Europe's Freedom Fighters: Aletta Jacobs
On International Women’s Day 2023, Manon Heerts talks about the legacy of Aletta Jacobs, a Dutch feminist and medical practitioner. Jacobs (1854-1929) is nowadays perhaps most well known for her fight for universal suffrage in the Netherlands and internationally. And yet, as with many historical figures who the history books label heroic, there is a shadow side to Jacobs’ life and activism that few people are aware of.
Medical career makes way for suffragism and international activism
Aletta Jacobs was the first woman in the Netherlands to obtain a university degree, after asking for permission to do so from none other than the prime minister at that time, Johan Rudolph Thorbecke. She became the first female physician to open a medical practice for the poor, where she advised women on how to prevent pregnancy and how to avoid contracting STDs. Jacobs publicly advocated for the need for contraceptives, which led to widespread criticism from much of the medical profession at the time, who opposed the use of contraception.
Jacobs is nowadays probably best known for her suffragism, both in the Netherlands and internationally. Together with other first-wave feminists like Rosika Swchimmer and Carrie Chapman Catt, she advocated for universal suffrage and the right to education for everyone. In fact, she put her medical career on the backburner in order to spend all her time on suffragism activities. In 1894, Jacobs had closed her free medical clinic and she stopped practising as a doctor altogether in 1904. Jacobs came to fight for universal suffrage after she had tried to vote for the Amsterdam city council elections in 1883. Originally, Dutch law stated that those paying taxes were eligible to vote. Because of her medical profession, she paid taxes and thus tried to make use of her voting right. This was rejected by the council and by subsequent courts where Jacobs tried to argue her case. Jacobs did not give up and believed in the power of collaboration. In 1903, she became the president of the Vereeniging voor Vrouwenkiesrecht (Dutch Association for Women’s Suffrage, VVVK). The VVVK was founded in 1894 to advocate for women’s suffrage. They campaigned by writing letters to parliamentarians, publishing a monthly journal, writing opinion pieces for newspapers and organising (inter)national conferences. More than thirty years after Jacobs’ first try to vote, the vote for women was finally legalised in the Netherlands in 1919.
The board of the VVVK during a demonstration in Amsterdam on June 18, 1916 (source: Atria)
Jacobs’ activism and role in the VVVK had garnered her considerable international attention. She was in touch with well-known suffragettes from the UK and the US, including Carrie Chapman Catt, who founded the International Woman Suffrage Alliance (IWSA) in 1904. The IWSA organised annual conferences and Jacobs and the VVVK successfully organised the fourth congress in Amsterdam, in 1908. The conference received an unusual amount of media attention, which helped create more public awareness on universal suffrage. In 1911 and 1912, Jacobs and Chapman Catt made an international propaganda tour to help support the fight for universal suffrage elsewhere.
The troubled legacy of first wave feminism
As with many historical figures whom we nowadays think of as heroic, there is a shadow side to Jacobs’ life and activism that few people are aware of. Jacobs lived during a time when the Dutch state was a colonial force, with colonies in East Asia and the Caribbean. In 1911, Jacobs travelled through what was then known as the Dutch East Indies, now Indonesia, as part of her propaganda tour with Chapman Catt. In her letters home, Jacobs does not shy away from expressing racist and colonial views of the countries she visited and the people she met. She showcased her belief in the superiority of white Europeans, labelling the colonised people as childlike and immature, content to be under the civilised rule of the Dutch state, in need of the guidance that the Dutch ruler could provide to what she saw as an uncivilised society. Her writing is full of parental imagery, a rhetoric more commonly used to justify colonial rule. She spent her life fighting against patriarchal and sexist power structures but was seemingly only concerned with the fate of the white woman, revealing that she never quite considered the people in the colonies as her equal. At the time, first-wave feminism did not have the intersectional perspective of contemporary feminism and Jacobs failed to acknowledge the oppressive power dynamics of colonialism, rooted in racism, white supremacy and capitalist economic thinking.
Does that mean we should side-line her achievements all together? Probably not. It is unmistakable that her activism had a lasting influence on Dutch society and that she improved the life of many women as a doctor. Nevertheless, to only herald Jacobs for this and to ignore her colonialist and racist voice, sits uneasily in today’s society where we should question the centrality of white, western voices. Feminists cannot just address gender inequality without addressing other constellations of oppression, including those of class, race, ethnicity, religion, (dis)ability, education, the list goes on. Be it in educational material, historical exhibitions or plenary debates on gender equality, the conversation can take both angles; acknowledging the contributions made by earlier feminists, whilst at the same time not shying away from asking critical questions about the other side of the same coin, about the white-centred and Europe-centred nature of (first wave) feminism.