International Women's Day: The Aletta Jacobs Papers

Portrait of Aletta Jacobs

By Maurice Boer

Happy International Women’s Day! On this day we mark the fact that gender equality is still a goal to be achieved. But also, we celebrate the important work already done in the field of women’s emancipation. One of the best-known Dutch female rights activists is Aletta Jacobs, who in 1878 became the first female physician in the Netherlands. Jacobs opened a clinic in Amsterdam, offered free consults to poor women, published about the female body and was involved internationally in the struggle for women’s suffrage. Last year, her extensive personal archive was registered in the UNESCO Memory of the World programme for documentary heritage. The archive is a striking example of the importance of historical documents to achieve the UNESCO ideals, in this case the continuing struggle for gender equality.

While browsing through the Aletta Jacobs Papers – completely digitized and made accessible online by ATRIA, Institute on Gender Equality and Women’s History – one notices directly the relevance of Aletta Jacobs’ work for the present day. As a female physician she focused on the medical problems of women. These problems, however, had to be seen in the light of the social situation of women. In a handwritten document, considering the title, One out of many, clearly based on experiences with her patients, Jacobs tells the story of a “pale hollow-eyed woman”, going by the name of Anna. Shy and embarrassed she visited the doctor’s office. After repeated insistence by the doctor she finally revealed her situation: she was a maid and had given in to the persistent flirtations of her boss, “who she learned to consider her superior”. She got pregnant, was sent away, was abused sexually and ended up in Amsterdam without means of existence but with a child. The story is a classic #MeToo: abuse of power, facilitated by an apathetic and systematically unequal society.  

Aletta Jacobs fought for women’s emancipation not just in the Netherlands, but internationally as well. The archive holds many letters from befriended feminists, people interested in her work and organisations for female suffrage from around the world. Jacobs had a lively correspondence with Jane Addams, the famous American feminist and Nobel Prize winner, and with Carrie Chapman Catt, founder of the International Women Suffrage Alliance, with whom Jacobs travelled around the world in 1911 and 1912. After an American magazine published an article on Jacobs’ support for birth-control, many letters arrived from young American women and men. In often handwritten notes they explained that they did not have enough money to take proper care of another child, but that they had a practical problem: “we really love each other”.

After the start of the First World War in 1914, Aletta Jacobs decided to mobilize her international network of women’s rights activists for the cause of peace. In 1915 she co-organized the International Congress of Women in The Hague. The congress was devoted to peace and lead to the foundation of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, which still exists. In Jacob’s opinion peace and women’s rights were two sides of the same coin. A similar idea still forms the foundation of UNESCO: all UNESCO programmes, from world heritage to water science, contribute in the end to this one holy grail: a safe and healthy world without war.

In short, the Aletta Jacobs Papers offer a wide collection of stories, which are still relevant. Even so, a critical view on the archive is needed also. As Mineke Bosch writes in her biography of Jacobs, she was in some of her thinking undeniably a child of her times. The travelogues she kept during her journey around the world are written from a Western perspective, accompanied by a – then quite common – sense of superiority towards colonized people of colour. In this observation the value of this archive lies as well. Heritage, and history writing in general, should not be hagiographical. The ideal of a more equal society is not achieved with flimsy success stories, but by taking the complex and layered nature of history as a starting point for debate. Discussions on women’s emancipation are nowadays thus focused around the concept of intersectionality, the idea that sexism and racism cannot be understood separately. Heritage can and should contribute to these debates, as a constant reminder of achieved milestones, but first and foremost, as milestones to be achieved still.

08-03-2018 | 10:29

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