Vet fights to secure gender- sensitive Latin title

April 14, 2000

A woman vet's fight to be titled doctora of veterinary science has triggered linguistic turmoil in the northern German state of Lower Saxony.

Maite Mathes, 39, sued the Hanover School of Veterinary Medicine because it refused her the title doctora medicinae veterinae. Her degree certificate conferred her the Latin title doctor, as it does all its successful doctoral candidates, male or female.

An administrative court in Hanover rejected Dr Mathes's complaint on the grounds that doctora was not linguistically accurate. The correct feminine form of the Latin word doctor would be doctrix, it ruled.

Dr Mathes, who now lectures at Humboldt University, Berlin, rejected this alternative: "It is ridiculous. It sounds like the comic figures Asterix and Obelix," she told The THES.

However, the court agreed with Dr Mathes that the veterinary school's doctoral degree regulations contravened Lower Saxony's state education law that demands academic titles be either gender-neutral or gender-specific. The law clearly envisages the German-language titles doktor for a man or doktorin for a woman, and the Latin title doctor is specifically male, it ruled.

The judges left it up to the linguistic imagination of the veterinary school to decide what form its academic titles should take in future.

Dr Mathes will now wait for the written judgment before deciding whether to take the matter further. "It's my private hobby. I want to fight this because it is just not fair. The Latin title was chosen before women were allowed to go to university, let alone get a doctorate. But this title is now part of my name, it is on my identity card."

She believes it will now be up to other female graduates to challenge the veterinary school to change its terminology. But she is not optimistic. The school's women's commission did not want to support her legal battle openly, fearing people would ask "if they did not have better things to do", Dr Mathes said.

Maria Flachsbarth, spokeswoman for the Hanover School of Veterinary Medicine, said the school recently clarified its doctoral degree regulations with the Lower Saxony Conference of Universities, which agreed that the degree certificate title could remain doctor.

She argued: "The Latin term agricola ends with an 'a' but no one in ancient Rome would have assumed that farmers were therefore women."

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