Emma Irene Åström
Emma Irene Åström was the daugher of a surveyor from Åland. She went to school in Finström. The local pastors noticed her gifts and asked her father to send her to study at the Jyväskylä Teacher Seminary. The family was very poor but Emma Irene started at the Seminary in 1865. Due to her father’s financial problems, the Head of the Teacher Seminary, Uno Cygnaeus, became Emma Irene’s unofficial guardian.
Emma Irene graduated from the Teacher Seminary in 1869. She wanted to continue her studies, but because she was a woman, she had to get a special license to take the matriculation exam and to study in a boys’ school. Uno Cygnaeus helped her to get the license even though he did not approve of her post-graduate studies. Emma Irene passed her matriculation examination in 1873.
She then started to study at university, her subjects including Latin and Philosophy. During her studies she worked in schools in the Helsinki area. When her father died she had to take a two-year break from her studies to work at the teacher seminary in Tammisaari. She took her Bachelor’s degree and became a Master of Philosophy in 1882, and she is therefore the first Finnish woman to get a Master’s degree. She was also the first woman to be elected an honorary doctor (Honorary Doctor of Philosophy in the University of Helsinki) in 1927 and Jubilee Master in 1932. Emma Irene continued to work in Helsinki schools until 1886. She was a lecturer at the teachers’ college in Tammisaari from 1886 to 1913 and taught at the Tammisaari co-educational school and at a mission school from 1913 to 1924.
Emma Irene would have liked to continue her studies at the university but those dreams had to be abandoned because she had to support her family: “One summer on Åland,”
says Emma, “it became clear to me that I must abandon the thought of going back to University. At first I felt dull, indifferent and so tired that I had to lie down during the day. I felt as if I was a miserable crippled creature who had lost her arms and legs, or a tree whose branches had been cut off. It was as if I had died inside and was now wandering around and haunting my own grave. I spoke of Emma Irene as if I had been someone else. Even now I often say “Emma Irene” instead of “I”. It was as if my entire being had been split in half. For a time I felt that Emma walked the earth doing things but Irene had died.”