Emma Irene Åström
Born April 27, 1847, Taivassalo. Died July 3, 1934, Tammisaari
Bachelor of Philosophy 1882 (philosophy, general history, Latin, aesthetics and mathematics), Imperial Alexander University.
Honorary Doctorate 1927, the School of Philosophy, and ‘riemumaisteri’ ( honorary master’s degree conferred fifty years after a first degree).
Photo: Helsingin yliopistomuseo, H. Holmström
Author: Riitta-Ilona Hurmerinta
Translated by John Calton
First woman MA’s unquenchable thirst for knowledge
Coming from an impoverished background, Emma Irene Åström’s enthusiasm and aptitude for study had been spotted early on by the young girl’s teachers. Indeed, the local clergy recommended that Åström’s father send his daughter to the teachers’ seminary in Jyväskylä, in central Finland. Uno Cygnaeus, arguably the father of Finland’s national school system, mentored Åström, even becoming her unofficial guardian, and it was with Cygnaeus’ support that Emma Irene gained a special dispensation to study in the University.
In 1873, Åström began her university studies in the Imperial Alexander University, enrolling in courses of philosophy and Latin. A year later, Uno Cygnaeus arranged a teaching position for Emma Irene in the Tammisaari seminary in south-west Finland; she had been forced to interrupt her studies and look after her family following her father’s death.
Emma Irene Åström was able to resume her studies however, and became the first Finnish woman to graduate with a master’s degree in 1882. She would have wanted to pursue her studies further but the need to safeguard her family’s welfare meant she had to work. Throughout her years of study, Åström had been teaching in Helsinki schools, but upon graduation she returned to the Tammisaari seminary as ‘lector’ in history, Swedish and Finnish. Åström became a figurehead for the women’s movement, women’s university studies and particularly the Swedish-speaking population. Her reputation was enhanced by Zachris Topelius, who wrote a poem about Åström. Topelius’ historical novel, Tähtien turvatit (‘Beneath the Guiding Stars’, 1889), set during the Thirty Years War, the character of Hagar, the humble librarian to Christina, Queen of Sweden, is modelled on her. In reality, Åström didn’t exactly consider herself to be a trailblazer but, in her studies, an achiever of what she set out to achieve.