“Gender and/in Science”: A Workshop Report

Zofia Weigl in Rudolf Weigl’s lab in Lwów, late 1930s (Narodowe Archiwum Cyfrowe, Pic 1-N-623)

On 14 June 2019, the Centre for Historical Research Berlin of the Polish Academy of Sciences (PAN) in Pankow, Berlin, welcomed a small group of interdisciplinary academics to discuss a topic that has not lost any of its importance: women and gender and/in science.[1] The participants – professors, research fellows and PhD students – came from a variety of academic backgrounds, which made for a very stimulating and open discussion. In particular, we talked about two current research projects focussing on the early 20th century: firstly, Justyna Górny’s literary study of novels depicting women at German, Austrian and Polish universities; and secondly, Iwona Dadej’s prosopography of women earning a professorship (Habilitation) at Polish universities.

Both projects offered unique insights into the lives of women in academia: The novels Justyna Górny analyses – amongst others Ilse Frapan’s Die Arbeit (1903) and Vicky Baum’s stud. chem Helene Willfüer (1928) – are documents of the social construction of gender and science: who was granted access to academia and its (social, cultural, financial) resources, by whom, and why? What images did the novels convey about the changing role of women in society at the turn of the century and after the First World War, as well as their self-perception? What were the differences between fictional and “real” biographies of women in academia, and what does that tell us? Górny’s ideas about the significance of women’s bodies and their represention in novels as well as the relationship between university education and nation-building provided much food for thought.

Equally, Iwona Dadej’s presentation picked up on central questions in gender history and the history of science. After her dissertation on transnational networks of Polish and German academics in the interwar period, her current project reconstructs biographies of female professors in interwar Poland. Dadej’s aim is to overcome stereotypical, heroic accounts of women’s lives. Many feminist biographies downplay the social and cultural construction of gender roles in their narratives. Instead, Dadej wants to focus on the multiple and often overlapping roles of women – scientist, mother, wife, superior, assistant, and so on. In this light, academia is a space where gender roles are negotiated.

We at the “London Moment” project – in particular my project that focuses on émigré jurists and their work in and around British universities – could benefit from the workshop’s ideas in a number of ways.

Universities, as other institutions, are spaces of knowledge and science (Wissens- and Wissenschaftsräume) that are – among other things – structured by gender. For example, when we think about who was granted access to discussions about the international legal order during the Second World War, path dependencies influenced women’s role in academia. In most countries, women still had very limited access to universities and the legal sciences. Accordingly, few women were among the jurists who had to emigrate to London during the Second World War. Female refugees with legal training were mostly of German-Jewish origin, but none of them (that I know of) resumed their professional legal work. This could have various reasons. In general, they were – just like their male counterparts – experts in a foreign legal system and of no real use for the British labour market except when they tailored their expertise to the needs of their new home country. Careers in international and comparative law as well as criminology were possible, but rare. Additionally, immigrated female jurists usually were not granted work permits. Thus, the experience of migration forced many women back into “old” roles, i.e. serving their husband’s career instead of advancing professionally themselves. This does not mean that they had no effect on the history of legal science. However, if their role consisted in advising and supporting their husbands, e.g. by doing research or editing manuscripts or even only discussing ideas, their work often went unnoticed. As few of them left any personal documents behind and did not work for an organisation with an institutional archive, their roles often remain invisible and difficult to detect for the historian.

Consequently, in order to uncover women’s roles in the history of (legal) science, historians are dependent on respective primary sources. Alongside university papers, autobiographies such as Suse Schwarzenberger’s ‘German Academics in the 20th Century: A Personal Story’ (London, no date) can be of great value. The text can be accessed in several libraries, among them the Wiener Library in London[2] and is a highly readable account of the lives of Suse and her husband Georg Schwarzenberger, the famous international lawyer. The better part of the autobiography concerns the 1930s and 40s, their emigration from Germany to Great Britain in 1934 and Georg’s career in British academia.[3] The pitfalls of this type of source are that the author constructs her own narrative in order to make sense of her life and herself as historical subject. In that process, she will inevitably leave out aspects of her life and work that might have been of great interest to her readers – on purpose or because she does not deem them relevant. Despite these caveats, autobiographies do help us answer questions such as: how did the author perceive of herself and her role in science? If her career was upended by exile, did she continue to see herself as scientist who was on an equal footing with her husband, or did she assume a supporting role? And even if we judge her professional biography as “failure” today, how did she see it? The most difficult task when working with autobiographies, however, is to look beyond individuals like Suse Schwarzenberger and make observations about the society she lived in and was formed by. This can only be done in connection with other historical sources, for instance the papers of the Society of the Protection of Science and Learning (SPSL)[4] or the London Institute of World Affairs, where Georg Schwarzenberger worked before his academic career took off. This could tell us a lot about the roles of female jurists in the “London Moment” and English academia more generally.

[1] http://www.cbh.pan.pl/de/geschlecht-undin-wissenschaft. For the program (in German), see below.

[2] Also see Weydner, Sara. ‘From the Archives’. 09/11/2017. https://exilegov.hypotheses.org/381.

[3] Cf. Steinle, Stephanie. “Georg Schwarzenberger (1908-1991).” In Jurists Uprooted: German-Speaking Emigré Lawyers in Twentieth Century Britain, edited by Jack Beatson and Reinhard Zimmermann, 663–80. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014; id. Völkerrecht und Machtpolitik: Georg Schwarzenberger (1908-1991). Baden-Baden: Nomos, 2002; Ploß, Christoph Johannes. Die “New Commonwealth Society”: Ein Ideen-Laboratorium Für den supranationalen europäischen Integrationsprozess. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner, 2017.

[4] Also see Weydner, S. ‘BBC-Documentary “Miss Simpson’s Children”: How a Woman ran a Refugee Organisation’. 24/07/2018. https://exilegov.hypotheses.org/619.

Program (German)

11:00 Uhr


11:15 – 13:15

Justyna Górny (Institut für Germanistik UW): Studentinnen und Wissenschaftlerinnen – literarische Projektionen und Konstruktionen am Beispiel deutscher, österreichischer und polnischer Romane

Kommentar: Prof. Dr. Anne Kwaschik (Universität Konstanz)


14:15- 16:15

Iwona Dadej (IH PAN): Geschlechterordnung in polnischer akademischen Kultur in der ersten Hälfte des 20. Jahrhunderts

Kommentar: Dr. Katrin Steffen (Nordost-Institut)


Cite this blog post
Sara Weydner (2019, June 19). “Gender and/in Science”: A Workshop Report. The London Moment. Retrieved April 19, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/onlz

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