Elsa Eschelsson

Elsa Eschelsson (1861-1911) was the second woman in Sweden to receive a PhD. A brilliant academic, she was awarded her doctorate in Law at Uppsala University in 1897. She immediately received a fellowship, thus becoming the first female university lecturer in Sweden.

Elsa Eschelsson lectured in civil and procedural law, and published articles which were considered important contributions to the field. Despite her great talent and high productivity, however, she was never allowed to become a professor. Instead, she was slandered to such a degree that she chose to take her own life, in 1911.

Women had gained the right to study at university in Sweden in 1873, but their ability to make a career, and to get equal pay, was severely limited. The Faculty of Law at Uppsala University suggested that Eschelsson be appointed Professor of Civil Law in 1898 and, in 1899, Professor of Procedural Law. However, although the Faculty of Law supported Eschelsson, the vice-chancellor of the University, Thore Fries, wanted to prevent women from making inroads into academia.

Eschelsson fought hard for her right to a professorship, but Fries took great pains to block her application. In 1899 Alfred Ossian Winroth was awarded the professorship in civil law which Eschelsson had been denied. Winroth undermined Eschelsson’s authority, exhorted his students to forget everything Eschelsson had taught them, and wrote critical articles about her in the local paper.

Many women academics in early 20th-century Sweden became teachers, since most government and university posts were closed to them. In 1902, a proposal was made to formalise a system of lower wages for women teachers. According to the proposal, a male teacher would always earn more than a female teacher, even if she had better qualifications. In addition, in 1904, the Minister of Education and Ecclesiastical Affairs presented a proposal that forced women teachers to retire earlier than men, further limiting women teachers’ ability to make a career. The result of this attack on women academics was that they formed a society, Akademiskt Bildade Kvinnors Förening (now known as KAF, Kvinnliga Akademikers Förening), in order to promote the interests of women academics and ensure their equal rights on the employment market.

The first chairwoman of the new society, formed in 1904, was Elsa Eschelsson. (Second chairwoman, from 1910-1918, was Karolina Widerström.  Asta Kihlbom was chairwoman 1942-1948.) Eschelsson and the other women academics lost the battle against the Minister of Education and Ecclesiastical Affairs, but they kept fighting the war for women’s rights. In 1909, a proposal went through to change an old law, from 1809, that stipulated that government posts could only be held by “Swedish men”. Originally intended to prevent foreigners from working for the government, the law was interpreted to exclude women from government posts, although there was legal precedence for interpreting the word “man” as “man or woman” in similar cases.

The new proposal, implemented in 1911, which was meant to open up jobs for women academics, simply cemented the hurdles set for women. Among other posts closed to women according to the proposal were professorships in medicine, and also in civil law, penal law, and procedural law – precisely the posts Elsa Eschelsson had wanted to apply for. The proposal was circulated for comment among the country’s universities. The Karolinska institute (where Karolina Widerström took her PhD) wanted women to be able to apply for academic positions on an equal basis with men. Knut Wicksell (husband of Anna Bugge Wicksell) argued passionately in favour of women’s equal rights. But Uppsala University showed downright contempt for the notion of letting women into academia, and announced that the professorship in civil law would definitely only be open to male applicants.

After reading Uppsala University’s comments on the proposal, Elsa Eschelsson wrote her will, and took an overdose of sleeping tablets. The women academics of Sweden had lost their leader and brightest star. Nonetheless, the fight for equality continued, and when women gained the right to vote, in 1921, they found it easier to petition for equal employment rights. The law barring women from government posts was changed in 1925, when women finally gained access to (most of) the posts for which they had been able to gain qualifications for half a century.

Elsa Eschelsson is remembered as a brilliant academic, and a champion for women’s rights.

Written for Sheroes of History by Ingrid Lyberg.

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