My Life as a Scientist. An Auto-Fictional Account of a Female Physicist
By Alexandra Thaler, Marlene Haug, and Melanie Allgäuer.
My name is Rosemarie Wagner, but you can call me Rosa, like all my friends did. Today, I would be 113 years old. I was born on May 20 in 1909 in Munich. You have probably never heard of me; however, I was the first female lecturer of Physics at the University of Innsbruck. This makes me one of the most important representatives of Physics of the 20th century at this university. I had to overcome many hurdles in my career before I was appointed professor. Today, I would like to take you with me on my journey: from my life as a student after the First World War to my employment at the University of Innsbruck.1
Studying after the First World War
I was born in Munich in 1909, as the daughter of a factory manager. I came to Berlin in 1919 when I was ten and took my Abitur there in 1929, after which I began my studies in Physics at the Friedrich Wilhelm University in Berlin, being one of the still small number of female students at that time.
It was quite disappointing at first, until I found my way around and finally made friends with similar interests. From then on I was happy. However, it must be said that this time was also the time of high unemployment: It didn’t seem to matter what you studied, you would never find work anyway. The scientific value of seminars and lectures depended heavily on the respective professors. For example, when I asked a well-known professor if he would repeat one of his seminars again, he told me that it was over. When I replied: “It’s a shame, I would have been very interested in that,” he said: “It doesn’t matter what interests you.”2 Over the years, my group of fellow students became smaller and smaller; in the end, we were only about ten young people who wanted or needed to do a doctorate. Besides, in the tumult of the political upheavals, one had to be very careful not to get professors who were in favour of it. So, I withdrew, mainly studied on my own and read a lot, sat in libraries quite often and listened to as few lectures as possible. However, I continued to attend the seminars as they were more necessary and fruitful. Only the events of the fascist student body were really bad: A student would sit there and say some things at an incredibly low intellectual level. I went to an event like this once and never came back. At first it was said that you wouldn’t get a stamp for your ID if you weren’t there, but I got through without a stamp.3 There was never any trouble about it; It was all just a threat. But very uncomfortable. The level was so miserable that it was torture having to listen to it.
Finding a Job
During my studies, it was time for me to find a job since money was tight. This sounds a lot easier than you might think. It had only been a few years, since about 1900, that there even was an option for women to work as a scientist outside of the university4. There were research institutions called Akademien and they professionalised the work of a scientist, so you were able to still work in science but not be employed by a university. I was lucky enough to get a job at the Preußische Akademie der Wissenschaften (PAW) in 1933.
There were different job positions within such academies, the highest being that of a wissenschaftlicher Beamter. This position was reserved for male scientists only.5 The career path within these academies was split in two ways. You either chose the scientific part of the project or the managerial part. I wanted to use what I learned at university, so my path was clear; I wanted to have a career in science. There were a lot of us women that worked within such settings.6 But as you can imagine, there were still differences regarding what part of the project we worked on and what our tasks were. Me, working in the scientific part of such a project, I was mostly surrounded by male scientists. Don’t get me wrong, there were a lot of female scientists as well, but the majority of scientists were men.7 On the other hand, the assistants and people working on the managing side were predominantly female.
The tasks we had to do were also different to those of our male colleagues. To show you what I mean, I can give you an example of a friend of mine. She was recruited to work on a project where there was a lot of paper sorting and organising involved. After the people in power, aka men, realised how much work and time went into these ‘miniscule’ tasks, they started hiring more women to do these jobs8 even though they all had the same education and were at similar stages in their scientific careers as their male colleagues. While working on such projects, you can imagine that there were even more differences. Me and my female friends had to work on more assisting tasks in the beginning where we had to help and support other scientists. It was still interesting work, but not what we wanted to do. It took a while to be given more important tasks and really work on our own. Our male friends had a different experience. They started out at the same point we did, but they were given more important tasks pretty much right away and were promoted faster as well. (Ibid., 117.)) It did not take a long time before they were able to publish their first findings and be considered important parts of the projects. It took me and my friend a lot longer to get to this point.
And it wasn’t just the tasks themselves, but also the payment. I experienced this firsthand. There were different ways you would get paid while working on such a project or within such an academy. You could either get a fixed salary or you could be part of a tariff system where you were paid according to the tasks and hours you worked. The wages weren’t necessarily worse to that of someone with a fixed salary, but they were more unstable.9 You were either dependent on the work and tasks you were given, or you were dependent on the economic situation of the academy you were working for. But we never let these things stop us.
Starting an academic career
Despite my displeasure, I couldn’t give up my work because I needed the money, even if it wasn’t much. In 1935, I submitted my dissertation. However, it took two more years before I was able to receive my doctoral certificate, because I had to have it printed, and for that I needed money, which I didn’t have to that extent. And even then it only happened because I kept bugging my parents about it until my father finally sold his gold watch chain from Russia and handed me the profit with the words: “Now you can print your work”.
