The female pioneers – the ones who paved the way at Lund University

Imagine not daring to wear your student cap or to walk home alone after your public defence…. Letters and diary entries show that for the first women in higher education, this was nothing unusual.

Early female students at Lund University.

Christina Sjöblad, professor emerita of comparative and Scandinavian literature, has conducted research on late 19th century women, and she herself was one of the pioneers in the 70s and 80s who wrote women into literary history. Here she tells of her journey and about the women who came first.

As a young researcher, Christina Sjöblad was married and had small children. She had to start by changing the doctoral and degree project seminars which, at the time, were held in the evenings.

Christina Sjöblad, professor emerita of comparative and Scandinavian literature and a pioneer herself.

“For us who had children in kindergarten, it was impossible to head back out in the evenings. After some convincing, the seminars were moved to the afternoons.”

Changing the reading lists, however – which apart from Selma Lagerlöf and Edith Södergran only included male authors – proved to be more difficult.

“Here we faced tougher resistance, but with small, small steps we manged to move forward just the same”, says Christina Sjöblad, and tells of the Nordic network of female researchers that was formed a hundred years after Georg Brandes’s “The Modern Breakthrough”.

When the Danish literary scholar Pil Dahlerup presented her thesis “Det moderna genombrottets kvinnor” (The Women of the Modern Breakthrough) in 1983, it became the starting point for the Nordic research network.

“We were a hundred women – and I started a course at my department on Nordic women’s literature that became very popular.”

The former Swedish research council for humanities and social sciences (HSFR) awarded funding equivalent to six posts in gender equality and women’s studies, of which Christina Sjöblad was appointed to one. Together with her colleagues Eva Haettner Aurelius and Lisbeth Larsson, she started the project on women’s autobiographies and diaries in Sweden in 1650–1989, which received wide recognition.

Women’s studies and women’s literature were here to stay, and Christina Sjöblad describes this period of establishing cooperation with her Nordic colleagues as a fun time.

“It was a new field that people found exciting and I was always treated kindly. In Uppsala, there was Karin Westman Berg, a major inspiration, who came to visit in Lund, and she was particularly interested in Victoria Benedictsson whom I was researching at the time.”

When asked what this pioneering work with women’s literature has meant, Christina Sjöblad responds by saying that parts of literary history have needed to be rewritten.

“When Pil Dahlerup presented her thesis in 1984 she showed an entire 150-year-old literary history with practically no women at all. Today there is a female literary canon. Even male authors have been reinterpreted from a gender perspective.”


The Faculty of Medicine was the first to admit women. In 1880, Hildegard Björk became the first to enrol in the spring, followed by Hedda Andersson in the autumn. The former withdrew from studies, and Hedda Andersson was practically alone for two years before the next woman was admitted.

Image: Hedda Andersson.

“Obviously, it was lonely”, says Christina Sjöblad, who further argues that medicine was first because the need for female physicians became increasingly apparent due to the typical female medical ailments.

Also highlighting women at the time was literary critic Georg Brandes’s lectures in Copenhagen that attracted intellectuals from all over the Nordic region; not least Victoria Benedictsson from Sweden with whom he had an affair. Christina Sjöblad says that in the meetings that followed, the problems of society were made the subject of debate.

“Major issues concerning education and women were addressed, and he published his work ‘The Modern Breakthrough’ in 1871. It was mainly about men but still meant that many women subsequently debuted as authors, and that women made their entry into academia.”

Lund’s female student association was formed in 1900, and in the 20s, it was student Margot Christensson who initiated the tennis court at Gerdahallen. Britt G Hallqvist became the first female writer for the students’ union magazine Lundagård in the 30s, and Frida Palmér was one of the most promising researchers in astronomy during the interwar period who received her PhD in 1939 and thus became Sweden’s first female doctor of astronomy.

However, it was not until 1965 that Lund University – almost 20 years after Uppsala – appointed its first female professor:  Birgitta Odén, of history. A year before, Carin Boalt had been made professor at LTH, which was not part of Lund University at the time.

Image: first female professor at Lund University Birgitta Odén.

Carin Boalt was the first woman to become a professor at an institute of technology in Sweden. In the 1970s, the Department of Archaeology had two female professors: Märta Strömberg and Berta Stjernquist,  and in 1994, when Lund University appointed its first female vice-chancellor, Boel Flodgren, there were 20 female professors at the University – out of a total of 350. Today (2016), the corresponding numbers are 175 women out of a total of 694 professors.

The first female vice-chancellor at Lund University Boel Flodgren.

Originally published in Lunds universitets magasin (LUM).
Text: Maria Lindh

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