Women at Muhlenberg: The 1930s and 1940s

Dr. Bertha Paulsson

In January 1943, the College announced the appointment of the first female faculty instructor in Muhlenberg’s history. Dr. Bertha Paulssen (1891-1973) was an internationally-known sociologist who had served as State Commissioner of the Hamburg State Youth Welfare Department in her native Germany from 1923 to 1933. According to a local newspaper reporting on her arrival, “She relinquished the position and went to England when  it became evident that the Hitler government would usurp and pervert the youth movement.” Dr. Paulssen had taught at Wagner College and the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Gettysburg prior to arriving at Muhlenberg.

In a memo to President Levering Tyson, Dr. James Swain, chair of Muhlenberg’s Social Studies Department, acknowledged that “bringing in a woman professor is an innovation,” but he heartily recommended Dr. Paulssen’s qualifications. In an editorial in the Muhlenberg Weekly, published the same week as the announcement of her appointment, the staff welcomed Dr. Paulssen based on her excellent reputation, and added:

“Since having a woman member of the faculty is something very new to us, there may be some instances when we won’t quite react in the orthodox manner. However, we ask you to forgive us and bear with us until each of us has become used to each other.”

Dr. Paulssen remained at Muhlenberg through 1944, at which time she returned to the Lutheran Theological Seminary, where she taught for the rest of her career. She is remembered as the first female faculty member to gain tenure at a Lutheran seminary. 

 

Mary A. Funk

Mary A. Funk (1904-1981) was officially the first female faculty member at Muhlenberg College. When she arrived in 1939, she was not the first woman to hold the Assistant Librarian position at the college, but she was the first to hold a master’s degree in library science, and she is often referred to as a faculty member in the archives. She frequently was photographed as the only female among a host of male administrators. Mary Funk remained at Muhlenberg for thirty years, retiring as Head Librarian in 1969, having been promoted to full professor that year. In 1970, she became the first non-alumnus to be presented with an Alumni Achievement Award.

Mary Funk’s 1973 oral history can be visited here.

 

First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt speaks on the role of women, May 26, 1942.

Eleanor Roosevelt visited Allentown and Muhlenberg on the occasion of the bicentennial celebration of the Muhlenberg family’s arrival in America. She was awarded an honorary Doctor of Letters degree from the College, and the title of the address she gave was “The Responsibility of Women in the Present Crisis.”

“Men fight wars but women carry on the determination and the courage of the Nation…Since we have equal rights as citizens, we have equal responsibilities and must accept them.”

During World War II, Muhlenberg joined Lafayette and Lehigh, along with other Pennsylvania institutions, to offer technical courses in engineering, science, and management.