Ruth Gentry in Berlin
1. The Collegiate Alumna Fellowships.
We have in this issue of The Lantern a delightful letter from Miss Ruth Gentry concerning her experiences at Berlin University. Who Miss Gentry is, and how she happens to be in Berlin, it is hardly necessary to explain; but a few words as to the history and meaning of the fellowship she holds may not be uninteresting or superfluous to the general reader.2. A Winter in Berlin, by Ruth Gentry.
A half-dozen years ago, the Collegiate Alumna; in the northwest raised the sum of three hundred and fifty dollars to provide a Fellowship for some member of the Association, to be used for graduate study at the University of Michigan. It was called the American Fellowship, and was won by Miss Ida M Street, a graduate of Vassar College and a brilliant student in philosophy and letters. The following year, also, the Fellowship was raised among the western alumna; and was awarded to Miss Arlisle M Young, a graduate of Michigan University where she also studied for her Ph. D. degree. Miss Street is still pursuing higher studies in the West, and Miss Young is Instructor of Latin at Wellesley College.
The next year, 1889-1890, the committee of the whole Association, whose chairman was Mrs Christine Ladd Franklin of Johns Hopkins University, raised the European Fellowship of five hundred dollars, to be awarded only for study abroad. The first European Fellow was Miss Louisa Holman Richardson, B.A. and M.A. of Boston University and Professor of Latin in Carleton College, Minnesota. She went to Oxford and returned at the end of the year to take her Ph.D. at Boston University.
Last year an effort was made to raise two Fellowships at the same time, one of five hundred dollars for study abroad and one of three hundred and fifty dollars for advanced work in some American College or University. The committee was successful in raising the money and over twenty applicants applied. Of these Miss Gentry, a graduate of the University of Michigan and Fellow in Mathematics at Bryn Mawr for 1890-91, was appointed European Fellow, and Miss Alice Carter, Ph.D. of Syracuse University received the American Fellowship and is studying botany at Cornell. Miss Julia M Snow, B.S. and M.S. of Cornell University, was so strong a candidate and it was so difficult to decide between her and Miss Gentry, that the Association, wishing the honour of assisting her to go abroad, voted an extra sum of money and awarded her a partial Fellowship for foreign study in botany. Miss Snow is now studying in Leipzig with great success.
What brought (or took) you to Germany? To Berlin? How did you gain admission to lectures in Berlin University? What have been your experiences? How do the students act toward you? What are the prospects for other women who may endeavour to repeat your experiment? What is your opinion as to the advisability of such attempts?
Although these questions have been answered many times, both orally and by letter, various false impressions seem, nevertheless, to exist among those who are pleased to view my presence in the University of Berlin as a matter of some public interest. This attempt at an article is made, therefore, not merely to show appreciation of the honour done me by the editors of The Lantern, but also in the hope to correct in some measure these false impressions.
I came to Germany to see Germany and the Germans, to acquire a needed ease in the use of the German language, to see something of a German University, and to gain acquaintance with German methods of presenting Mathematics.
Berlin was chosen as place of residence for the first few weeks or months, as the case might be, for the simple reason that I knew of people here who would kindly take me in charge till I should have learned to take care of myself in a foreign land.
To the third question I sometimes make answer, "By the favour of the gods." If that sounds too conceited, then read the answer, "Fate," "Accident," or what you will.
In America, I had heard that a woman was occasionally permitted, as an exceptional favour, to become a sort of supposed-to-be-invisible guest in lectures in some universities of Germany; that in Berlin, however, all effort to secure such exceptional privilege would be utterly useless. Accordingly, from time to time during the summer of 1891, I made inquiries of various prominent Professors of Mathematics elsewhere than in Berlin; result, a collection of letters now treasured as souvenirs, no show of hope for me except in Leipzig, where the work in Mathematics was not exactly suited to my purpose, and a state of mind well adapted to lead to suicide.
Having nursed my despair till the University had officially opened, I concluded to seek a long-desired interview with Professor Fuchs and "view the prospect o'er" for myself. Professor Fuchs did not politely "thank me for the honour, etc., while regretting to be unable to admit a woman to his lectures; "he did not assure me Mathematics was a difficult subject which women, for the most part, could not comprehend (as one Professor had written); he did not, as the Rector of one University did, advise me to apply to the Ministerium, and accompany his advice with the assurance that my request would not be granted; he did not make me feel that a woman possessed of interest in Mathematics was a sort of natural curiosity, whose existence demanded explanation. He asked me in his quiet, restful way, what I had done in Mathematics and under whose instruction, talked a minute or two about Briot and Bouquet's Théorie des Fonctions Elliptiques, and told me to ask the Rector of the University whether a way could not be found to favour my petition.
The Rector requested me to send him a written petition, and expressed a willingness to bring my case before the University Senate. Ten days later he answered my petition, to the effect that, on the strength of Professor Fuchs' warm advocacy of my cause, he had resolved to take upon himself the responsibility of allowing me to attend lectures until the Senate should meet, provided, of course, the men whose lectures I wished to hear should have no objections.
A month later I received a second letter, to the effect that the Senate could not sanction my admission to lectures, it having been discovered, in the meantime, that, since the exception of a similar nature, sanctioned by the Senate in 1884, the Ministerium had strictly, specifically forbidden even exceptions of this nature. The Rector very kindly assured me, however, that he would assume the personal responsibility, and permit me to continue to the end of the semester.
