Emmy Noether was the first woman in Germany to obtain habilitation in 1919. But I remember to have heard in the debate concerning the situation of women in academic mathematics that took place on the occasion of the International Congress of Mathematicians 2006 in Madrid (mentioned in this report from the AWM), that, in fact, she has been one of the very few female mathematicians at Göttingen University to get habilitation for many years. Another one was Helene Braun (who, by the way, doesn't appear in the Wikipedia list of University of Göttingen people): according to what she explained in her book Eine Frau und die Mathematik 1933–1940: Der Beginn einer wissenschaftlichen Laufbahn, she achieved habilitation in Göttingen at the end of 1940 (or maybe at the beginning of 1941: I can only read an excerpt of the book).

I'm not completely sure if they really were the only two famale mathematicians at Göttingen who were able to obtain habilitation during these years, but I remember to have heard that there were no habilitations of female mathematicians at Göttingen for many years.

Maybe this was mentioned in the film Women and mathematics across cultures, which has been projected before the debate, but I'm not completely sure about that.

Does anyone have some details about this?

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    $\begingroup$ Hertha Sponer, a physicist rather than a mathematician, achieved habilitation at Göttingen a few years after Noether. She was also the first female member of the physics faculty at Duke University. $\endgroup$
    – nwr
    Commented Mar 23, 2020 at 3:17
  • $\begingroup$ A source of information could be the book 50 Jahre Habilitation von Frauen in Deutschland by Elisabeth Boedecker and Maria Meyer-Plath. $\endgroup$
    – Charo
    Commented Mar 23, 2020 at 13:03

2 Answers 2


In fact, according to the book "Des Kennenlernens werth": bedeutende Frauen Göttingens, only one other woman apart from Emy Noether achieved habilitation in Göttingen during the Weimar Republic: the physicist Herta Sponer, who obtained habilitation in 1925.

At least until 1945, the fact that very few famale mathematicians had achieved habilitation wasn't indeed something specific to Göttingen, but to the whole Germany. In the book Women in Mathematics: Celebrating the Centennial of the Mathematical Association of America, I've found that only six female mathematicians got habilitation in Germany between 1913 and 1945, including Noether and Hel Braun in Göttingen:

Renate Tobies notes that there were only six women who completed a postdoctoral thesis (Habilitationsschrift) in Germany between 1913 and 1945. As Tobies put it, "[a]lthough each of these women produced outstanding research, they could not obtain a paid professorship unless they went into exile abroad (Noether and Geiringer), or persevered until after the end the war" [60, p. 286]. In the group of female graduates in Germany before 1937, only Noether, Hilda Geiringer, Ruth Moufang, Maria Pia Geppert, and Hel Braun held positions as professor and pursued mathematical research [58, p. 151].

And according to the book "Aller Männerkultur zum Trotz": Frauen in Mathematik und Naturwissenschaften, by Renate Tobies, Ruth Moufang was the third woman to complete an habilitation in mathematics in Germany after Emmy Noether and Hilda Pollazcek-Geiringer.

I finally managed to find the full text of the film Women and mathematics across cultures at pages 20-26 of the Proceedings of the eighth general meeting European Women in Mathematics. This film includes an interview with Mara D. Neusel held at Madrid in 1995, which contains this information:

Without definite details, I want to remark that at the university where I studied, Göttingen, only two women achieved their Habilitation Thesis, this was Emmy Noether and Helene Braun and the last one 53 years ago.

So, yes, after Noether and Braun habilitations, there were at least 53 years without any other famale mathematician habilitation in Göttingen.


Have you considered Sofya Kovalevskaya? In 1874 she presented three papers — on partial differential equations, on the dynamics of Saturn's rings, and on elliptic integrals — to the University of Göttingen as her doctoral dissertation and with the support of Weierstrass, this earned her a doctorate in mathematics and thereby became the first woman to have been awarded a doctorate at a European university.

She was born in Moscow in 1850 where her father was a Lieutenant General in the Imperial Russian Army (there may also have been some Romani ancestry on the father's side). When she was 8 or 9 years old, she was intrigued by the symbols of calculus when the wall of her bedroom had been papered with pages from lecture notes by Ostrogradsky, left over from her father's student days. She describes this in her memoir, A Russian Childhood (I've read this and recommend it highly).

She first studied under Strannoliubskii, who was also a well-known advocate of higher education for women in St. Petersburg; however, in order to study abroad, Kovalevskaya needed written permission from her father or husband; and thus, in 1868 she contracted a 'fictitious marriage' with Vladimir Kovalevskij, a young paleontology student, book publisher and radical, who was the first to translate and publish the works of Charles Darwin in Russia.

In 1869, they first moved to Vienna where she attended classes on physics, and then to Heidelberg, where, after great effort, she was allowed to attend classes given by Helmholtz, Kirchhoff and Bunsen. Then, a year later, she moved to Berlin, where she spent the next three years - apart from a short period in France where she helped out with the Paris commune where her sister, Anyuta was active - taking private lessons with Weierstrass who taught her the same material that comprised his lectures at the university.

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    $\begingroup$ Of course, but I was referring to habilitation in my question, not to PhD. $\endgroup$
    – Charo
    Commented Mar 24, 2020 at 9:51

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