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Project description

Women at University: Aarhus University 1928-2000

The “Womens University” research project focuses on women’s path to higher education in the 20th and 21st centuries, and on how the increasingly academic nature of vocational training courses has proved to be a stepping-stone along this path for women in Denmark. The research project adopts a historical perspective in considering the fact that women now constitute a majority of the students at Danish universities, and the fact that women in Denmark achieve a higher level of education than men.

This historical perspective is unfolded in two projects: a study of developments since the 1990s, involving the introduction of professional Bachelor’s degree programmes; and a study of selected vocational training courses at Aarhus University from the years around World War II. These studies place the focus on women’s educational strategies, experiences and memories.

A historical perspective on the female professions

Historically speaking, women have been prevented from attending university and higher education. Education used to be reserved for men, with women being given a domestic role looking after the home and children. From the mid-19th century onwards, women started to train as teachers because there was a shortage in this profession. This led to the formation of women’s teacher-training colleges as well as schools of domestic science, where women could learn how to become good housekeepers. Another important profession for women was nursing, with the first school of nursing being opened in 1863: Diakonissestiftelsens Sygeplejeskole in Frederiksberg, Copenhagen. During the 20th century the number of women applying for courses of further education increased, as did the number of professional training programmes and vocational colleges available for women. From 1938 onwards, nurses could attend courses of further education at Aarhus University. And they were joined there in 1945 by domestic science teachers, who were now able to attend further education at the university thanks to the efforts of the Danish housewives and women’s movement. The aim was to increase respect for the work done by women in the home, and to make it more scientific. In 1958 Institut for Terapiassistenter was set up at Aarhus University, where occupational therapists and physiotherapists were trained. The number of training colleges for childcare professionals also increased significantly during this period.

Protests by young people and students (and not least the women’s movement in the 1960s and 1970s) have had a great influence on the progress made by women in the world of education. But women’s own narratives have been ignored in the history of educational development in Denmark. The goal of the Women at University project is to identify and focus on women’s own narratives and perspectives. We assume that femininity has experienced a process of modernisation as women’s level of education has increased. The project will also seek to gain greater understanding of the development that has occurred: why do female students constitute the majority in higher education and at university in Denmark today?

Theory and method

The project derives its theoretical and methodical inspiration from post-structural and neo-materialist, affective readings of the history of women’s education. It draws on studies of the gendered becomings of academia and university cultures, on archive material and personal narratives. And the project pursues the cultural turn within international university history.

By adopting a historically comparative and affective approach, the project will shift the focus on Danish university history from anniversary celebrations and educational planning towards the way in which the university is formed by people, staff, students and managers, located in the many changing (and often conflictual) everyday affective situations in which different academic and disciplinary expectations and identities meet, while boundaries and understandings shift and social contexts change.

The two junior projects have a shared theme. The historical part of the project will be produced by Pernille Svare Nygaard, a PhD student. Astrid Elkjær Sørensen, a postdoc student, will be responsible for analysing developments since the 1990s. Ning de Coninck-Smith, the project manager, will contribute her own research to the project as well as being the project supervisor.