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Bluestockings and crammers: hundred years of female students
- Under the watchful eye of nuns, the first female students lived in Atrecht College or, like these students from the 1927-28 academic year, in St Gertrude's Abbey.
© Universiteitsarchief
University

Bluestockings and crammers: hundred years of female students

Exactly 100 years ago, the first female students arrived in Leuven.

4 minutes
16 February 2021

1873. Isala Van Diest, the daughter of a surgeon, wants to enrol as a medical student. She has the support of a number of professors, but encounters resistance from the Belgian bishops, who make up the Board of Directors of the University. Rector Alexandre Namèche is also strongly opposed to the idea of a woman at the Faculty of Medicine. Van Diest refuses the proposal to enrol in the physiology and obstetrics courses as a ‘free student’ and eventually graduates as a physician from the University of Bern.

1920. The universities of Ghent, Liège and Brussels have already been admitting women for around 40 years. But the Belgian bishops, led by Cardinal Van Roey, fear that women with a university degree will neglect their duties as mothers and wives. In the end, they give in, for fear of losing students to the non-Catholic universities. And because they need (female) teachers for the new higher secondary education schools for girls. Rector Ladeuze sees that a large majority of his faculty is in favour. An educated man should be have an educated woman at his side.

Male and female students also sat separately in the auditoriums, such as during this lecture on anatomy by Professor Gerard van der Schueren in 1958.
Male and female students also sat separately in the auditoriums, such as during this lecture on anatomy by Professor Gerard van der Schueren in 1958.
© Universiteitsarchief

Separate compartments

At the beginning of the 1920-21 academic year, 39 girls enrol at the University. Six of them are international students. In his opening speech, Rector Ladeuze expresses his wish that they will stay away from programmes leading to professions that are "not in accordance with the normal function that natures assigns to them in society". Most female students choose a programme that leads to a profession in education and more than 40% studies at the Faculty of Arts. Agricultural sciences and pharmacy are also popular. Nurses, midwives and daughters of physicians, among others, take less and less notice of the University administration's opinion that medicine is not for women. From the 1930s onwards, more and more girls start a law programme - women were admitted to the bar from 1928, but the magistracy only followed in 1948.

In 1920, there are more than 3,000 students in Leuven. The small number of female students is housed in two pedagogies (colleges) under the watchful eye of nuns: Atrecht College in Naamsestraat and St Gertrude's Abbey. They can’t stay out later than 19.00 and cafés and restaurants are off limits. During the first year, the nuns accompany the students to and from class in a procession, but this proves too difficult. The University then stipulates that female students may only be seen in the street with other female students or with family members.

The two sexes are also separated in the auditoriums: the male students have their seats at the top of the auditorium, followed by the priests and the nuns, who take place on the rows below them. Then the professors enters with the female students, who are seated in the first rows. Even the trains have separate compartments for male and female students. Standaard Boekhandel reportedly enabled both groups to meet each other, but in general girls and boys were very uncomfortable with each other and the male students showed little interest in these ‘bluestockings’, who were often from intimidatingly good families and were very diligent students. Rector Ladeuze had every reason to be happy...

The Belgian bishops fear that women with a university degree will neglect their duties as mothers and wives.

Men outnumbered

In 1930, female students make up around 5 per cent of the student population. Under pressure from foreign students, the regulations are somewhat relaxed. Female students in higher years can now also rent rooms from private individuals, although landlords will rent out rooms to either boys or girls for a long time to come.

The establishment of faculty student associations in the early 1930s helps make the interaction between male and female students become more casual, which is not to the liking of the Rector’s Office. The Vice Rector constantly feels obliged to remind the female students of what behaviour is expected of them.

On the eve of the Second World War, there are 450 female students in Leuven, out of a total of 4,600 students. It will take until the turn of the century for the number of female students to equal and then surpass the number of male students.