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  • Writer's pictureChuka Nwanazia

Feminism and its History in the Netherlands

Feminism in the Netherlands - Beejonson

For years, women have done all they can to fight for equal rights and challenge the status quo, asking that they be treated fairly. From the staunch suffragists of the 19th century to the modern-day feminists fighting for "equal pay for equal work", an end to the domestic violence that women suffer, access to legal and safe abortions and the right to not be incessantly abused (sexually, psychologically, etc.) at the workplace or any other place where women can be found, feminism has played a very crucial role in improving living standards for girls and women in a lot of developed countries like the Netherlands, but is still misunderstood by many in both developed and developing countries.

So what exactly is feminism?

Feminism comes from the Latin word femina, which means woman. It is a range of political movements, ideologies, and social movements that share a common goal: striving for women's rights on the grounds of equality of the sexes. Every feminist agrees with the fact that women should have opportunities (educational, professional, etc.) that are equal to those of the men. Feminists, the world over, have always worked to protect women and girls from rape, sexual harassment, domestic violence as well as female genital mutilation in some parts of Africa, Asia and the middle East. The movement, despite facing unfavourable odds all through the years, have succeeded in helping women in the West attain a standard of living that, while it isn't yet on the same level as that of the men, it is still better than what a lot of women in underdeveloped and developing countries have.

How did this movement come to the Netherlands?

Feminism in the Netherlands started around 1870. This first period is called the first feminist wave. It approximately lasted from 1870 to 1920. Back then, the living standards for women improved somewhat, but around 1960 feminism flourished again and that is popularly referred to as the second feminist wave.

What was the situation of Dutch women at the beginning of the 20th century?

Late 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century was a very dark period for women in the Netherlands. Dutch women didn't have a voice in society and were subordinate to men. They were tasked with taking care of the family while the man worked to earn money. Women working or having jobs was fiercely frowned upon and even if they had jobs, it was usually something that had to do with either sewing, knitting or babysitting. They were also not seen as 'suitable' for managerial roles at their places of work no matter how much experience they had. Husbands could also easily divorce their wives and it was impossible for women to divorce their husbands. Most women couldn't live on their own due to the Dutch society making it very impossible for them to cater for themselves. Men were entitled to the properties the family possessed even if half belonged to women.

How Dutch law (as it had to do with women) looked back then:

Article 179 of the Constitution stated: The man controls the properties in any matrimonial home. He can sell it, give it away or use it as collateral without consulting the woman.

  • Women had no right to vote. It was felt that women weren't as intellectual as men and should have nothing to do with politics.

  • Women weren't allowed to cheat on their husbands. If a married woman was caught cheating, her family name was damaged and she had to face any punishment chosen by her husband. Men, on the other hand, could cheat without consequences.

  • The man had the right to determine where the family lived without consulting his wife. The woman had nothing to say about that even if it meant living very far away from family and friends.

  • The man determined almost everything in the family. He determined what they ate, what was bought (or not bought) and which domestic properties had to be sold or kept. The law stated that women were to obey their husbands without questioning them.

  • The woman always had to ask permission from her husband whenever she wanted to do something. The man had the right to permit or forbid her from doing whatever she wanted to do. In most cases, women had to give up a hobby they loved just because their husbands didn't like them leaving the house or becoming too good in a certain field/sport.

  • The man was the only one in the family who had the right to mete out corporal punishment. If his wife or children disobeyed him, he could beat them with impunity.

  • Women were seen as the weaker sex and therefore not suitable for working in factories and the likes.

  • Women weren't supposed to lust after men or have sexual feelings. Sex was only for the purpose of procreation.

  • In legal matters, the woman was treated and regarded as a child.

Enter the First Feminist Wave:

Wilhelmina Drucker

What did the 1st feminist wave hope to achieve?

When the first feminist wave kicked off, the bone of contention was to improve the standard of living for women in the Netherlands. Women were seen as the weaker sex, worth less than horses and were not respected or regarded even as human beings.

Some of the the points of contention were:

1. Improved training opportunities for girls/women and freedom to practice an independent profession:

The first teacher training course was founded in 1860. Aletta Jacobs became the first woman to gain admission into the HBS (Hogere Burgerschool) and later the first woman to be admitted into a university in 1871. As soon as these happened, the number of girls who enrolled in school quickly increased. From the seventies onwards, foundations like Arbeid Adelt and Tesselschade also helped create opportunities for education and paid work for women in industry, nursing and art.

