KEYWORDS: History, French Revolution, Révolution française, 1900s, Finnish researcher, Professor
SHE THOUGHT IT
Alma Söderhjelm was a historian and one of the first women in Finland to have academic merits. She was the first female lecturer at the Imperial Alexander University and became the first female professor in Finland in 1927. Söderhjelm published a vast amount of different texts and her academic work regarding the French revolutionary years was renowned for its insights on the work of newspapers of the time. Her second major piece of work revealed details of the relationship between French queen Marie Antoinette and Axel von Fersen, a Swedish nobleman.
Her academic career had begun with her doctoral thesis being accepted in the year 1900, which claimed international recognition due to its high quality2. Söderhjelm’s career suffered from the policy of the time which prohibited women from pursuing academic positions. Her appointment as a university lecturer was subject to a six-year delay and in 1913, when she applied for the post of Professor of History, she was again rejected due to her sex1.
Söderhjelm spent many years in Stockholm, Sweden, where she forged a career as a journalist and critic. She worked with essays, novels, plays, and even film scripts and became popular in the bohemian artist circles of Sweden. She also wrote about The French revolution with a more popular tone and released books in French and Swedish that explained in detail the history of the revolution1. The highlight of her career came in the 1930s, when her book, concerning the relationship of the French queen, Marie Antoinette, and Swedish aristocrat Axel von Fersen, was released. Söderhjelm deduced that the couple were in fact lovers, a point that has gained support in later investigations as well2. Some of the correspondence between the couple, used as sources in the book, was claimed to be forgeries but Söderhjelm managed to prove this claim to be untrue and the book Fersen et Marie-Antoinette is said to have caused a sensation.
Alma Söderhjelm was a multitalented writer and her example working a way through the academic world was an inspiration for generations to come. She was one of the first women to even hold a doctoral degree in Finland and her work regarding the work of the French press media during the revolution formed a comprehensive description of a subject, that had been previously left unstudied2.
Alma Söderhjelm was born in Viborg, a busy and an international city at the time. In her family, Swedish was the spoken language with which Alma also wrote most of her work. Her parents had roots in Swedish nobility and the family was a large one with Alma having 10 siblings altogether. Her oldest brother, Werner, acted as an inspiration for her to pursue an academic career. Werner had the chance to make a career in the academic world, which he ended up doing. Together he and his father encouraged Alma to apply for the permission to take the final high school exam and the permission to apply to study at university. During that time, Finland was a duchy of Russia, and any exceptions to be made to the strict rules that governed the acceptability of women in different positions of society had to be applied for directly to the Tsar1. Alma and her sister were both granted permission to study at the Imperial Alexander University and so they became the eighteenth and nineteenth female students of the institution in 18891.
Alma studied at the Imperial Alexander University during the years 1889 to 1894. After a short period of working as an elementary school teacher, she decided to return to the University and started working on her PhD. She spent three years in Paris studying the circumstances under which the French press media worked during the revolutionary years of the end of 1790s. In France, she was given counsel by Alphonse Aulard from the Sorbonne University, a professor who had conducted his own comprehensive research into the Revolution2. The appearance of a young foreign female researcher was most likely a slight surprise to the renowned professor. An even greater surprise had to be the fact that Söderhjelm actually succeeded very well in her endeavours. Her PhD, Le régime de la presse pendant la Révolution française, was published in 1900 and it received the esteemed recognition of the English, German, and French scholarly community, including that of Professor Aulard2.
Even though Alma Söderhjelm was also noted as a fine researcher in her home country, trouble started when she attempted to take the next natural steps in her career. The faculty members at the Imperial Alexander University had unanimously determined that she deserved the appointment to a senior lectureship2. The proposal was taken up with the Tsar. His reply was implicit: a woman would not be allowed to teach at the university. The decision caused a debate at the institution. The Tsar’s argument was that if women would be allowed to teach in Finland, the same rights would be demanded by women in other parts of Russia as well3. Söderhjelm was left without the lectureship and she continued her work for six years on her own, further studying French history until, in 1906, the law was changed so that women were accepted as candidates for university positions. The same year, Söderhjelm was appointed for the lectureship.
Time passed and in 1913, Söderhjelm’s career hit an obstacle again. This time the position she was seeking was the general history professorship tenure, and yet again her efforts were dismissed. This time, it was argued that this was due to the nature of work involved in the Professorship; it was explained that since the position required the use of juridical power, a female would not be an acceptable candidate3.
Despite the clear miscarriage of justice, Alma went on with her work completing historical outlooks on Finnish cities and moving on from academic writing to the creative side. She began to spend more time in Stockholm, where she got acquainted with local artist circles, which included actors and writers. She began writing for the newspapers of the time and gained acknowledgment as a smart, humoristic writer who had things to say. Her columns, articles, and critiques were becoming very popular in Sweden and she considered leaving the academic world with its cemented values behind her.
However, her plans of working fulltime as a freelance writer were not accomplished. In 1927, she had already resigned from her position as senior lecturer at the University of Helsinki3 – which had by now changed its name after Finland had gained its independence. New institutions had also been established within the Finnish academic sphere. Åbo Akademi was founded in 1917, and Söderhjelm was offered tenure there the same year she had left her previous job as a senior lecturer. She became the professor of general history in 1927 and was free to continue her research work fulltime.
