Aletta Jacobs 1854-1929

The emancipation of women

Aletta Jacobs was the first woman in Dutch history to be officially admitted to university. This took place in 1871. As a schoolgirl she had written a letter to Prime Minister Thorbecke requesting permission to be allowed to attend “academic classes”. Aletta Jacobs’ dream was to become a doctor. Thorbecke answered within a week, but did not write to Aletta herself. Instead, he wrote to her father that permission had been granted. And so, thanks to a seventeen-year-old girl, in 1871 universities in the Netherlands were opened to women. Prior to this time, universities and most schools as well, were only open to young men. Only Anna Maria van Schurman, an educated woman (she had a command of no less than ten languages) who lived in the seventeenth century, had ever been allowed to attend any lectures (in Utrecht). However, she had had to sit behind a curtain so as not to cause a distraction for the young men.

Throughout her life, Aletta Jacobs fought for the rights of women. As a doctor, for example, she opened a practice that assisted women with contraception so that they did not have to become pregnant every year. She also fought against the abuses of the retail trade. In her practice in Amsterdam, she had noticed that shop girls suffered from many physical complaints because they were forced to remain standing for the entire working day (which was then eleven hours long). Thanks to Aletta Jacobs, a bill was passed that obliged shops to provide their staff with seating facilities. For fifty years, Aletta Jacobs also fought for the right to vote for women, together with other men and women who supported the rights of women. These women called themselves “feminists” and made their voices heard in a variety of ways: they organised exhibitions, published newspapers and pamphlets, established societies, held demonstrations and submitted petitions. However, it was only in 1919 that the right to vote for women was established. In 1922, Dutch women voted for the first time. Aletta Jacobs was 68 years old at the time.

For centuries, politics had been the exclusive domain of men, just like the academic world, the Church and the armed forces. People believed that women were not the equals of men: their job was to run the household and care for children, and therefore they could not participate in public life. There had always been criticism of this “patriarchal” view of life, but real changes only took place in the twentieth century. And a second wave of feminist campaigning was needed to achieve these changes. In the 1960s, the “dolle minas” [Dutch women’s libbers] carried out a campaign for the emancipation of women. They did not want to be condemned to lives as housewives like their mothers before them. In 1980 the Equal Opportunities Act came into force.


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