University

Aletta Jacobs’ fans

Three cheers for Aletta!

Saskia Zwiers lays flowers at the foot of Aletta Jacobs’ statue. Jellie Tiemersma has a picture of Jacobs on her phone cover. And ever since Eva Marie de Waal played Jacobs on stage, she’s made it a priority to vote. ‘Aletta taught me to forge my own path.’
By Christien Boomsma / Translation by Sarah van Steenderen / Photo by Saskia Zwiers

In 2006, RUG alumna Saskia Zwiers read Mineke Bosch’s hefty biography of Aletta Jacobs. She was greatly affected by the story of the girl who became the first female Dutch student to go to high school, the first to finish a university education, the first to get a doctoral degree, the first to become a physician. She felt that the woman who invented the diaphragm, tried to be the first woman to vote, and actively campaigned for world peace deserved some recognition.

The Aletta Jacobs room at the University Museum in Groningen recreates her office.  Photo by Reyer Boxem.

Aletta Jacobs (1854 – 1929)

Aletta Jacobs was the daughter of a physician from Sappemeer. In 1870, she became the first woman to attend what would now be considered high school. In 1871 prime minister Thorbecke helped her enrol in medical school at the RUG.

She took her physician’s exam in 1877 and 1878 and became the first Dutch woman to obtain a university degree. She got her doctoral degree in 1879.

Aletta opened a practice in Amsterdam, where she treated poor women for free. She argued for birth control, introduced the diaphragm to the Netherlands, and fought for female store attendants’ rights to sit down during their fifteen-hour shifts.

Because of her income as a physician she gained the right to vote. She wanted to register to vote in 1883 but was refused because the ‘spirit of the law’ was more important than her individual rights. An amendment to the law in 1887 explicitly forbade women to vote. Aletta continued to fight for women’s suffrage, international women’s rights, and the peace movement. In 1917, a small percentage of women was allowed to vote. In 1919, all women were finally allowed to vote.

And so the artist from Zwolle travelled to Groningen that 9th of February to lay flowers at the foot of Aletta’s statue at the Harmonie square. She added a card: ‘Congratulations on your 152nd birthday.’

Tenacious

She hasn’t stopped celebrating Jacobs’ birthday since. This Saturday, she will grace the statue with flowers once again. Zwiers has also made it a tradition to celebrate the accomplishments of other women, like Anna Maria van Schuurman, who was the first Dutch woman to attend university – two hundred years before Aletta graduated. And Suze Groeneweg, who was the first woman elected to the Upper House, one hundred years ago. And Wilhelmina Drucker, who was known as ‘Mad Mina’ and was one of the first Dutch feminists.

But as a fellow alumna, Aletta will always have a special place in Zwiers’ heart. Not just because she also studied in Groningen, but because she was so tenacious. ‘She was so courageous! She deserves our respect’, Zwiers says emphatically. ‘People can get annoyed if you won’t stop talking about your convictions. But she’s a shining example that you have to stick with it if you want to right wrongs.’

Zwiers is no longer the only person to honour Aletta. Groningen artist Wilma Vissers joined her admiration society. She, too, heads to city centre on February 9th with a bouquet she bought at the Hereplein. She places it at the foot of the statue and and pauses briefly to remember Aletta’s fight. She intentionally keeps the moment of recognition simple, unfussy. ‘All those official commemorations are so pompous. It’s just a small gesture.’

Cheering

Other people honour Aletta Jacobs not on her birthday but on 8 March, international women’s day. People also burn candles and leave cards throughout the year to honour the famous feminist’s legacy.

Groningen business owner and project manager Yellie Alkema is also a fan. When politician René Paas mentioned Aletta Jacobs during a get-together at the Provinciehuis and paused for effect, she cheered. ‘Everyone else was completely silent,’ she recalls, grinning. ‘Whatever, I don’t care. We should just be really proud of her.’