Had it not been for the information deterring me from effort in Berlin till the last minute, my petition would have been made in time for the Senate to act before lectures began, and I should probably not have seen inside of a lecture-room. The change that had just taken place in the rectorship is reported to have been exceptionally fortunate for my cause. It was, at least, not fortunate for me that Professor Fuchs and Rector Foerster had forgotten about that special edict of a former Culture Minister. My teacher of German happened to be a friend of Professor Fuchs' sister-in-law, and kindly recommended me. Then a dozen other circumstances seemed "just to happen so," but happened so much better than I could have planned, that I attribute my happy semester in Berlin University to the "favour of the gods."
Some one may reflect, "Is it not strange that she says 'happy semester?' I thought the students had annoyed her so much." The origin of this report, widely circulated in America, remains to this day a mystery to me. I assume, on general principles, that there are students who look with disfavour upon anything pointing in the direction of "co-education" in Germany; what per cent of the Berlin students belong to this class I have not the data for computing, but the number of those who have annoyed me I can reckon to a nicety - the number is zero. To the best of my knowledge, the number of those who have attempted to annoy me is also zero. Those students with whom I have the pleasure of personal acquaintance, have shown me far more kindly consideration than mere politeness demanded; between every other student and myself the relation has ever been that of two persons, each of whom quietly attends to his own affairs and permits the other to do the same. I repeat most emphatically, I have suffered no disturbance whatever.
I attended the University, however, rather more for the sake of Mathematics than for the sake of seeing what the students would do, and consider it not impossible that I might have said "happy semester," even if a student now and then had reminded me of my failure to secure his permission before entering the consecrated precincts. Not only was the work, for the work's sake, suited to my purposes, but the method of presentation pleased me greatly, and my cause for gratitude would not be small, had I gained nothing except the privilege of hearing lectures. This privilege, however, was not all. The spirit of kindness and helpfulness shown at the beginning has manifested itself on every hand to the present time. Rector Foerster's action toward me seems to justify what the students tell me regarding my presence in the University, "Der Rector ist sehr dafür." The various Professors whom I have had the honour of meeting have shown a kindly interest in my work; Dr Schlesinger, the only instructor other than Professor Fuchs whose lectures I attended, has been kindness itself; the students could scarcely have treated me better than they have done; and Professor Fuchs .... words fail me when I would describe what he has been to me. The thoughtful consideration, the ever-ready helpfulness, the innate goodness of Professor Fuchs and his family, have put me under obligations of gratitude for all time.
Regarding prospects for other women, I had a positive opinion until very recently. My view was, that if such support as I have here could not enable me to "get round" that ministerial edict for just one more semester, then I might say to others, "It's no use to try. Women have no prospect in Berlin University for a long time to come." Recently I have begun to ask myself whether it would not be well to ward off a possible charge of false prophecy, by meekly acknowledging I know nothing about the future. The general opening of German Universities to women would astonish me immeasurably, but the question is being much agitated, and the hope that some slight concessions may be made seems not so utterly groundless as I had imagined. The sentiment in favour of medical education of women seems to be gaining ground, except perhaps among medical students; and that in favour of "authorized exceptions" in other lines of University work, is not wholly without support among "the powers that be." I judge the most liberal position held by any considerable number of University people, is that of the one who threw himself with such zeal into my cause. This position is substantially as follows: "There are women who have a genuine call to scholarly work, and who not only remain womanly women, but become ever more womanly in the pursuit of their calling. That such women should be debarred from University privileges is an injustice and a shame; but the proper remedy in the Germany of today is not the general admission of women to the University, but the granting to each Professor the right to admit to his lectures such women as he should see fit to admit." This principle, long in successful operation in Leipzig, and recently (latter part of November or first of December, 1891) adopted, measurably at least, in Heidelberg, is reported to be favourably looked upon by some of the higher authorities of the University of Berlin. The various Universities of Prussia have been called upon to give expression to their sentiments, and until very recently a decision of the Ministerium was looked for possibly toward the end of April. It seems now, however, that His Excellency, Herr Graf von Zedlitz-Trützschler Culture Minister, will not continue in office, and the hoped for decision will doubtless be long delayed.
The question may well be asked, if the higher authorities should decide to give the Professors more or less liberty in the matter under discussion, what would then be the prospects for women in German Universities? My judgment may be warped, but that judgment is, that a large per cent, of the women who are really fitted for special work in a German University would secure admittance to lectures (not to laboratory or seminary work) ; and that a few, as exceptional exceptions, would be admitted to seminary work.
So long as the situation remains as it is, I should be inclined to say to those who might hold me responsible for the result, "You have good opportunities elsewhere than in Germany: let well enough alone." To those who are willing to run all risk and not hold me responsible for the advice, I might offer the advice so often given me this year, "Versuchen Sie es doch 'mal! Schaden kann es jedenfalls nicht." [Try it sometime! It can't hurt you] - To all who may follow this latter piece of advice, I can wish nothing better than that the measure of kindness they receive may be "heaped up, pressed down, and running over," as mine has been.
Fellow in Mathematics, Bryn Mawr, 1892-93.
JOC/EFR October 2015
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