February 9 – Happy Birthday, Aletta Jacobs

Posted on February 9, 2014

Doctor, psychologist, and women's rights activist, Aletta Jacobs was a Dutch hero!

Aletta Jacobs was born in the Netherlands on this date in 1854. At age 13 she went off, as was common then, to a “ladies' school,” but she didn't enjoy it and returned home after just two weeks. She learned at home for a while—housework, French, German, Latin, and Greek. At age 17 Jacobs began studying at the University of Groningen; later she studied at Amsterdam University, and she ended up earning a medical degree and a medical doctorate. 

That made Jacobs the first woman in the Netherlands to complete a university course AND the Netherlands' first female doctor.

She set up practice as a doctor and a psychologist.

Jacobs traveled to England to see how women were treated at universities there, and later she began to work with union and government officials to better the lives of women in the Netherlands. She started and ran a free clinic for poor women and children, where she treated medical problems, provided medicine that helped women limit the size of their families, and taught about hygiene and infant care.

In 1882, Aletta Jacobs wrote a letter to the mayor of Amsterdam. She pointed out that she paid the legally required amount of taxes to be eligible to vote and asked why, therefore, she was not registered to vote. He answered that the law didn't specifically say that women couldn't vote but that, clearly, the spirit of the law was to disallow women voting.

She didn't take his word as law, though; sued for the right to vote. The (male) court backed the (male) mayor, and when Jacobs appealed the court still wouldn't budge. Finally, the law was formally altered so that, whenever voting was mentioned, the law specifically said “male citizen” rather than “citizen.”

Jacobs's efforts to votes made it perfectly clear to all women in the Netherlands: they couldn't vote.

Jacobs joined a Dutch women's suffrage group and eventually became its leader. She helped start some international women's suffrage groups, as well, and traveled widely as she worked on behalf of women everywhere.

Some Dutch people who were working on voting rights thought that lower class men, who did not pay enough taxes to be allowed to vote, should obtain the right to vote before upper class women did. (And, yes, most people in the women's suffrage groups were upper class.) But it turned out that both groups obtained voting rights at the same time. In 1917, all women and men won the right to stand for election (in other words, to run for the office of, say, mayor or legislator), and in 1919, all women and men won the right to vote.

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