170 Years of Women on Campus: Bertha Paulssen

By Emily Robinson ’19, Public Services Assistant at Trexler Library

During the spring semester of 2020, we will be offering a series of blog posts that highlight little-known stories of women who have played a role in Muhlenberg’s history. This series is designed to accompany the Special Collections exhibit An Innovation Revisited: 170 Years of Women on Campus, on display in the Rare Books Exhibit Room (Level B) until April 24th.

Dr. Bertha Paulssen made history at Muhlenberg College when she became the Institution’s first female teaching faculty member in 1943. Paulssen, an internationally known sociologist, was born in Leipzig, Germany in 1891, to a family that was well-versed in English as both a spoken and written language, therefore allowing her to become proficient in the language before she began her academic career. She completed her undergraduate work at the Universities of Goettingen and Leipzig and went on to earn her doctorate of philosophy from the University of Leipzig in 1917.

In 1923, at the age of 32, Paulssen moved to Hamburg, Germany to serve as the State Commissioner of the Hamburg State Youth Welfare Department, where she led a staff of 800 social workers. She held this position for the next decade, until Hitler seized the German government in 1933. Paulssen’s disagreements with the Nazi Party’s perverted manipulation of German youth forced her to resign her position and flee Germany. She fled to England where she was able to continue her social work in both London and Birmingham from 1934 to 1936, after which she moved to the United States. 

After arriving in America, Paulssen became an active social worker in the Henry Street Settlement in New York. In 1938, she was brought on as a special lecturer in social work at Wagner College, and just shortly after, accepted a temporary appointment at the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Paulssen and her work were closely connected to the Lutheran Church throughout her life, even as early as her time in Germany, so an appointment at the Lutheran Seminary seemed an apt placement, as was her connection to Muhlenberg College, a fellow Lutheran institution. Dr. Paulssen was brought to Muhlenberg as a professor of sociology in 1943. Despite any hesitations that members of the Muhlenberg faculty and administration may have had about bringing in a female faculty member, Paulssen’s robust resume of social science experience was enough to convince President Levering Tyson that Paulssen should be given the position. In a Muhlenberg Weekly editorial from January 1943, the Muhlenberg staff wrote:

“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 taught at Muhlenberg through 1944 before returning to the Lutheran Theological Seminary, where she remained for the rest of her career— introducing social sciences into their curriculum and becoming the first female faculty member to gain tenure at a Lutheran seminary. Dr. James Swain, chair of Muhlenberg’s Social Studies Department, said that “bringing in a woman professor is an innovation,” and the addition of Paulssen to Muhlenberg faculty certainly fueled innovation for the College. Although she had a short tenure at Muhlenberg, Dr. Bertha Paulssen permanently changed the make-up of Muhlenberg faculty and paved the way for an enlightened understanding of women’s roles at the College moving forward.

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