Who were the first women in the world to attend university?

By Lily Martin• Last updated: Nov 8, 2023
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International Women’s Day is an opportunity for us all to celebrate the amazing achievements of women across the world.

This year, we thought we’d recognise nine incredible women who were the very first in their country to attend university. Together, they form the trailblazers who made a university education accessible to women today.

So who were the first women in the world to attend university?

  1. Italy - Bettisia Gozzadini 
  2. Spain - Beatriz Galindo
  3. The Netherlands - Anna Maria van Schurman
  4. Germany - Dorothea Schlözer
  5. Sweden - Sweden - Aurora Liljenroth
  6. USA - Elizabeth Blackwell
  7. UK - The Edinburgh Seven
  8. Canada - Grace Annie Lockhart
  9. Ireland - Isabel Marion Weir Johnston

1. Italy - Bettisia Gozzadini

Less than 200 years after the University of Bologna’s foundation in 1088, Bettisia Gozzadini became the first woman to attend university. Graduating with a law degree in 1237, Bettisia would have learnt her profession in the stunning medieval cloisters of this Italian city.

Not only is she thought to be the first woman to have attended university, but she is also reputedly the first woman to lecture at one too. She became an important pioneer for women at university and had a reputation for her public speaking.

On the day of her death, local legend says that all the schools in the city of Bologna were closed in mourning. Today, she is remembered through a monument at the Palazzo Pepoli in her home city.

2. Spain - Beatriz Galindo

Born in the Spanish city of Salamanca in 1465, Beatriz Galindo is today known as one of the most educated women of her time. She graduated from the University of Salamanca after studying to become a nun, and was known for her skill in Latin.

As tutor to Queen Isabella of Castile’s children, she held an important and influential role in one of the most powerful kingdoms of the 15th century. Queen Isabella was known for her belief in the importance of education, and alongside her husband King Ferdinand of Aragon, unified Spain to form the country we are familiar with today.

Beatriz would have also taught Isabella of Castile’s most famous daughter, Catherine of Aragon, who in 1509 became the first wife of Henry VIII of England!

3. The Netherlands - Anna Maria van Schurman

A student at the University of Utrecht between 1634 and 1637, German-born Anna Maria van Schurman became the first woman to attend a Dutch university.

She was known for being highly educated and a firm defender of female education in a period of history where women were predominantly uneducated.

Anna is thought to have been proficient in fourteen languages, including Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Arabic, Syriac, Aramaic, and Ethiopic!

4. Germany - Dorothea Schlözer

As the first woman in Germany to receive a Doctorate of Philosophy, Dorothea Schlözer was an advocate for women’s education in the 18th century.

She graduated from Göttingen University during a period when women were barred from studying at higher education institutions and had to be privately examined.

Dorothea was also one of five academically active women known as the Universitätsmamsellen, leaders in opening university education to women in Germany.

Although her education was comprehensive, including modern languages, classics, metaphysics, geography, literature and mathematics, in later life she studied in Paris and became an acclaimed artist.

5. Sweden - Aurora Liljenroth

Clara Aurora Liljenroth was born in 1772 and is known for being one of few women at the time to have attended and graduated from university in Sweden.

Accepted into Visingso Gymnasium in 1780, in her first term she gave a public speech to the school and several important guests which was prominently covered in the national press.

In 1788, Aurora graduated in ‘all sciences’ with the highest honours, giving her graduation speech in fluent French. 

She did all this nearly one hundred years before universities in Sweden would be formally open to women in 1871.

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6. United States of America - Elizabeth Blackwell

Arguably the most famous woman on this list, Dr Elizabeth Blackwell was born in Bristol, England in 1821.

After being rejected from each medical school she applied to, Elizabeth was finally accepted into Geneva Medical College in New York in 1847. 

Her inaugural thesis, published in 1849 in the Buffalo Medical Journal would be the first medical article published by a female student from the United States.

Her sister, Dr Emily Blackwell, would later become the third woman to earn a medical degree in the United States. In 1857, together they founded the New York Infirmary for Women and Children, where they gave lectures on the importance of educating girls.

Today, Dr Elizabeth Blackwell is known best for being the first woman on the Medical Register of the General Medical Council. The Elizabeth Blackwell Medal is also awarded annually to a woman who has made a significant contribution to the promotion of women in medicine.

7. United Kingdom - The Edinburgh Seven

In 1869, seven women became the first group of undergraduate female students at any British university. They began studying medicine at the University of Edinburgh and although they were not allowed to graduate and qualify as Doctors, their campaign caught national attention.

Gathering support from noted contemporaries including Charles Dickens, members of the Edinburgh Seven would go on to establish the London School of Medicine for Women in 1874.

The campaign work of Sophia Jex-Blake, Isabel Thorne, Edith Pechey, Matilda Chaplin, Helen Evans, Mary Anderson and Emily Bovell placed the demands of women for a university education on the national political agenda.

In 1876 the UK Medical Act was passed, ensuring that women could study medicine at university!

8. Canada - Grace Annie Lockhart

Grace Annie Lockhart was born in 1855 and is known for being the first woman in the British Empire to receive a Bachelor’s degree.

She graduated from Mount Allison University in Canada in 1975 with a Bachelor of Science and Literature degree.

Grace’s academic achievements paved the way for other women in higher education. Seven years later Harriet Starr Stewart graduated from Mount Allison University to become the first woman to be granted a Bachelor of Arts degree by a Canadian university.

9. Ireland - Isabel Marion Weir Johnston

In 1904, Isabel Marion Weir Johnston became the first woman in Ireland to attend university after being accepted into Trinity College Dublin to study English and French.

Her acceptance came at a time of great resistance towards women in higher education. Once at university, Isabel and the 40 other women admitted within the year faced many restrictions, including not being able to attend lectures or even be on campus at all after 6pm.

Despite this, she became an active member of the student body, founding a debating society for women and organising dances and sporting tournaments.

In 1905, Isabel left Trinity College before graduating, but later went on to become a founding member of the London branch of the DU Women graduates association.

If the lives of these incredible women have inspired you to continue your education abroad, then you can explore our courses here.

For more information about International Women’s Day, explore their website!

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