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Alma Söderhjelm

Born May 10, 1870, Viipuri.  Died March 16, 1949, Saltsjöbaden, Sweden.

Bachelor of Arts, 1893, Master of Arts, 1894, and Doctor of Philosophy (General History), 1900, Imperial Alexander University.

Docent, General History, 1906–27, Imperial Alexander University / University of Helsinki
Professor of General History, 1927–37, Åbo Akademi
Author and journalist

Founder member, Institut d’histoire de la révolution française, 1936

Order of the Cross of Liberty, 2nd Class, 1918
Knight, Order of the White Rose of Finland, 1945

Photo: Museovirasto
Written by Riitta-Ilona Hurmerinta
Translated by John Calton

A woman’s path to a docentship and professorship

Born into a family of civil servants from Viipuri, Alma Söderhjelm studied general history at the Imperial Alexander University. After completing her Bachelor’s degree, she worked as a teacher. Encouraged by her brother Werner Söderhjelm, who was the professor of Romance philology at the time and professor J. R. Danielson-Kalmari, she returned to the University to do her doctoral thesis.

Söderhjelm spent three years in Paris at the end of the 1890s collecting material for her study, which focused on the French revolution. In France, her thesis supervisor was professor Alphonse Aulard, an esteemed scholar of the history of the revolution. Söderhjelm’s doctoral research examined the conditions under which the French press operated during the revolution. The study, La régime de la presse pendant la Révolution française, was published in two parts. Söderhjelm defended her doctoral thesis based on the first part in 1900, which dealt with the revolution up until the year 1794. The latter part, where Söderhjelm studied the events of the year 1799, was published in 1901. Söderhjelm became Finland’s third female doctor of philosophy after the medical doctor Karoliina Eskelin (1895) and the history scholar Tekla Hultin (1896).

Söderhjelm’s research was pioneering in the field and gained much attention in the academic circles of France, Germany and England. The governing body of the Imperial Alexander University, the consistorium, thus decided to propose that Söderhjelm be promoted to docent of general history. However, the proposal was met with resistance. It has been suggested that this opposition was down to the political activity of Söderhjelm’s father, the procurator Werner Woldemar Söderhjelm, and her brother Werner Söderhjelm. Another possible reason is that Emperor Nicholas II did not want to grant permission for a woman to be appointed teacher at the University. It was feared that if Finnish women were to be granted this prerogative, their counterparts in Russia would then demand the same rights.

Having been denied the docentship, Söderhjelm continued research in her field and published articles. The issue of the docentship came before the governing body of the University again in 1906, by which time the political atmosphere in Finland had changed. This time the emperor consented and granted Söderhjelm a special dispensation to teach: in 1906 she was the first female docent in the Nordic countries.

Söderhjelm focused specifically on the modern history of France and Italy in her teaching, and encouraged students to do research work. She also widened her scholarly scope to the history of Finnish cities by writing the histories of Jacobstad-Pietarsaari and Raahe, two towns on the Ostrobothnian coast.

Gender became an obstacle to her academic career again in 1913, when Söderhjelm was not granted special dispensation and was thus not eligible to apply for the professorship in general history. At that time, under the decree, a woman was able to perform a professor’s teaching, research and administrative work, but not swear an oath in court or execute judicial power, which was required in the matters dealt with in the University’s governing body. The decree was changed in order to grant women eligibility for professorships. The changes came too late for Alma Söderhjelm, however, as the new Professor of General History had already been appointed.

Söderhjelm continued her research, working as a journalist and writer on the side. Now her research interests and trips to collect material were mainly concentrated on Sweden. She delved into the theatre and artistic circles of Stockholm, and in 1927 resigned from her university docentship in order to become a freelance writer there.

The Bohemian cultural life was a short-lived pleasure for Söderhjelm, however. The commercial counsellor Ellen Dahlström from Turku decided to found a professorship of general history for Söderhjelm at Åbo Akademi. Söderhjelm then returned to the university circles, becoming Finland’s first female professor in 1927. Upon retirement in 1937, she returned to the cultural life in Stockholm she had so clearly missed.

Alma Söderhjelm was a highly prolific scholarly writer. Her vast range of publications includes various kinds of academic works, essay collections, resource publications and memoirs, all in all 25 works and 34 editions. Söderhjelm felt at home with artists, writers and theatre people. She also became a skilful author of more entertainment-oriented literature. She wrote sketches on relationships and dating skills in the Swedish press. In addition to the collection of sketches, she wrote novels, poetry collections, plays and a film script.

Photo: National Board of Antiquities.​
Photo: National Board of Antiquities.​

References and more on Alma Söderhjelm’s extensive works:

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