2. Sexuality and unfair punishments for married women:

Dutch society at that time felt that women should have little or no sexuality. Everyone lived with the idea that women should not enjoy sexual relations and they were only meant to please men and have children. Women were heavily punished for adultery even as men had mistresses without facing any consequences. It was thought that married men needed an "extra option" outside of their married homes and as such, weren't severely punished (or punished at all) when caught committing adultery. In the eighties and nineties of the 19th century, Christian women's organisations sprang up mainly to fight these injustices against women in the Netherlands.

3. Legal improvement for women:

The first feminist wave in the Netherlands also fought for an improvement in legal matters that affected women. They felt that the rule of law was set up in a way that only favoured men and made the lives of women unbearable. Women later had more control and influence in the family and in matters that affected their children through the Children's Laws of 1901, although much more power still remained in the hands of men.

4. Right to vote for women:

Aletta Jacobs - Beejonson

Due to women achieving the right to acquiring an education, the position of women improved somewhat, but they were still seen as second-class citizens in the Dutch society. They wanted a situation where there were no distinctions between men and women in politics, so demanding suffrage was seen as a start to that struggle.

In 1894, the Vereniging voor Vrouwenkiesrecht (VvVK) (Association for Women's Suffrage) was founded by Wilhelmina Drucker. One of the co-founders was Aletta Jacobs who had already played a huge role in the rise of feminism in the Netherlands. In 1916 this association proudly counted more than 20,000 members that consisted of both men and women. From the turn of the century all attention was turned towards fighting for women's electoral rights. These fighters consisted mainly of liberal women and they tried to achieve women's suffrage by means of public meetings, a monthly magazine, handing out pamphlets and in most cases, burning buildings. These (often somewhat violent) methods of struggle did, however, have an effect; in 1917 women were given the right to run for offices and in 1919, the right to vote. This was a huge win for women because it meant they could finally vote and be voted for.

What was the situation of women after the first feminist wave?

Women initially felt that the right to vote and be voted for would solve almost all of their problems. They thought that everything could now be achieved through parliament, where they would sit and take part in fighting for further change. Unfortunately, these feminists were in for a nasty disappointment. Things didn't turn out as they expected. In the twenties, for example, there were no more than seven women in the House of Representatives. The thirties saw only four women as members of the House of Representatives, out of a total of 150 members of parliament. With a male majority (most of whom were sexists), the feminists in the house couldn't do much to alleviate the sufferings of women. Luckily, that didn't quench the fire of feminism.

Dolle Mina in the Netherlands

On the bright side, a few things worked out well for feminists. For example, women finally had access to education and paid work and there was a small improvement in legal matters as it had to do (married) with women. On the other hand, very little had changed. Woman were still stuck with the role of housewife. In the 1920s, jobs like telephone operator and typist were viewed as female jobs and to some extent, it was tolerated when unmarried women were given these jobs. They were expected to quit and become full-time housewives as soon as they got married.

The fifties saw an increase in prosperity; a lot of Dutch homes had domestic appliances such as radios, vacuum cleaners and washing machines. Doing domestic chores became much easier and it became increasingly acceptable for married women to work. Despite the increase in the demand for women in the labour market, they still weren't seen as equal to the menfolk.

What were the points of contention of the second feminist wave?

In both the second feminist waves, four major points of contention were made clear: increase in the demand for women in the labour market, right to a good education, right to take an active part in politics and areas such as sexuality, marriage and family.

Enter the Second Feminist Wave:

1. The Labour Market:

In the 1960s, there was an increase in the number of paid working (married) women. The percentage of these working women increased from 7 percent to 17 percent in 1971. It slowly became more accepted for married women to have paid work. However, women with children had to stay at home because Dutch society at that time, felt that a family shouldn't have to suffer just because a woman wanted to have a job. The Dutch government was also not interested in encouraging working (married) mothers as daycares were only for emergencies and there were only thirty daycare centres throughout the Netherlands.

2. Improved Education:

In the 1950s and '60s, girls quickly caught up with boys in different fields of education. There was, however, still a huge difference between boys and girls in schools: boys schools were usually more organised and equipped than girls schools. The message for girls was:

"do your best in school, but understand that marriage and marriage alone would be your final destination."

Due to this mentality in the Dutch society, nothing was done to encourage girls to be educated. The ones who showed an interest weren't taken seriously and the education they got wasn't on the same level as the one the boys got. In 1968 for example, there were 16,000 female students and 69,000 male students in academic institutions!

3. Fair Treatment in Politics:

Achieving the right to vote unfortunately didn't make women as dominant as they wanted in Dutch politics. Everything that had to do with politics was still a man's decision despite women's suffrage. There were very few women in the House of Reps and until the end of the sixties it was never more than 10 percent of the 150 MPs. None of the other male MPs were interested in listening to matters that affected women, voting for them or even having them as colleagues. They felt that the fewer women they had in the House the better. Some of these male MPs also did all they could to sabotage the few female MPs in the House. This led to women asking that they be given the same treatment and political opportunities as their male counterparts.

