We are marking International Women’s Day here on Language-on-the-Move with a portrait of Cezaria Baudouin de Courtenay Ehrenkreutz Jędrzejewiczowa, the first female Chair Professor of Anthropology at Warsaw University and, possibly, anywhere else in the world. Like many successful women in academia she was “strange” in many ways and the authors of “The Thin End of the Wedge: Foreign Women Professors as Double Strangers in Academia” (Czarniawska and Sevón, 2008) argue it was her very “foreignness” that contributed to her success.
Cezaria Baudouin de Courtenay was born in 1885 as the daughter of Romualda Bagnicka, a woman with a “male high-school certificate.” In contrast to a “female high-school certificate,” a “male high-school certificate” permitted university entrance and – needless to mention – the possession of a “male high-school certificate” was a rare achievement for a woman of her generation. Cezaria’s father, too, was an extraordinary man: the linguist Jan Baudouin de Courtenay, largely forgotten today despite the fact that he used to be considered the “father” of Structural Linguistics, alongside Saussure. Thus, unlike many of her female contemporaries, Cezaria did not have to fight against her family’s wishes in order to get an education. On the contrary, she was expected to get one.
It was not only the fact that educational striving was normal for Cezaria that made her “strange.” It was also her ethno-linguistic identity. Cezaria considered herself Polish but most of her Polish contemporaries refused to accept her as one. She was born in Tartu (then named Dorpat). Today, Tartu is a city in Estonia. In the late 19th century, it was a German city in the Russian Empire. The languages spoken in the Baudouin de Courtenay household were Polish, German, Russian and Estonian. In the 19th century, the language of Dorpat University , where Jan Baudouin de Courtenay held the Chair of Comparative Grammar, was German. Additionally, he also spoke (including lecturing) and wrote in Russian, Polish, Slovenian, Czech, French, Italian, Lithuanian and Yiddish.
In 1891, the family left Dorpat for Krakow, where Jan took up the Chair of Comparative Slavic Grammar at the famous Jagiellonian University. In conservative Krakow, the cosmopolitan and progressive Baudouin de Courtenays remained outsiders and by 1900 the uncompromising and outspoken Jan had made enough powerful enemies that another move was on the cards: this time to St. Petersburg, where Jan was offered the Chair of Comparative Grammar and Sanskrit at St. Petersburg University. Cezaria finished high-school in St. Petersburg and in 1906 she was part of the first cohort of female students admitted to St. Petersburg University. Cezaria mostly studied at home under her father’s guidance whose interests she shared and in 1910 she graduated with a dissertation on the language of a 16th century Marian prayer book.
In 1909, Cezaria married a student of her father’s, Max Vasmer, Professor of Slavic Philology in Berlin, and together they travelled to Greece and Austria for fieldwork. However, it turned out that Vasmer’s family had more conservative ideas about the place of women than she was used to and so she divorced him in 1913. Along with the divorce, she realized another dream of hers: to move back to Poland to live.
In Poland, she made a living by teaching and continued her research in linguistics and folklore. Her biographer quoted a contemporary about her work:
She had neither a teacher nor a model; she goes her own way. She is an ideal type of a scholar: she is fascinated with the difficulty and the risk of a road that needs to be found. (quoted in Czarniawska and Sevón, 2008, p. 270)
Cezaria married another famous academic, Stefan Ehrenkreutz, and together they moved to Vilnius (today Lithuania, but with a complex history; independent in 1920 and Polish from 1922 onwards) in 1920, when he was appointed Professor of the History of Law at Vilnius University. Together they had three children and Cezaria continued her teaching and research but felt that she was stuck and the desired academic career seemed out of her reach:
I am dreaming of a habilitation, because I am feverish from ideas, and have quite a lot of my own material, too. I would have much better working conditions if I got the title. (quoted in Czarniawska and Sevón, 2008, p. 271)
Despite the difficulties posed by her gender, her family commitments, and the fact that the discipline of anthropology was almost inexistent at the time in Central Europe, she achieved her habilitation (a central European “2nd PhD” traditionally considered a qualification for a professorial position) in 1922. Despite the achievement, a professorship continued to be out of her reach because of her gender. Instead, she set herself the goal to establish an anthropological center and museum in Vilnius. She also wrote three monographs at the time, devoted to structural anthropology, methods and folklore. A summary of one of these was translated into English in 1936 as “Folk dances and wedding customs in Poland” and is available through JSTOR.
While not offered a chair professorship, she finally was appointed “Acting” Professor of Ethnology at Vilnius University. Professionally, this was a period of frantic activity in her life and she organized conferences, exhibitions, continued to teach and publish, and also found time to found an academic women’s union. At the same time, she was faced with personal tragedy as one of her children died and her marriage disintegrated.
Given her achievements, in 1934 her appointment to a chair professorship would have been long overdue had she been a man. Because she was a woman, it created a media controversy. The controversy centered around the accusation of nepotism and the appointment was attributed not to her achievements but to her influential father and husbands (by now she was married to her third husband, the then Polish Minister of Education, Janusz Jędrzejewicz).
Once established, she described herself as “harmonious and happy” in her new role, establishing another research group, another museum and continuing her research into Polish folk myths. Sadly, that phase of her life was short-lived, too, and after the German invasion, she fled first to Bucharest and then moved to Tehran and Jerusalem. In 1947 she moved to London, where she lived until her death in 1967. In London, she held the Chair of Ethnography at the Polish University Abroad and in 1958 she became its president.
In Poland – as elsewhere – her work is largely forgotten today. Not for academic reasons but for political ones, as her biographer explains:
There were only brief notes about her work in postwar Poland. Her decision to remain an emigrant — practically unavoidable, as her second husband died in the Soviet prison in Vilnius — made it impossible to publish her work in Poland, and also, what was probably more painful for a dedicated fieldworker, to continue her observation of Polish culture. It has been admitted, however, that her work opened up Polish ethnography towards structuralism. She created two university chairs in ethnography and two ethnographic museums. (quoted in Czarniawska and Sevón, 2008, p. 274)
Reading about the life and work of Cezaria Baudouin de Courtenay Ehrenkreutz Jędrzejewiczowa one cannot but be filled with respect and admiration for her achievements and the tenacity with which she pursued her research in the face of adversity. She was one of the academic women “at the thin end of the wedge” – the first generation of female academics who opened the doors for female academic participation. Czarniawska and Sevón (2008) attribute her achievements to her status as a perpetual outsider and her lack of conventionality. In their view being a woman and a foreigner did not result in double cumulative disadvantage but her foreignness served to “cancel” her gender, as it also did for Polish-born Marie Curie, who established her scientific career in France, Russian-born Sofia Kovalevskaya (Mathematics), who was the first female professor in Sweden or Alma Söderhjelm (History), the first female professor in Finland, who was a member of the Swedish minority there.
Women who are full professors today are “the thick end of the wedge” – holding the door firmly open but still a long way from equality. Internationally, today women account for less than 20% of the professoriate: only 9% of UK full professors are female; in Australia and the USA, their percentage is 16%. Obviously, we continue to have to be “strange” to succeed!
Czarniawska, B., & Sevón, G. (2008). The Thin End of the Wedge: Foreign Women Professors as Double Strangers in Academia Gender, Work & Organization, 15 (3), 235-287 DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-0432.2008.00392.x