The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

The peace, women’s suffrage and reproductive rights activist you might not know: Aletta Jacobs.

March 8, 2021

Aletta Jacobs. Raise your hand if you have never heard her name! In our neck of the tulip fields, however, she is a celebrated professional: she was the first woman to be officially enrolled and graduate with a doctorate at the university in the Netherlands (shoutout to my employer – Rijksuniversiteit Groningen!) and the first woman to receive a medical degree. On top of those accomplishments, she was a women’s suffrage and peace activist, and helped establish Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, a Novel prize winning anti-war organization. To celebrate international women’s day, let me tell you her story. 

For those (men, I assume?) decrying the discrimination they find in the celebration of the international women’s day. There’s a lot to cover, but, dudes, when was the last time you were not allowed to enter a university because of your genitals? A thousand years ago when first universities were being established in Europe? Or 1,300 when they were popping up in North Africa? For women it’s been slightly over a hundred years and it’s kind of a biggie. And while we are on the topic of genitals, when was the last time the government told you what to do with them? Yeah, just like I thought. 

Aletta Jacobs was a trailblazer in many ways. Apart from becoming the first woman in the Netherlands to become a university graduate and a medical doctor, she established a free clinic to educate poor women, including sex workers, about hygiene, STDs, reproduction and contraception in early 1880s. Dr Jacobs went as far as to disseminate free contraception devices that earned her wide-spread condemnation from men and women alike who didn’t like her meddling with national fecundity levels and divine punishment (aka STDs and unwanted pregnancies) for premarital sex. Imagine a Planned Parenthood, only a 150 years ago. Too bad that the so-called pro-life activists attacking PP locations this century mentally stayed in 1880. If not in 1480.  

Too bad, it’s not possible to see Aletta Jacobs the musical these days to look back at the extraordinary life Dr Jacobs had (and listen to a song about a diaphragm). She soon realised that her sex ed activism was not enough: women needed voting rights. Prominent in major Dutch and international women’s suffrage organisations, she was instrumental in bringing about the adoption of the 1919 women’s suffrage bill in the Netherlands. During World War I, she co-founded Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, an international organisation that Woodrow Wilson refused to cooperate with and then plagiarised into the League of Nations. Despite suffering personal trauma and financial insecurity, Dr. Jacobs managed to overcome both personal and structural hurdles that were immeasurably higher than women face today, because she was one those who broke these hurdles. Shortly before her death in 1929, Dr. Jacobs wrote:

I feel happy that I have seen the three great objects of my life come to fulfillment during my life … They were: the opening for women of all opportunities to study and to bring it into practice; to make Motherhood a question of desire, no more a duty; and the political equality for women.

So, on behalf of the women who work at the University of Groningen and the women who study here and everywhere, thank you, Dr. Jacobs. You showed us the way. 

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Elizaveta Gaufman is Assistant Professor of Russian Discourse and Politics at the University of Groningen, the Netherlands. She is the author of "Security Threats and Public Perception: Digital Russia and the Ukraine Crisis"