After completing my dissertation in 1935, I got married, took my husband’s name, and had our children. However, I continued to work at the PAW, mainly because our financial situation worsened: my husband was the editor of a Catholic newspaper, which was initially only observed by the Ministry of Propaganda but was eventually banned, which rendered him unemployed. Of course it was very difficult for the children, but I had a domestic help who looked after them when they were little. It wasn’t easy.
After the war, I was commissioned to write a book for a local publisher, for which I received a fee while I was working on it, which was very fortunate. From then on, I reserved one day a week for writing the book. The rest of the week I was in charge of the household, shopping and taking care of the children. During this time we were so starved that my memory malfunctioned, making writing more difficult. But even that time passed. But then, my husband died and I had to look after our children on my own and it was necessary to find a permanent job.
Working at the University of Innsbruck
Through one of my former professors in Berlin, I finally came to the University of Innsbruck in 1945, where I first worked as an assistant to the rector, later became a lecturer and finally became a full professor after the recommendation of my male colleagues.10 However, my position was accompanied by some nice words such as: “It is unthinkable that a woman would become a professor of Physics. That does not exist”.11
The conditions of the institutes in Innsbruck were pretty precarious.12 With time I also had to realise that my male colleagues at the university were advancing way faster in their careers than I could ever dream of. While I was writing one scientific paper after the other and the title of a professor was my greatest possible achievement, the career ladder for my male colleagues did not end there. They received job offers from all over the world; and not primarily because of their knowledge, but because they came “from a distinct family of professors”.13 Others became dean of the faculty or the rector of the university. So while my male colleagues all got some propositions from other universities, the private sector or from the University of Innsbruck itself, I only ever got promoted when I was recommended by male colleagues. During this time, in the 1950s and 1960s, only a few women had authorization to teach in a natural sciences department at the University of Innsbruck as well: me, Erika Cremer (chemistry), Maria Kuhnert-Brandstätter (pharmacy) and Else Jahn (applied entomology).14 In 1970 I left the university to retire, having spent my entire professional life in research and teaching.
It might have taken me longer than it took my male colleagues, but I learned a lot on my way to become a scientist and lecturer at the University of Innsbruck. I made great friends, learned some important life lessons and I never gave up. When you are reading my story, these are the most important things I want you to remember. And I hope that now, universities are a more inclusive and diverse space. If not, I have no doubt in my mind that this is something you can help to achieve. If you want to learn more about other important women at the University of Innsbruck, check out this timeline.
From left to right: Adelheid Schneller, Erika Cremer, Elise Richter. Schneller was the first female student at the University of Innsbruck, Cremer became a full professor of physical chemistry in 1995, and Richter was the first woman to habilitate at an Austrian University.
Melanie Allgäuer: I am 26 years old and did my bachelor’s degree in Translation Science and Economics. I am now in my 4th semester of my master’s degree in Gender, Culture, and Social Change.
Marlene Haug: I am 26 years old and I am in the first semester of my master’s degree in Gender, Culture, and Social Change. I did my bachelor’s degree in British and American Studies and Gender Studies.
Alexandra Thaler: I am 24 years old and I am in the second semester of my master’s degree in Gender, Culture and Social Change as well as in International and European Politics. I did my bachelor’s degree in European Ethnology.
- This is a fictional account based on research literature and historical sources. Names, dates and places are fictional, but the blogpost is based on the summarised stories of German-speaking female academics at that time. The information and quotes were translated for this blog.
- “Literatur war meine große Liebe” – Gespräch mit Prof. Dr. Isabella Rüttenauer in: Harders, Levke (Hg.): Vom Ausschluss zum Abschluss. Berliner Germanistinnen von 1900 bis 1945. Studienalltag und Lebenswege; Ausstellungskatalog. Berlin 2004, 44.
- Ibid., 45.
- Hoffmann, Petra: Weibliche Arbeitswelten in der Wissenschaft. Frauen an der Preußischen Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Berlin 1890-1945. Bielefeld 2011, 98.
- Ibid., 100.
- Ibid., 112.
- Ibid., 115.
- Ibid., 100-101.
- Universitätsarchiv Innsbruck: Akte von Erika Cremer: https://www.uibk.ac.at/universitaetsarchiv/erika-cremer.
- Schöpf, Simon: Geschichte der Chemischen Institute in Innsbruck und die Verantwortung von Natur- und Geisteswissenschaften an Schulen und der Universität. Innsbruck 2019, 79.
- Ibid., 24.
- Ibid., 80.
- Lichtmannegger, Susanne: Biographie: Gheri Hermine.