Even with a tenure, Söderhjelm was still a divergent individual in the academic circle. Not only due to her gender and language, but also the fact that her main studies concerned the history of a foreign nation, meant that she was professionally isolated. She had no part in scholarly societies and her papers were not sent to be published in local scholarly journals5. Alma still gained attention internationally as her work dealing with the relationship between the French queen, Marie Antoinette, and Swedish nobleman Axel von Fersen was published in 1930. The success of the book was vast and later she was invited to give a keynote speech at the Sorbonne University on the basis of her book2.
The life and career of Alma Söderhjelm depict the whole process of emancipation that took place in Finland and the other Nordic countries during the early 1900s. Even when facing challenges and unfair realities, Alma managed to make a career as an independent researcher and writer. It is possible that, because her work was more appreciated abroad than in her home country, she never received the appreciation that she deserved. Now, hopefully, her works and determined spirit will begin to gain the recognition they rightfully deserve, which they were not granted during her lifetime.
SHE SAID IT
I do not work like other people, especially when I write history. — First, I put together the book just the way I liked it, gathering everything I knew about it. When the entire book was written, I began to write in the new things that I had learned and replaced the wrong ones with the correct ones. But just as it fell, here or there.
From her autobiographical book: Åbo tur och retur, 1939. (my translation)
THEY SAID IT
I have known Alma Söderhjelm, a 17th century dame. Around her I always thought that it was a full summer. She was a great conversationalist, like a lady that Gustav III and Axel von Fersen must have had among as a friend, and the moments – those were plenty and long – when she was in the centre of some great group, I would believe, were her luckiest ones. Wittiness and courage were her highest virtues.
cited by Olof Lagercrantz in Svenska Dagbladet 14.2.1954. (my translation)
PRIZES, ACHIEVEMENTS, HONOURS
1918: Vapaudenmitali (Medal of Liberty)
1945: Suomen Valkoinen Ruusu (The White Rose of Finland)
In the film Marie Antoinette (2006, dir. Sophia Coppola) a biography of Marie Antoinette, that was used as inspiration for the screenplay, titled Marie Antoinette: The Journey (Fraser, Antonia, 2001) has Söderhjelms works cited as sources.
WORKS BY ALMA SÖDERHJELM
Le régime de la presse pendant la révolution française I – II. 1900 – 1901 (new edition 1971)
Kulturförhållanden under franska revolutionen I – II. 1903
Jakobstads historia I – III. 1907 – 1914 (2. edition 1974)
Brahestad 1649 – 1899. 1911
Historiska essayer I : Napoleons syskon. 1916
Revolutionärer och emigranter. 1918
Sverige och den franska revolutionen I – II. 1920 – 1924
Det främmande ögat : utfall och infall. 1921
Kärlekens väninna. 1922
Unga träd. Stockholm 1925
Axel von Fersens dagbok I – IV. Stockholm 1925 – 1936 (Editor)
Den stora revolutionen I – II. 1927 – 1929
Min värld I – III. Stockholm 1929 – 1931
Fersen et Marie Antoinette : correspondance et journal intime inédit de Comte Axel de Fersen. Paris 1930
Mina sju magra år. Stockholm 1932
Marie Antoinette et Barnave : correspondance secrète. Paris 1934
Georg Carl von Döbeln. 1937
Åbo tur och retur. Stockholm 1938
Carl Johan. Stockholm 1939
Råd till fruar och fröknar. Stockholm 1939
Fem droppar i aftongroggen : presetbok till herrarna i kräftsäsongen. Stockholm 1940
Oscar I. Stockholm 1944 (With C.-F. Palmstiernan; in Danisch 1946)
- Widén, Solveig (1998), Alma Söderhjelm & Hilma Granqvist, Gender & History, 10, 133-142, < https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1111/1468-0424.00092> (last accessed 26 Jun. 2018)
- Karppi, Anna (2006), Suomen ensimmäinen naisprofessori, historiantutkija Alma Söderhjelm, Humanistilehti, o 8, 34-38, <http://www.helsinki.fi/humanistilehti/arkisto/lehti8/alma.htm> (last accessed 26 Jun. 2018)
- Engman, Marja (1999), Söderhjelm, Alma (1870 – 1949) – Ensimmäinen naisprofessori, historiantutkija, esseisti, Kansallisbiografia, <https://kansallisbiografia.fi/kansallisbiografia/henkilo/2852> (last accessed 15 Jun. 2018)
- Hurmerinta, Riitta-Ilona (2014), Naisen tie dosentiksi ja professoriksi, 375 Humanistia, < http://375humanistia.helsinki.fi/alma-soderhjelm/naisen-tie-dosentiksi-ja-professoriksi> (last accessed 15 Jun. 2018)
- Engman, Marja (1996), Alma Söderhjelm: Ranskan historian tutkija, Tieteessä tapahtuu, 7, http://urn.fi/URN:NBN:fi:ELE-530788 (last accessed 18. Jun. 2018)