The first woman with an ETH agricultural diploma

Maria Kovalik – a life that could be made into a film

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Maria Filippovna Kovalik was born in Tschernikoff (Russia), in today’s Ukraine, the daughter of an officer and landowner. She only came to the Polytechnic at the age of 30, so she was quite a bit older than her fellow students. After seven semesters, she successfully completed her agricultural studies, making her the first woman to obtain an agricultural diploma at the Polytechnic.

Immediately after graduating, Kovalik travelled to Russia, where she was under police surveillance for two years on suspicion of preparing terrorist actions. In 1878, she was arrested and exiled to Siberia, but managed to escape in 1887. She lived in Switzerland and France until 1906, but then returned to the Tsarist Empire after an amnesty. She died in Minsk in the 1920s.

In Switzerland at the end of the nineteenth century, there were so few public schools for girls that most young women were unable to earn the secondary school degree that they would need to go on to university. Accordingly, in these early days, most female students at Swiss universities came from other countries, and primarily from Russia.

Title page of the first thesis written by a woman
Title page of the first thesis written by a woman at ETH, 1877, Maria Kovalik: “Über den Einfluss der Verkehrszustände auf die Art der Einrichtung & des Betriebes der Viehhaltung in der Landwirthschaft”.
(Photo: Dipl-L 1, ETH Library Zurich, University Archives)

Privileged and political: Russian women at ETH Zurich

The first wave of female students at ETH was clearly dominated by women from the Tsarist Empire. In the second half of the nineteenth century, women were repeatedly prohibited from studying in Russia. As a result, many young women sidestepped these bans by studying in Switzerland, which was much more liberal. Many of the Russian women were politically engaged and held socialist and emancipatory views, including Maria Kovalik.

At the Polytechnic, too, the first women came mainly from the Russian minor nobility or wealthy merchant families. Some of them actively participated in the political discussions in the radical milieu of the Russian emigrants in Zurich and maintained personal contact with the internationally known anarchist Mikhail Bakunin (1814–1876), who repeatedly came to Zurich.

Ahead of their time

At the Polytechnic, the first women studied a wide range of subjects such as mechanical engineering, civil engineering, agriculture, natural sciences, chemistry and pharmacy – fields of study that were rather untypical for Russian female students in Switzerland, as women in Russia were only allowed to work professionally in the medical or school sector.

ETH’s Free Subject department offered students the opportunity to expand their knowledge of European history and economic contexts. Especially the lecture “The social question” by the social-liberal national economist Professor Karl Viktor Böhmert (1829–1918), who also publicly supported women’s studies, seems to have interested the female students. With the start of the First World War in 1914 and the Russian Revolution in 1917, many foreign female students returned to their home countries.