Colorizing Remarkable Women - Aletta Henriëtte Jacobs, Dutch physician and women's suffrage activist
Updated: Feb 6
Aletta Henriëtte Jacobs, Dutch physician and women's suffrage activist.
Born into a Jewish family in the small village of Sappemeer in the Netherlands, she had many accomplishments in different fields such as women's suffrage, medicine, and lower class aid.
Aside from all the accomplishments she made throughout her life, she was also the first woman to attend a Dutch University officially and the first female physician in the Netherlands
Early life and education
Aletta was born into a Jewish family in the small village of Sappemeer in the Netherlands in 1854 to Abraham Jacobs and Anna de Jongh, the eighth of an eventual twelve children. Her father was a respected country doctor from whom she developed an interest to go into the field of medicine. As a child, she would accompany him to many of his consultations and seeing how he helped his patients made her realise that she wanted to be a physician. In addition, her father taught her new languages such as Latin and Greek and mathematics and history, which at the time were subjects only for men.
Even though she dreamed of being a doctor like her father, access to education for women in 19th century Netherlands was a big struggle. Jacobs was able to finish primary school in 1867, but at the time no girl in Sappemeer was allowed to enter high school. This did not stop Jacobs from learning, and in 1870 she passed the exam which qualified her to be an assistant chemist. After that, she wrote to the first minister of the Netherlands, the liberal J.R. Thorbecke, requesting permission to go to university. Thus, she gained recognition and eventually, on 28 April 1871, she was given permission to attend university by the minister of education J.R. Thorbecke who responded with a letter addressed to her father, Abraham Jacobs, where he granted the authorization for her to attend the University of Groningen. Aletta took on the challenge with courage and optimism, and because of her persistent attitude higher education was made available for women in the Netherlands. On 8 March 1879, Jacobs graduated from college, becoming the first woman to attend a Dutch university, as well as the first woman with a medical degree in the history of the Netherlands and a year later, the first to obtain a doctorate.
She carried out her doctorate with great enthusiasm. Her involvement with her patients led her to find solutions to avoid the discrimination they faced in all areas. Soon she became aware of the impunity of prostitution and the trafficking of white women. In an attempt to remedy the nightmare of the women she looked after, she gave them contraception for birth control and to protect them against sexually transmitted diseases. For 14 years she provided free consultations several times a week to prostitutes, poor people and children. She taught elementary courses in hygiene and childcare. She worked on improving the diaphragm of Dr. Wilhelm P.J Mensinga. This idea shocked society and she was accused of being against life. "The hardest thing was to deal with criticism, especially those that were born from the lips of my brother Sam," commented.
Promoting the reproductive and sexual rights of women in a world against progressive thinking, she set up a free clinic for vulnerable women and did not listen to the criticism she received. This created the first family planning centre in the Netherlands. In addition, in the same centre she carried out another improvement in women’s health: at that time it was common for female employees to spend more than 10 hours standing, causing major health problems and also gynaecological problems. Jacobs insisted that the stores provide them with benches where they could rest when they were not attending to customers. Two decades later the matter of breaks was regulated in a law. Her formal skills enabled her to become friends with members of the Dutch General Trade Union whose leader, B.H Held, sympathised with the cause and offered rooms, where they would teach the basics about child care, maternal care and personal hygiene. The testimony of many patients, asphyxiated by harsh living conditions and repression, pushed Aletta Jacobs to do more work in favour of social justice. She was soon married to a man from the pacifist movement and worked for and because of women: mothers, girls, prostitutes ... for herself.
Activism and women's suffrage
At the end of her studies, Jacobs moved to London, where she began to meet with feminists and activists in favour of birth control and universal suffrage. In the British capital she received the influx of new ideas, including the use of contraceptives for women, in order to prevent unwanted pregnancies. Later, she moved to Amsterdam, where she opened her own clinic for low-income people who could not go to a standard doctor.
In 1883, when women were explicitly banned from voting, adding the word "man" in the constitution of 1887, widespread feminine discontent infected Aletta, introducing her to the suffragette movement: in 1903 she became leader of the International Woman Suffrage Alliance.
This commitment led her to meet Carrie Chapman, with whom she would travel to the most remote places in the world: South Asia, Austria and Hungary, the Middle East and Africa to give a voice and support to all those women in the world who were alone to open a gap in political life and in the spaces of participation. She addressed these words to Chapman in a friendly letter: "My dear Carrie, I am sure that I have not lived in vain, we have done our task, and we can leave the world with the conviction that we leave it better than we found it".
She made alliances with women suffragists from other European countries and she toured internationally promoting equality. Her struggles paid off when in 1919 women obtained the right to vote in the Netherlands.
After attending the meeting of the International Council of Women in London in 1899, Jacobs left medicine behind her and focused her efforts on women’s suffrage.
In 1915, she promoted holding the International Women's Congress in The Hague shortly after the start of the First World War.7 This congress included the International Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), an organization created to object to the war and for the participation of women in the international public arena.
In this forum, which brought together more than a thousand women from all over the world, the first feminist proposals against the war and violence rooted in 20th century Europe began to formulate. Still today, WILPF is one of the women’s network with the most impact in international politics. This organization is considered the most important of women for peace in the last century, and Jane Addams, its first president, received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931. She continued working for the feminist cause until her death in Baarn, the Netherlands, on the 10 of August 1929 at age 75 years.
In her book Memories: My Life as an International Leader in Health, Suffrage, and Peace, she introduces readers to a remarkable woman, a dominant Dutch feminist who broke new ground on her own, and who worked with world- Progressive movements of the early 20th century.
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