Kempin-Spyri, Emilie
First name:
19th century
20th century
Field of expertise:
Place of birth:
Alstetten (CHE)
* 18.03.1853
† 12.04.1901
Biography print

Swiss jurist and women’s rights activist.


Emilie Kempin-Spyri (1853-1901; née Spyri) was born in Altstetten, a district of Zurich, as the youngest of the eight children of the Protestant pastor Johann Ludwig Spyri and his wife, Maria Elise Spyri-Wild. She was the niece of the author Johanna Spyri, best known for her book Heidi. In 1875, Emilie Spyri married the pastor and social reformer Walter Kempin, who encouraged and supported her career ambitions. The couple separated in 1896. Emilie Spyri aspired to a career in law and had to fight against many odds. She was the first woman in Switzerland to graduate from law school and eventually was accepted as an academic lecturer. The socio-political conditions of her time, however, barred her from developing her full potential.


Career in law

Emilie Kempin Spyri entered the University of Zurich’s law school in 1883 and took her doctoral degree in 1887. She was both the first woman student in the legal faculty and the first female Doctor of Law in Switzerland. Despite graduating with summa cum laude honours, she was denied the right to practice law due to her lack of “active citizenship”. According to the Swiss constitution at the time, a “Swiss citizen” had to pay taxes and serve in the military – which categorically excluded women. Kempin-Spyri even turned to the Bundesgericht (Supreme Court), but her appeal was rejected. She emigrated to New York where she founded Emily Kempin Law School, a private institution for women, in 1889. She also worked as a lecturer in legal medicine at New York Medical College & Hospital for Women, at New York City University and at Women’s Law Class (another private institution).

Kempin-Spyri returned to Zurich in 1891. In the same year, she submitted her professorial thesis at the University of Bern and received an “exceptional” venia legendi (permission for lecturing) in Roman, English and American law. Also in 1891, she published Die Rechtsstellung der Frau (The Legal Position of Women; cf. Meder, Duncker & Czelk 2010: 500 ff.). Her application for admission as a lawyer, however, was again rejected. Kempin-Sypri went to Berlin in 1896 to teach private law and German family law at Humboldt Academy. During her Berlin time, she took a fairly moderate stance on women’s rights. She defended the existing Civil Code, for instance – a position by which she distanced herself from the women’s movement of the time (Rieger 1992: 85).



Without stable social relationships, separated from her children and in an economically precarious situation, Kempin-Spyri suffered a breakdown in 1897. She was initially treated at Berolinum, a sanatorium in Berlin-Lankwitz, but then fled back to Zurich because she wanted to be treated by Auguste Forel at Burghölzli. She voluntarily admitted herself to Friedmatt cantonal asylum in Basel in 1899. According to the medical files, she suffered from “primary insanity” with delusion and hallucinations (Delfosse 1994: 17 f.; Redaktion Revue 2011: 24). She was declared legally incompetent but continued to file applications for her transferral to Zurich. She died on 12 April 1901 in Basel, at the age of 48, from cancer that probably was detected too late.

Today, Emilie Kempin-Spyri is acknowledged as one of Europe’s first female Doctors of Law and as the first woman to teach law at a German-speaking university (Frühwirth & Strejcek 2012). The New York University School of Law named a chair after her. In 2009, the University of Zurich honoured her with a commemorative plaque at the legal faculty.



Delfosse, M. (1994): Emilie Kempin Spyri (1853-1901). Das Wirken der ersten Schweizer Juristin. Unter besonderer Berücksichtigung ihres Einsatzes für die Rechte der Frau im schweizerischen und deutschen Privatrecht. Zurich: Schulthess Polygraphischer Verlag.

Frühwirth, A., G. Strejcek (2012): Emilie Kempin (1853-1901): Schweizer Pionier-Juristin. In G. Strejcek: Gelebtes Recht. 29 Juristenporträts. Vienna: Stämpfli und Österreichische Verlagsgesellschaft, pp. 203-211.

Kempin, E. W. (1887): Die Haftung des Verkäufers einer fremden Sache. Inauguraldissertation. Zurich: Zürcher und Furrer.

Kempin, E. (1895): Die Rechtsstellung der Frau. (Der Existenzkampf der Frau im modernen Leben, Bd. 5). Berlin: Taendler.

Kempin, E. (1896): Rechtsbrevier für deutsche Ehefrauen. 52 Merksprüche aus dem Bürgerlichen Gesetzbuch mit Erläuterungen. Berlin: Heines.

Meder, S., A. Duncker, A. Czelk (eds.) (2010): Die Rechtsstellung der Frau um 1900, eine kommentierte Quellensammlung. Cologne, Weimar: Böhlau Verlag.

Hasler, E. (1991): Die Wachsflügelfrau. Geschichte der Emily Kempin-Spyri. Zurich, Frauenfeld: Nagel & Kimche.

Rieger, E. (1992): Emilie Kempin (1853-1901). ‘Mein Name ist mit dem Odium der Geisteskrankheit behaftet’. In: S. Duda, L. F. Pusch (eds.): WahnsinnsFrauen. Frankfurt on the Main: Suhrkamp, pp. 76-95.

Redaktion Revue (2011): Der Zeit voraus. Emilie Kempin-Spyri (1853–1901). In: Revue. Jahresbericht 2011 und Ausblick der universitären psychiatrischen Kliniken Basel, pp. 24-25.


Ansgar Fabri, Burkhart Brückner


Referencing format
Ansgar Fabri, Burkhart Brückner (2015): Kempin-Spyri, Emilie.
In: Biographisches Archiv der Psychiatrie.
(retrieved on:24.05.2024)