Seitlicher Blick auf das D4 Gebäude.

Pioneering Female Students of Business and Economics. An Investigation.

What do we know about the life and times of the pioneering women who became the first female students to enroll at the Imperial Export Academy and the University of World Trade some 100 years ago? In which jobs did they work at a time when women had only just recently won the right to vote and to study at universities? The following paragraphs retrace the stories of these trailblazing women on occasion of the International Women’s Day.

When I started researching the WU University Archives[*] and other sources, the initial results were quite sobering. Instead of the biographies of the pioneers I was looking for, I found the names of husbands and midwives[1]. I discovered that the name of the first female graduate of a WU doctoral program, reported as Hermine Groll[2], was actually wrong. I investigated to find out more about Hermine Goll[3], as she was actually called, but I couldn’t find any further information about her. I did manage to find some data on another female pioneer, however: In 1920, Helene Mitkiewicz was one of the first women ever to complete a degree program at the University of World Trade [4]. She then went on to a successful career in Ukraine and Poland[5].

The traces of most of the female pioneers disappear in the records somewhere along the line, however. It seems as if these women ceased to exist altogether as soon as they got married (if not before), even if their married names are known. When I was looking for data on Anna Baidaff, who became the first and only woman to complete an academic program at the Imperial Export Academy in 1917[6], the only information I could find was that she was married to Michael Friedmann. All I could find about her after her marriage were mentions of her name in her husband’s official residence registration records, according to which the couple left Austria for Palestine in 1939[7], probably to flee from Nazi persecution of Jews.

If we extend the period under investigation a little further, we find data on one female graduate whose adventurous story later became the subject of several books and recently also a film: Margarete Ottillinger, “a spirited fighter”[8] “in the crosshairs of the powers that be”[9], completed her studies at the University of World trade in 1941, obtained her doctorate in 1941, and soon made a name for herself as a successful economist. After WWII, she made important contributions to the economic planning processes for rebuilding Austria after the war. In 1948, Margarete Ottillinger was arrested by Soviet occupation troops under circumstances that have never been fully explained and spent the next seven years in Russian prison camps. When her sentence was eventually revoked by the Russian judiciary and she returned to Austria, she worked in the Austrian government-owned business sector and, at the end of her career, became a member of the board of directors of OMV[10].

Female professionals – a new type of woman

Käthe Leichter, another female trailblazer, carried out analyses on the employment of women, which provide interesting insights into the situation women encountered in the job market from the post-WWI years to the start of the Great Depression[11]. In 1923, almost half of Vienna’s women capable of work, aged 14 to 60, were employed. In Austria’s other provinces, this figure was more than two in three. Käthe Leichter attributed the increase in the employment of women in part to the “ongoing existential economic insecurity” that kept women in their jobs.[12]

Working female professionals were still few and far between at that time. As of 1928/1929, only about 300 out of a total of 1,500 female university graduates were working or had at least temporarily been working in positions they had been trained for, according to the 1930 “Handbuch der Frauenarbeit.” Many academically trained women worked in relatively low-ranking jobs with little social prestige, for instance as secretaries, accountants, typists, or stenographers[13]. Unfortunately, such careers have only left very few traces in the available records.

The narrow chances of female professionals to find jobs that matched their qualifications became even slimmer when the Great Depression hit and rampant unemployment took its toll. All the old, stereotypical arguments were brought up against female professionals as competition stiffened for the few jobs still available: Academic studies and employment were portrayed as stopgap occupations for women who had not yet married, with marriage and motherhood being claimed to be a woman’s true vocation. This is probably one of the reasons why all the research conducted so far has yielded so little data on the lives and careers of our university’s first female graduates. If you feel you have any additional information you could contribute or can point us to any further relevant sources, please contact Sonja Lydtin. Any help is appreciated.

Backgrounds and origins

The first women who studied at the Imperial Export Academy and the University of World Trade some 100 years ago had many different nationalities: In 1923, about half of the female students came from abroad, specifically from Lithuania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia. Four of the first five female graduates came from Galicia. The high percentage of female students from abroad was attributed to the lack of comparable universities in the countries that had emerged from the break-up of Habsburg Monarchy. The social backgrounds of the female students can be determined by looking at the jobs of their fathers, which had to be indicated in the documents. Many of the students came from well-educated upper middle-class families (physicians, lawyers, high-ranking civil servants and employees) and an almost equally sized group came from the mid-to-low echelons of the middle class (civil servants and employees) [14].

In the following paragraphs, we would like to present the first women who graduated from academic programs taught at the Imperial Export Academy and, as it was later renamed, the University of World Trade. The biographical sketches are based on data from statistical yearbooks from the WU University Archives and student index cards.

By 1930, a total of 2,994 students had completed academic programs at the Imperial Export Academy and the University of World Trade, as the institution was later known. Among them were 128 women (4%)[17]. In 1930, the University of World Trade was granted the right to award doctoral degrees, and in 1932, the first students obtained their doctorates from the university. The names of these pioneering doctoral graduates are known from the volume “Die feierliche Inauguration des Rektors der Hochschule für Welthandel,” issued for the academic year 1932/33. In his report published on occasion of the inauguration ceremony on November 23, 1932, Prorector Josef Gruntzel wrote, “On July 15, 1932, the first six doctoral candidates were officially named doctors of commercial sciences. Their names are Max Stadler, Gustav Stanzl, Otto Schirn, Otto Baron, Hermine Goll und Siegfried Lettner.”[18]

In the year 1933, a total of 31 men and one woman obtained doctoral degrees from the University of World Trade.[19]