Jacobs, Aletta

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Aletta Jacobs

Aletta Jacobs (1854–1929) notched a long list of firsts: she was the first female university student in the Netherlands, the first female doctor, and the operator of perhaps the first birth control clinic in the world. On a personal level, she was one of the first women to keep her maiden name after marrying. She campaigned for women's rights, and she was part of an international group of early feminist leaders who opposed war in general and were outraged by the grinding carnage of World War I.

Jacobs faced resistance nearly every step of the way, from examiners who tried to block her from entering medical school to fellow doctors who attacked her promotion of birth control. Yet Jacobs bore these controversies with a matter-of-fact determination. She did not set out to be a pioneer, only to follow in the footsteps of her physician father, and throughout her career she insisted only on being treated equally with her fellow students and practitioners.

Teased Because of Tomboy Qualities

The eighth of eleven children born to progressive Jewish parents, Jacobs was born in the medium-sized Dutch city of Sappemeer on February 9, 1854. She loved to climb trees, jump ditches, play tennis, row and swim, all traditionally non-feminine activities that attracted unfavorable attention from townspeople, who called her a tomboy. But the Jacobs family valued education and sacrificed so that all 12 children could receive schooling. According to Jacobs's autobiography Memories, her father often gave them the sentence "The cultivation of knowledge for the sake of the common good is the highest of all pursuits" as a writing exercise. From the start, Jacobs wanted to become a doctor like her father. Her parents tried to steer her toward more feminine pursuits, apprenticing her to a dressmaker and sending her to a finishing school. The latter experiment ended after two weeks when Jacobs failed to master the curtsy and refused to practice looking down when a man looked at her on the street.

Finally it was decided that Jacobs should study to become a pharmacist's assistant, although that was a field that so far had been open to very few women. Through a combination of home schooling and work with the female assistant of her brother Sam, who had started a pharmacy in the city of Arnhem (but refused to help her with her studies), Jacobs managed to acquire the necessary background. She did well in her pharmacy school entrance exam in Amsterdam in 1870, and her examiners encouraged her to study to become an actual pharmacist rather than an assistant.

Jacobs, however, had bigger plans. Against the wishes of even her supportive father, she wrote to the reform-minded prime minister of the Netherlands, Johan Rudolf Thorbecke, asking that she be allowed to attend medical classes at the University of Groningen. He wrote back, asking her father whether she was really ready for such a move, but Thorbecke finally signed a letter giving his permission just before his death. In 1871, Jacobs became the first woman to enter a Dutch university.

Despite having to contend with hostility from her brother Johan, who refused to speak to her for 18 months, from other students (such as one at the University of Leiden who wrote to Groningen students urging them to make her life miserable), and sometimes from faculty members, Jacobs made steady progress toward her degree. She had backers on the faculty who agreed to her requests that she not be excused from anatomy lectures or any other subject considered too sensitive for a woman, and though she was haunted by the portions of the curriculum that involved dissection, she persisted. (She was unable, however, to dissect live frogs.) Jacobs's biggest problem was her poor health; she suffered repeated bouts of malaria, and when they were augmented by a case of tuberculosis at one point, she tried to commit suicide. Her father intercepted her in the act.

Received Medical Degree

At her three-week final exams in Utrecht in 1878, Jacobs faced hostile treatment from two of her four examiners but was defended by the other two. She received her medical degree on April 2 of that year, wrote a doctoral thesis on brain diseases, and was awarded a doctorate in medicine on March 8, 1879. Jacobs took over her father's practice temporarily after he suffered a stroke and her confidence was boosted when she saw how people obeyed her orders in a crisis situation as she treated a man who had fallen off a cart while drunk and been dragged on the ground. Late in 1879 she opened her own practice in Amsterdam, ignoring the advice of male doctors that she confine herself to gynecology or midwifery, or that she charge less than they did. "You should count yourself lucky that I stick to the rules instead of exploiting my exalted position as the first Dutch woman doctor to charge more than other practitioners," she retorted to one critic (according to her Memories).

Jacobs caused a sensation in Amsterdam with her disregard of social norms. As a student she single-handedly spread a fashion for ice skating among Amsterdam women, among whom the sport had hitherto been considered improper. She walked from house to house to visit her patients, an unheard-of act for a single woman, and when she was groped by a male pedestrian, a policeman to whom she complained told her that if she stayed indoors, she would avoid problems. Nevertheless, Jacobs's renown grew, and she made the acquaintance of writers, political figures, and early women's rights activists, both in the Netherlands and in England, where she traveled shortly after receiving her doctorate.

As a student Jacobs had worked with prostitutes at Amsterdam's main hospital, and she continued to devote her talents to helping poor women in Amsterdam after she established her own practice. Inspired by conversations with Dutch trade unionist B.H. Heldt and with the wives of other union leaders, she began giving early childhood health classes to young women and opened a free clinic for the destitute, which she maintained for 14 years. She campaigned against prostitution and in favor of better working conditions for Dutch women working in retail shops.

