Aletta Jacobs is the Dutch icon of the battle for equal rights for women. Thanks to her daring, persistence and intellect, she made it possible for women to vote, study and save money in their own bank accounts. In the list of her many achievements, Aletta Jacobs was the first woman to attend high school, the first to complete a university degree and the first to get a doctorate. Aside from this, she was also a gifted writer.

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Aletta Jacobs

‘I felt deeply unhappy at the prospect that my life would go on like that of so many unmarried women in our village. Housework in the morning, sitting peering out through the insect screens, with some needlework in the afternoon, and that for years on end, each day anew. It was enough to drive you mad and I had firmly resolved to avoid this future myself.’

From the age of six, Aletta Jacobs was determined to become a doctor, like her father. Raised in an intellectual family in which daughters were perceived to have the same right to learn and progress as sons, she flourished. Each obstacle set in place by male-dominated society, she simply leapfrogged. Her strength of character and independent mind come across on every page of her event-filled life story.

Was there anything Aletta Jacobs couldn’t do? When she wanted to read medical publications and discovered that the Amsterdam Reading Room was only open to men, she fought for an end to this discrimination and won. She put paid to single women who wanted to go to the theatre having to pay for a male chaperone, and insisted on breaking taboos by walking along the high street between midday and four in the afternoon, a time slot reserved for prostitutes. She campaigned for better hygiene and healthcare for those same prostitutes, and for education on STDs.

A better working environment was another of her successes, for women to be able to sit when manning a till all day. And crucially, after time spent in London and having come into contact with the Suffra- gette movement, she set up the Association of Women’s Right to Vote (1894). By 1919, that right had been won. Aletta Jacobs also entered into a liberal form of marriage with her husband, Carel Victor Gerritsen, in which both were financially independent. Her political activism took her all around the world, from South Africa to Washington to Sarajevo. Written in the seventh decade of her life, Recollections was first published in 1924, four years before the author’s death.

You may be sure that it gave me great pleasure to meet so interesting a woman.

President Woodrow Wilson, 1915

Surprising in this autobiography are the many trips Jacobs took across the whole world to fight for women’s rights and pacifism. A young girl’s book becomes a tale of heroism.

Aletta Jacobs
Aletta Jacobs (1854–1929) was born in Sappemeer in Groningen in 1854, the eighth of eleven children. Her mother was a housewife and her father a doctor. In 1878 she graduated as a medical doctor from the University of Amsterdam, after which she set up her own GP practice.
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