She’s a shining example that you have to stick with it if you want to right wrongs

After all, Aletta’s feminism is still relevant today. Alkema’s adolescent daughter might not care – ‘she thinks feminism is dumb’ – but Alkema has personal experience with inequality. ‘I was raised in the Reformed Church of the Netherlands (liberated)’, she says. ‘People won’t know this, but that church only allowed female pastors a few months ago.’

Theology teacher

Back when Alkema attended the Gomarus College to learn Greek and Latin, there was no chance of her becoming a pastor. She could maybe become a theology teacher. ‘I got so angry with my Latin teacher. I said: “The only reason they get to be pastor and I don’t is because they have a dick?!” The only people in my school who were any good at giving sermons were the girls!’

She became even more incensed at her treatment when, after having married young, she got divorced. ‘I was considered the temptress, the harlot’, she says. ‘That negativity towards women dates back to Saint Augustine. That I’m being judged just for being a sexual being just pisses me off!’

The only reason they get to be pastor and I don’t is because they have a dick?!

She left the church. She didn’t become a theology teacher, but a senior project manager. But Aletta, Alkema says, still exemplifies that fight against inequality. All kinds of inequality. ‘I feel a great kinship with the gay rights movement and emancipation in general.’

Ordinary life

Jellie Tiemersma agrees wholeheartedly. She is a business owner as well, but she’s also visually impaired. She was raised Christian Reformed. People expected her to play it safe, to live an ordinary life.

She was introduced to Aletta Jacobs in history class in high school and started doing her own research on her. ‘I realised that just because my world was small, it didn’t mean I didn’t have options. So I decided to no longer let other people define me. She taught me to forge my own path.’

Tiemersma was quite young when she joined the municipal council. She started her own business. She decided not to have kids. Last year, together with RUG spokesperson Jorien Bakker and other like-minded people, she founded the Aletta Jacobs Foundation, which aims to promote diversity. ‘We’re especially behind on that in the north of the Netherlands. We decided to put our money where our mouths were.’

Phone case

She continues to propagate that message of diversity and inclusivity: for women, for people with disabilities, and for people from different cultures. Aletta Jacobs embodied all these things, Tiemersma says. There’s a reason she has a picture of the feminist on her phone case. ‘The fact that she refused to give up is so admirable. If you truly believe in things, you will do anything to achieve your goals. Even if that means displeasing other people’

But it’s still difficult to get that message across. Alkema says her own daughter thinks feminism is ‘dumb’; others think it’s a ‘dirty word’. ‘But it isn’t! Not anymore’, says Eva Marie de Waal, who played Aletta a play about women’s rights called Holy F. The F in this case doesn’t stand for fuck, but for feminism. ‘Once you realise what it’s about, you can’t deny its merits!’

But she does kind of get it. When she and her theatre partner Sophie van Winden were brainstorming Holy F, they realised they were afraid of coming across as ‘whiny’, or ‘unsexy’. ‘But we decided that’s exactly what we needed to be’, says De Waal.

Fallacies

Holy F turned into a play that highlights the fallacies in the ongoing conversation about women’s rights. Her Aletta became as unmoveable as a rock. ‘She was so persistent when demanding her degree from her professor.’

People died for your right to vote!

De Waal said the role affected her strongly. She not only started understanding Aletta better, but when a female colleague refused to vote in the last elections because she was against the system, De Waal got involved. ‘People died for your right to vote!’

Aletta Jacobs embodies everything these women admire: discipline, says Vissers; persistence, says Zwiers; education, says De Waal; her life as a symbol for the rest of us, says Alkema.

But the fight isn’t over yet. ‘Too many women, especially those of low education, assume that people will just take care of them. And women don’t get sufficient career opportunities, and they’re underrepresented in technical fields. But society needs them!’ Timmersma says.

She doesn’t think Aletta would be happy with the way things are now. ‘I think she’d still be storming the barricades. I think she’d remind us there was a reason she’d worked so hard.’

A woman honours Aletta Jacobs’ 147th birthday. Photo by Reyer Boxem

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