Jacobs's most far-reaching and controversial innovation, however, was her introduction of large-scale birth control into the Netherlands. At the time, the modern type of diaphragm had only recently been invented; Jacobs read about it in a German medical journal in 1882 and wrote to the article's author. After testing the device, called a Mensinga pessary, on willing volunteers, Jacobs announced that she could provide safe and effective contraception to women wishing to avoid pregnancy.

Attacked by Medical Establishment

This announcement brought the full wrath of Holland's medical establishment down upon Jacobs's head, and she was attacked for everything from promoting adultery to threatening the country's economic future. Rumors flew about Jacobs's personal life, and her experiences, Jacobs wrote in her Memories, "thoroughly undermined my trust in other people." But Jacobs did not lose her determination and edge during this difficult period. "It was an age steeped in hypocrisy!" she wrote. "I am particularly thinking of those clergymen who would denounce contraception from the pulpit and then pack their wives off to my office. I also remember women who were only too pleased to use the means I prescribed for them yet never lost a chance to condemn me at every tea party and sewing circle."

Support from grateful patients helped keep Jacobs's spirits up. One supporter she had during this period was Carel Victor Gerritsen. The two had become acquainted when Gerritsen sent Jacobs a long letter of congratulations after she passed her medical exams, but they did not meet face to face until two years later, in 1880, when the politician sent a note asking whether he could stop by the home Jacobs shared with her sister. He found Jacobs doing needlework, and in response to his expression of surprise that she would have such a domestic hobby, she asked whether he thought she spent her entire life with her nose stuck in a book. The two became friends and embarked on a wideranging exchange of letters.

Jacobs and Gerritsen (in her writing she often referred to him simply by his last name) contemplated living together but decided that the disapproval such a move would cause would be too strong. They did take vacations together through the 1880s, and they finally decided to marry in 1892. Jacobs was incensed by the vow of obedience she had to give during the marriage ceremony, and she later campaigned for its removal. "For, in fact, even in the most conservative families, no one honestly expects 'obedience' of a wife," she wrote in her Memories. "Since many people consider their wedding to be the most important day of their lives, why should they be forced to take a vow that they have no intention of keeping?" Jacobs and Gerritsen had one son, who died due to a midwife's error when he was only one day old. The couple traveled widely, but their vacations were certainly not ordinary. On one such trip, they got stuck in a British coal mine due to a shaft malfunction, and viewed the experience as a taste of what miners experienced on a regular basis.

Many of Jacobs's activities in the later years of her life revolved around the issue of women's suffrage. She had tried to register to vote as early as 1883, finding that there was no specific legal barrier to her doing so, but Dutch lawmakers responded by writing a males-only requirement into the country's voter registration laws. Jacobs became president of the Dutch Association for Woman Suffrage in 1903 and retired from her practice the following year, 25 years after she had begun it. After Gerritsen's death in 1905 she devoted much of her energy to the suffrage cause, and she lived to see Dutch women receive the right to vote in 1919.

Some of Jacobs's pro-suffrage work was carried out together with the American feminist Carrie Chapman Catt, whom Jacobs met on a visit to New York for a conference in 1904. The two traveled around much of the Eastern hemisphere together in 1911 and 1912, giving lectures in favor of women's rights and meeting with local leaders. They traveled to South Africa, up Africa's east coast, through the Middle East, and to the Philippines, China, and Japan, with Jacobs returning through Russia and Catt going on to Hawaii and the United States to complete a circumnavigation of the globe. In 1910 Jacobs translated Women and Economics, a feminist classic by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, into Dutch.

Jacobs helped found the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom during World War I; the group became one of the most durable anti-war bodies of the twentieth century, and actively continues into the twenty-first. In her old age she moved to The Hague, eventually living with a family there. She died in Baarn, the Netherlands, on August 10, 1929. A statue of Jacobs stands in an Amsterdam street, and she is well remembered in her country. After the publication of her Memories by the Feminist Press in 1996, her pioneering role became better known in English-speaking countries as well.


Jacobs, Aletta. Memories: My Life as an International Leader in Health, Suffrage, and Peace. Edited by Harriet Fineberg, translated by Annie Wright. Feminist Press, 1996.

Notable Women Scientists. Gale Group, 2000.


Guardian (London, England), February 7, 1994.


"Aletta Jacobs (1854–1929)," Rijksuniversiteit Groningen, http://www.rug.nl/alumni/bekendeAfgestudeerden/verleden/Jacobs (December 24, 2005).

"Aletta Jacobs (1854–1929)," Sunshine for Women, http://www.pinn.net/∼sunshine/whm2001/jacobs6.html (December 24, 2005).

Aletta Jacobs Online, http://www.alettajacobs.org/english/index.html (December 24, 2005).

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