First woman graduated in Prague 100 years ago

Marie Zdenka Baborova

The end of June is a busy time for schoolchildren and students in the Czech Republic. In all schools report cards are handed out on the last day of the month just before the two month summer vacation starts. But secondary school graduates have an additional series of exams to cope with - if they intend to go on to university, they first have to sit written, and then oral examinations, also being held just at the moment. The number of applicants far exceeds the number of university places, so the main worry is not just to pass the exams, but also to get good marks.

Earlier this year, when would-be students were sending their applications, one of the main considerations - at least for the less confident among them - was to choose a school with a low rejection rate. One consideration few people thought of was whether your chances would be better if you were a boy or a girl. Absolute equality of the sexes in university studies is taken for granted. But this has not always been so. It's exactly a hundred years since the very first female student graduated from a Czech university.

The graduation was a major event, on June 17th 1901, and prominent Czech politicians were present when Marie Zdenka Baborova received the title of doctor of philosophy. The emperor, Franz Josef I, who happened to be visiting Prague came to the University, where he met Marie Baborova and talked with her. Quite an honor in those days, but in later years she was forgotten. Her name isn't even mentioned in any of the ten existing Czech encyclopedias.

The second female university graduate fared better. Anna Honzakova, who graduated as a doctor of medicine just one year later, in 1902, is included in some of the encyclopedias and she even has a commemorative plaque on the building where she practiced medicine for 35 years. But Dr. Honzakova had a more difficult position during her lifetime. The idea of a woman doctor was not well received and one joke of the day talks about the husband who calls a woman doctor because his wife is very ill. The doctor answers, I'll come as soon as I've fixed my hair, and the desperate husband cries - but in two hours my wife could be dead! I have to get a doctor!

But in spite of much negative popular feeling, the first two women graduates did open the way for others. Girls were admitted as regular students at the Czech philosophical faculty from 1896. The Austro-Hungarian Empire did, however, draw a line in some fields of study. At the law faculty the first girl students appeared only after 1918, in the newly founded Czechoslovak Republic. The number of female students increased gradually - in 1933 one in seven university students were girls.

The trend accelerated dramatically after the Second World War and today nearly 50 percent of Czech university students are female. Probably the only institute where you won't find girls is the Military Academy's school for fighter pilots. The best of the 130 female applicants came 45th in the entrance examinations, far behind the acceptance limit. The girls did pass the physical exams, but did not do so well in mathematics, physics and English.

Author: Olga Szantová
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