4. Sexuality, marriage and family:

Pro-abortion demonstration in the Netherlands - 30th March 1981


According to Dutch society (at that time), an ideal image of a decent woman was one who did not concern herself with 'trivial matters' such as female sexuality. Women were only meant to sexually please their husbands and have children and no more! The sixties saw a few visible changes. Women began to be seen and accepted as sexual beings. It became acceptable for women to have sex just for pleasure even though promiscuity (especially on the woman's part) was heavily frowned upon. Sexually liberated women were referred to as 'prostitutes' or 'sluts' as more conservative families strived to raise their daughters to be chaste girls who would eventually become decent and faithful housewives. This sexual revolution focused on making Dutch society understand that every women had a right to do whatever she wanted with her body while also encouraging women to take back and own their sexual power.

In 1969, the Dutch government lifted the ban against public advertisement of contraceptives. Prior to that however, women were able to obtain the birth control pill in 1964. This led to a sharp decrease in the birth rate and the possibility of having an abortion: the Dutch government only did not know whether it should be regarded as a crime or not. Abortion was only possible if there was a serious threat to the physical and psychological health of the mother. In the 1886 Penal Code of the Netherlands, Article 296 states that performing an abortion is a criminal offence. 1981 saw the Dutch Parliament pass a new abortion bill, and it was not until 1984 that this law, the Termination of Pregnancy Act came into effect.

Marriage & Family:

The annulment of a marriage still didn't prevent a woman from being obedient to her ex husband. Divorced women couldn't do a lot without a man. Divorced or single women could not sign a contract, get a loan from a bank or make large purchases without a man's consent. Men still managed properties even if it was the woman's inheritance. The second feminist wave helped fight these injustices.

Feminism Today

Feminism in the Netherlands today

There are still women's movements and institutions in the Netherlands that stand up for the rights of women. While the feminism that fought for voting rights for women may have come to an end when women were finally allowed to run for office and vote, there are still many movements advocating for different issues affecting women today. The 'Equal Treatment Act' which was passed at the end of the 1980s theoretically means that men and women now have an equal position in Dutch society. In the Netherlands this is (in principle) the case, but in a lot of other countries, especially in the developing world, women still have a subordinate position. Countries in Africa, some in Asia, the Americas and the middle East are still lagging behind when it comes to gender equality. Issues such as child marriages, gender inequality and female genital mutilation (and so much more) plague the womenfolk in these parts of the world. So the struggle continues!

Recently, the #MeToo movement has seen victims of sexual abuse come forward to tell their stories. Some of these victims kept their stories to themselves partly because no one would have believed them. Imagine how difficult that must have been! The #MeToo campaign has made it clear that there is still so much work to do in making the world a safe and better place for women. It has helped shine light on people who have suffered in the hands of very sick individuals in this world. Addressing issues like sexual abuse at home, the workplace, and even on the streets can go a long way in helping the us take the first steps in healing our girls and women. So keep on fighting!


About a hundred years ago, the situation of women in Dutch society was very different from today. They lived as second-class citizens, had no right to a good education, were not allowed to take part in politics and could only be housewives and baby-making machines. Through all this, women organised themselves in women's movements in order to stand up to the status quo and ask for equal treatment.

The Dolle Mina feminist group played an important role in campaigning for the rights of women. The Netherlands owes a lot to their women for playing a huge part in making this small and beautiful country the rich and advanced nation that it is today. Women have played important roles in politics, medicine, law, education, sports, the sciences etc. The current position of the Netherlands and other advanced European countries (like Sweden, Norway, Germany, Finland, Denmark, etc.) bears testament to the fact that in order to truly unlock the potential of any country, her women must be empowered and lifted as highly as possible. A country with empowered women is a force to be reckoned with!

One of the reasons why some African, Asian and middle Eastern countries aren't moving forward or developing is because they have refused to empower their women. To tackle poverty, became a developed country and play a dominant role on the world stage, these countries must empower their women. There is no other way!

It is quite unfortunate that a lot of people have no idea what feminism entails and how important it is to support this movement. Most men see it as a threat to their hegemonic masculinity while some other women see it as none of their business. Feminism isn't just a movement, it's high time it became a way of life. Equality for women is the right thing to do.

Men who support women's equality

And to men who see feminism as a threat:

"We all benefit from feminism. The whole world benefits."

When we stand up for the rights of women and succeed in creating a safe and better world for them, we all benefit. Their success is our success and their pain is our pain. The world isn't supposed to be a man's world - THE WORLD IS SUPPOSED TO BE FOR ALL OF US!

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