Felicitaties voor Christine Mohrmann (1953)
Felicitaties voor Christine Mohrmann (1953)

Radboud100: A woman at last! (1953)

In 1953, Christine Mohrmann became Radboud University's first female professor. Although Mohrmann devoted her life to science, the road to the top was very difficult. In 1953, she broke the glass ceiling, opening the way for more women in science.

An 'anachronistic phenomenon'. Christine Mohrmann, the first woman to join the Nijmegen professorial corps in 1953, is referring to the special 'women’s issue’ of the Nijmeegs Universiteitsblad (Nijmegen University Journal) of 17 March 1962. In her contribution to the issue, she makes no mention of her arduous road to the top. She only writes: “The female student does not wish to renounce her femininity, but she also does not wish – as a woman – to be forced into an exceptional position.” An extraordinary statement coming from someone who, after much male resistance, was finally allowed to take office as the first female professor, 30 years after the University had first opened its doors.

'Vieux-rose furniture'

In her article, an invitation from the “largely male editors” to speak to the place of female students in the academic community, she looks back pityingly at the early days of the University. At the time, a special ‘adjoining room’ had been set up for female students in the student fraternity building at Oranjesingel 42, “furnished with frilly vieux-rose furniture by the firm of Vroom and Dreesmann.” It was, as the classicist notes, a veritable hyperooion: the abode of the “very feminine, very chaste, very lonely, and very resolute Penelope.”

This particularly female student did not in any case feel at home on the plush furniture. Christine Mohrmann (1903-1988) was fully committed to science. Her academic career felt like nothing short of a vocation, one for which she set aside everything, including marriage. In 1928, she obtained her doctoral degree in Classics cum laude, and four years later, once again cum laude, she completed a PhD on the writings of Augustine, under the guidance of her teacher Jos Schrijnen. Together, they became pioneers in the study of Christianity’s influence on Greek and especially Latin. This niche within classical studies enjoyed international fame under the name of École de Nimègue, the Nijmegen School.

A woman in science

In Nijmegen itself, Schrijnen was however more or less the only Catholic male to see her talents. His attempts to appoint her as a private lecturer and later as his successor stranded due to reluctance and distrust of women in science: to the Radboud Foundation and the bishops, a female professor was unthinkable. Schrijnen campaigned all the way to within Vatican walls, but to no avail. Nor did his sudden death in 1938 open any doors for the female classicist.

Other universities did want her: in 1937 she was appointed private lecturer in Christian and Vulgar Latin in Utrecht, followed by a position as lecturer in 1943, after which she was offered a lectorate at the Municipal University of Amsterdam in 1946. And then finally, in 1952, she was appointed Professor by Special Appointment of Early Christian, Vulgar and Medieval Latin in Nijmegen, where she held her inaugural lecture in 1953. 

Through the glass ceiling

Christine Mohrmann was the first woman to be appointed professor in 1953. Number two, Elisabeth Allard (Non-Western Sociology), followed in 1958. It would be another 15 years before number three came along in 1973: I.M. Dessaur (Criminology, better known by her nom de plume Andreas Burnier). Another decade later, two more female professors were appointed, bringing the total up to five: Etty Mulder (1982, Musicology) and Catharina Halkes (1983, Theology). The 2022 Women Professors Monitor estimates the proportion of female professors at 29.2% (out of the total number of professors at Radboud University, not counting the health sector).

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This is an abbreviated version of a story from the Dutch book: 2023-1923. Honderd jaar Radboud Universiteit in 101 beelden (or 1923-2023. A century in 101 stories). This anniversary book will appear in May 2023 and will be published by Boom Publishers.

Want to know more? Please send an e-mail to communicatie [at] ru.nl (communicatie[at]ru[dot]nl). Would you like to reserve the book in advance? Please click here.