a professorial chair in Stockholm in 1884, Tumarkin was Europe's very first female professor to be authorized to examine doctoral and professorial candidates and to become a member of the University Senate.


The Female Students' Society was founded in Bern to represent women's interests; their pin read "Same Rights, Same Duties".


After admission requirements became more restricted in Bern and less so in Russia, World War I broke out in 1914 and in 1917, the Russian Revolution was proclaimed, stemming the flow of Russian women coming to Bern. The proportion of female students at the University of Bern fell by a third (from 1,500 to around 500), which was less than 10 per cent of the student population.



Irene Blumenstein-Steiner

It was only in 1964 that a woman received a full professorship at the University of Bern. Irene Blumenstein-Steiner specialized in tax law and succeeded her husband two years prior to her own retirement.


Professor Maria Bindschedler, full professor in Germanic Philology, became the first female Dean of the University of Bern in 1967.


Professor Beatrix Mesmer-Strupp, full professor in General Modern and Swiss History, became Vice Rector in 1989, thus becoming the first woman to join the Executive Board of the University of Bern. To this day, there has been no female Rector at the University of Bern.


It was not until the beginning of the 1980s that the number of female students was restored to one third of the student population. Today, more than 50 per cent of the university's 14,000 students are women. However, only 14 per cent of professors are women.

Literature on the first female lecturers and students at the University of Bern

Rogger Franziska, Die Pionierinnenrolle der russischen Medizinerinnen an der Berner Universität, in: Unipress Nr. 93, Juni 1997

Rogger Frannziska, Der Doktorhut im Besenschrank. Das abenteuerliche Leben der ersten Studentinnen – am Beispiel der Universität Bern. eFeF-Verlag Bern 1999/2002, ISBN 3-905561-32-8

Bachmann Barbara und Elke Bradenahl, Medizinstudium von Frauen in Bern, 1871-1914, Diss. med. dent., Masch. aus dem Medizinhistorischen Institut der Universität Bern (Prof. Dr. U. Boschung). Bern 1990

Zäh Doris, Die ersten Studentinnen an der Juristischen Fakultät 1874-1914. Seminararbeit (Prof. Dr. Pio Caroni), Masch. Bern 1992

Lindt-Loosli Hanni, Von der “Hülfsarbeiterin” zur Pfarrerin. Die bernischen Theologinnen auf dem

steinigen Weg zur beruflichen Gleichberechtigung. Verlag Haupt Bern-Stuttgart-Wien 2000. (Schriftenreihe des Synodalrates Heft 18), ISBN 3-258-06191-2

Schmitt Susanna, Die ersten Studentinnen an der philosophischen Fakultät der Universität Bern. Proseminararbeit (Prof. Dr. Catherine Bosshart-Pfluger), Masch. Fribourg 2002