Aletta Jacobs, 1919, Isaac Israels, Collection IAV-Atria, Institute on gender equality and women’s history, Public Domain Mark

100 years ago, women in the Netherlands won full suffrage: the right to stand for election combined with the right to vote. Aletta Jacobs was one of the women involved in that process who had a profound impact on Dutch society. She was a driving force behind the women's rights movement in the Netherlands and the world. She was the first Dutch woman to receive a university diploma, the first to become a doctor, and the first to receive her doctorate. She was also a figurehead for the ‘first feminist wave’, fighting for women's right to vote. She was an example for women everywhere.

Aletta Henriëtte Jacobs was born on 9 February 1854 in the small village of Sappemeer, into a Jewish doctor’s family. She started her life in an era in which women had a disadvantaged position and in which poverty and harsh working conditions played a big role in life expectancy. For girls and women at this time, opportunities to study and work were limited, and women still had no right to vote.

Aletta H. Jacobs, c.1880, unknown, Wikimedia Commons after University of Groningen, Public Domain Mark
Aletta H. Jacobs, c.1880, unknown, Wikimedia Commons after University of Groningen, Public Domain Mark

Jacobs was a gifted student but the standard of education at her village school was modest. It was customary for middle-class girls to attend so-called ‘ladies’ schools’ to learn household management and female etiquette. For Jacobs, this experience was not a success and – after just two weeks – she refused to return to the school.

A compromise was found: Jacobs stayed at home and received homeschooling from her parents and private tutors, learning several languages such as Latin and Greek. This was ultimately not enough for her, as she dreamed of becoming a doctor, like her father and brother.

Petition from 1871 to be admitted to Groningen University, Collection Ministry of Internal Affairs, National Archives, Netherlands, Public Domain Mark
Petition from 1871 to be admitted to Groningen University, Collection Ministry of Internal Affairs, National Archives, Netherlands, Public Domain Mark

Jacobs enrolled at a pharmacy school and studied hard. When she obtained her pharmacy diploma in 1870, she took a chance and wrote to Minister Thorbecke, asking his permission to pursue academic studies. Thorbecke answered swiftly – to Jacobs’s father – to give her permission to study medicine at university.

It certainly wasn’t easy being the first female student. Jacobs and her brothers had to take some abuse from their peers. But after graduation, she would become the first female general practitioner in the Netherlands.

Throughout her life, Aletta Jacobs stood up for herself and the rights of women. As a doctor, for example, she opened a practice helping women with the use of contraceptives, such as the pessary. In 1882, she opened the first birth control clinic in Amsterdam.

Stem pessary, Germany, 1925-1935, Rauch (company), Science Museum, London, CC BY
Stem pessary, Germany, 1925-1935, Rauch (company), Science Museum, London, CC BY

She also went to war against workplace harassment and abuse. She noticed that shop girls had many physical complaints because they had to stand up for the entire working day (up to 11 hours). Thanks to campaigning by Jacobs, a law came into being that obliged shops to set up 'seating' for their staff.

During her career as a doctor, Jacobs wrote several books, including the remarkable 1899 work on female body The Woman: Her build and her internal organs. Because of her experience treating women, Jacobs had a deep knowledge of how the female body worked. Through the publication of this richly illustrated book, Jacobs supported the spread of knowledge about the female body.

(left) Plate I from The Woman: Her build and her internal organs, Aletta Jacobs, Project Gutenberg, Public Domain Mark | (right) Plate III. The Blood Circulation. from The Woman: Her build and her internal organs, Aletta Jacobs, Project Gutenberg, Public Domain Mark

In the 1883 Dutch parliamentary elections, Aletta Jacobs petitioned the mayor and city council of Amsterdam for the right to vote. She pointed out that she met all the legal criteria, as a taxpayer and citizen. Her petition was rejected. Jacobs then appealed to the Amsterdam District Court, unsuccessfully, and then to the Supreme Court – again without success.

When the 1887 amendment to the Dutch Constitution explicitly granted voting rights only to male residents, another barrier to women's suffrage was raised. This event triggered the women's suffrage movement in the Netherlands.

This injustice was hard to take for Jacobs. It spurred her to greater engagement in political activism for women’s rights and suffrage.

Aletta Jacob's pin: "Women’s Suffrage", Unknown, Collection IAV-Atria, Institute on gender equality and women’s history, CC0
Aletta Jacob's pin: "Women’s Suffrage", Unknown, Collection IAV-Atria, Institute on gender equality and women’s history, CC0
(...) I'm sure we did not live for nothing. We have accomplished our task and we can leave the world in the belief that we will leave it in better shape than we have found it. Aletta Jacobs, 1928

For over 50 years, Jacobs fought for women's suffrage, along with other women and men who stood up for the rights of women. These women called themselves ‘feminists’ and made themselves heard loudly and often. They organised exhibitions, published newspapers and pamphlets, founded associations, demonstrated in public and made petitions. In 1903, Jacobs became the President of the Association for Women's Suffrage in the Netherlands.

Jacobs travelled the world throughout 1912. She did this with Carrie Chapman Catt, a prominent American suffragette and president of the International Woman Suffrage Alliance.

The two women visited several European countries, South Africa, Egypt and the Middle East, India, Indonesia, Japan and China. Just before their arrival, Jacobs and Catt had heard that Chinese women had taken seats in the various national and regional meetings that Sun Yat-Sen had initiated. In Travel letters from Africa and Asia, Jacobs provides a captivating report of their travel experiences.

Aletta Jacobs, 1919, Isaac Israels, Collection IAV-Atria, Institute on gender equality and women’s history, Public Domain Mark
Aletta Jacobs, 1919, Isaac Israels, Collection IAV-Atria, Institute on gender equality and women’s history, Public Domain Mark

In 1919, Jacobs resigned as President of the Association for Women's Suffrage in the Netherlands, the same year that women's right to vote was accepted in parliament. In 1922, when Jacobs was 68-years-old, Dutch women went to the polls for the first time. Jacobs had played a vital role in improving women’s rights in society – but the struggle was not over.

In later years, many people began to realise how special Dr. Aletta H. Jacobs was. In 1924, she was the centre of a celebration in honour of her 70th birthday, and in 1929, the 50th anniversary of her university graduation was marked with a ceremony.

Jacobs passed away on 10 August 1929. Her funeral was well attended and filmed for the newsreels. Apparently, shortly before her death, Jacobs had lamented that, ‘There is still so much to do in the world.’