Dorothea Christiane Erxleben, née Leporin, was the author of a feminist treatise advocating the admission of women to schools and universities and the first woman in Germany to become a doctor of medicine. She was born in Quedlinburg in 1715 and died there in 1762. Her father, Christian Polykarp Leporin, was a local doctor who took great interest in the education of his talented daughter. He included her in the lessons he gave to her older brother, whom he taught foreign languages and the arts and sciences. When she was a teenager, the rector of the local Gymnasium (to which girls were not admitted) agreed to tutor her personally by post. Her father let her help him with the care of his patients. In 1740, her older brother enrolled at the University of Halle, with the aim of becoming a doctor, and she aspired to do the same thing. During the late 1730s, she started writing down her thoughts on the exclusion of women from schools and universities. She initially wrote just for the sake of gaining clarity herself about the appropriateness of her own desire to pursue academic studies, but her father convinced her that her argument warranted publication. The book was published in 1742 under the title Gründliche Untersuchung der Ursachen, die das weibliche Geschlecht vom Studiren abhalten, darin deren Unerheblichkeit gezeiget, und wie möglich, nöthig und nützlich es sey, daß dieses Geschlecht der Gelahrt-heit sich befleisse. Encouraged by the example of Laura Bassi, who had received a degree from the University of Bologna in 1732, she submitted a formal request to be allowed to matriculate. Frederick, II granted her request in 1741. In the meantime, however, her older brother had been called to military duty in the first Silesian war and deserted, and not wanting to go by herself, Erxleben put off her studies.
She stayed in Quedlinburg, married Johann Christian Erxleben, clergyman and widower with five children, and gave birth to four additional children. She continued to work with her father in his practice, and after his death in 1747 she continued to see patients even though she did not have a medical degree. This led to an official complaint of quackery against her by other local doctors, and she was told that if she wanted to continue to practise medicine, she would have to get a doctorate and the formal right to practise. In January 1754, she handed in her dissertation, Academische Abhandlung von der gar zu geschwinden und angenehmen, aber deswegen öfters unsicheren Heilung der Krankheiten, and in May she passed the medical examination with flying colours. Thus she became the first female medical doctor in the German states. She continued to practise medicine until her death in 1762.
Her work of 1742 is one of the most significant pieces of Enlightenment feminist theory, yet it has been surprisingly neglected. Leporin criticizes the standard prejudices, faulty arguments, and social impediments that exclude women from schooling in general and academic studies in particular. She does so with steadfast appeal to logic, standards of empirical evidence, and the generally shared values of the times, aiming to clear up prejudices with rational argument. Half a century before Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman, and in a very methodical and philosophically sophisticated fashion, she provides an exhaustive catalogue of the many objections against the education of women, as well as a clear and acute account of the patent insufficiency of each and every one of them. Going beyond the mere refutation of objections, she argues that the education of women is possible, necessary and, first and foremost, useful.
The first and most fundamental prejudice is the view that academic study is not appropriate for women because they are not capable of it. If this is to mean that women, by nature, do not have the requisite intellectual capacities, Erxleben points out, this leads to theological inconsistencies with regard to the concept of the soul (e.g., if women’s intellect is deemed inferior, this implies introducing gender into the soul, which leads to difficulties regarding the thesis that all humans are created in God’s image). More importantly, Erxleben finds it particularly salient that the alleged proofs of the inferiority of women’s rational capacities are all fallacious.
For one thing, many of the reasons adduced for excluding women from studies (such as their purported physical weakness, tender souls, lesser talents, etc.) are not similarly used to exclude men who have the same traits, even in cases where it is undisputed that there are men who have these traits (such as physical weakness). Frequently, in different contexts, she makes the point that the arguments presented to justify the exclusion of women would also have to lead to the exclusion of many men if they were applied consistently.
Further, Erxleben challenges the empirical claims that women as a group all have lesser natural talents than all men. She does so by invoking historical counterexamples of successful women, by showing that there are men who have lesser talents than some women, and by presenting the alternative explanation for the descriptive fact that she does not dispute – namely, the fact that women as they are now are indeed more driven by affect, more prone to vices, more talkative, and so on. In her view, these deplorable traits are the result not of nature but rather of a lack of studies, and hence the appropriate response to this situation is not less but rather more schooling, which will provide women with the knowledge of important and useful truths and also improve their character and moral steadfastness.
Finally, even if women as a group, or some women, turn out to have lesser natural talents, this would still not be a reason to exclude them from schooling – in fact they would need it all the more to prevent their heads from being filled with nonsense.
The second main prejudice dealt with in the book is the assumption that academic studies for women are useless. Against this, Erxleben argues that studies bring a ‘negative good’: they reduce ignorance, error, prejudices, hastiness, inconstancy and doubt. The ‘positive good’ they bring consists in true and clear knowledge, orderliness of one’s desires, peace of mind, contentment under adverse circumstances, constancy, a magnanimous contempt for injustice, and many other perfections of the soul (pp. 115–16).
The ‘most significant’ difficulty, however, are ‘external’ social factors that keep women from studying – in particular, institutional exclusion and social expectations regarding domestic labour and marital duties. Women should be excluded neither from instruction (in any field, whether it be philosophy, theology, law or medicine) nor from teaching and obtaining doctorates, and Erxleben does not shy away from arguing that women should not be barred from becoming theologians. Domestic labour can be organized more efficiently and pared down considerably if one focuses on the essentials instead of on what social fashions demand. Finally, reasonable husbands will be open-minded enough to value a spouse who has benefited from the negative and positive good that results from a proper education.
Erxleben deals more quickly with two other arguments for the exclusion of women from education (viz. that their education will be misused, and that it will lead to arrogance) and the ‘other causes’ of women’s exclusion from academic pursuits (avarice, laziness, arrogance and fear of jealousy). In many cases the real cause of the phenomena mentioned as a reason for women’s exclusion is actually not too much but too little education, or education of the wrong kind. Opening up proper academic studies for women will take care of these problems over time.
None of this will be quick, she warns, and there are dangers – for example, women themselves will need to be careful not to become envious of their future more educated sisters. Erxleben stresses that her argument does not imply that all women need to be formally educated. However, the predominant arguments behind the exclusion of women from studies are ungrounded and false, and their exclusion is not only injust, but also harmful to society in general and women in particular.
Gründliche Untersuchung der Ursachen, die das weibliche Geschlecht vom Studiren abhalten, darin deren Unerheblichkeit gezeiget, und wie möglich, nöthig und nützlich es sey, daß dieses Geschlecht der Gelahrtheit sich befleisse (Berlin, 1742).
Dorothea Christiane Erxleben: Ihr Leben und Wirken (Quedlinburg, 1985).
Dorothea Christiana Erxleben: Weibliche Gelehrsamkeit und medizinische Profession seit dem 18. Jahrhundert (Halle/Saale, 2006).
Dorothea Christiana Erxleben, geb. Leporin (1715–1762). Leben und Legende der ersten deutschen promovierten Ärztin (Münster, 1995).