Jacobs, Aletta (1854–1929)

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Jacobs, Aletta (1854–1929)

Dutch physician who was an international leader in family planning, women's rights, and pacifism. Born Aletta Henriette Jacobs on February 9, 1854, in Sappemeer, Holland; died on August 10, 1929, in Baarn, Holland; eighth of eleven children of Abraham Jacobs (a physician) and Anna (de Jongh) Jacobs; married Carel Gerritsen (a Dutch politician), on April 28, 1892; children: son (b. 1893 but lived only one day); (foster son) Charles Jacobs (son of Aletta's deceased brother Julius).

Received medical degree (1879); opened birth control clinic (1882); translated Women and Economics by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1900); led Dutch Association for Woman Suffrage (1903–19); organized International Woman Suffrage Alliance conference (1908); translated Women and Labor by Olive Schreiner; went on speaking tour of Africa and Asia (1911–12); ran for political office (1918); published autobiography (1924).

A pioneer and activist in medicine, women's rights, and the international peace movement, the Dutch physician Aletta Henriette Jacobs was the eighth of eleven children of Anna de Jongh Jacobs and Abraham Jacobs, a poor Jewish doctor. Born in the small town of Sappemeer, Holland, Jacobs and her siblings were well educated by their father, a liberal-minded intellectual who advocated professional careers for his daughters as well as his sons. Aletta Jacobs excelled at her local public school and showed an early determination to follow her father into the medical profession, despite the fact that medical schools were closed to Dutch women and there were no female doctors in Holland. At first her parents discouraged her, hoping she would pursue a career in teaching, one of the few professional paths open to women. Jacobs refused to change her mind and eventually won her father's support, although her mother continued to oppose her plans as being improper for a woman. Jacobs then attended a finishing school for young women, but its focus on preparing girls for marriage and motherhood rather than academics caused her to quit after two weeks. Since further schooling seemed unavailable, Jacobs was apprenticed to a dressmaker, a dreary job which only made her more determined to become a doctor.

In 1870, she was one of the first women to take the state pharmacist's assistant exam. Her father then secured special permission for Jacobs to continue her education at the local boys' high school, where she concentrated in the sciences and Latin, in addition to learning English, French, and German. When she learned that a man had recently used his pharmacist's diploma to apply for an exemption from the state university admissions exam, Jacobs decided to apply as well. Abraham Jacobs wrote to the liberal prime minister, Johan Thorbecke, to allow his daughter exemption from the normal university admissions requirements. Although it took a year for Thorbecke to act on the request, in April 1871 Aletta received permission to attend classes at the nearby University of Groningen. In her autobiography, Jacobs claims that at the time she was unaware of the symbolic meaning that her admission to the university would have for Dutch women, although she also writes that even as a girl she was intensely interested in the women's rights movements emerging across Europe.

Jacobs' experiences at Groningen were, according to her autobiography, generally positive, because she was fortunate to have several professors and classmates who supported her goals. Yet she also describes numerous incidents of hostile professors and students trying to humiliate her or force her to leave Groningen. She also found herself the subject of editorials and letters in local and national newspapers which condemned her desire to intrude on a male profession. Even some members of her family felt that she was dishonoring the Jacobs family by her actions. For a young woman—she was 17 in 1871—Jacobs' persistence in the face of this private and public hostility is remarkable. She refused to be segregated from her classmates during and between classes or to receive lessons in private, as the administration wished, and instead insisted on equal treatment. In 1874, after three years of study in anatomy and physics, Jacobs passed her physician's exams, but her intense work took a toll on her health. Nonetheless, she began a hospital internship, where she mostly treated poor working-class women, an experience which made her aware of the hardships and injustices suffered by poor women, especially prostitutes. Jacobs was shocked to learn of the regulation of prostitution by the Dutch government which included forced medical exams designed to prevent the spread of venereal disease. Her outrage at the callous treatment of these women and the hypocrisy of treating only the prostitute and not her clients would later lead Jacobs into political activism against the regulation of prostitution.

In 1876, she transferred to the University of Amsterdam to complete her training following a bout of malaria. She barely survived an attack of typhus in 1877 but returned to her studies. Finally, Jacobs passed her clinical examinations in April 1878 and returned home to Sappemeer to work on her thesis. Although she had to take over her father's practice for a while after he suffered a stroke, by March 1879 she had submitted her thesis and received her medical degree.

A cash gift from a friend allowed Jacobs to continue her studies in London, where she became acquainted with some of the leading socialist and freethinking activists of England, attending meetings of the socialist-utopian Fabian society and of female suffragists. She also met activists promoting family planning, an issue which would soon take on new significance for her.

Jacobs stayed only four months in London, but the trip introduced her to the emerging progressive reform movements whose values she shared, and to the possibility of women's political activism on behalf of other women. She returned to Amsterdam in September 1879 to attend an international medical conference; her presence brought her considerable public notice (as well as numerous offers of marriage from other doctors). This positive experience convinced her to open a private practice in Amsterdam. She had many patients, but once again Jacobs encountered opposition and hostility from some physicians, who advised her, for example, that she should charge lower fees than they did since she was not as good as male doctors. She flatly rejected this advice; she could, she argued, justify charging even more than men, simply because she was the only woman doctor in Holland. Some also opposed her membership in the all-male public library which had the medical journals and books she needed to refer to in her practice. Yet again Jacobs' determination prevailed, a success which can in part be ascribed to her skill in locating those in authority who could best help her, and making rational appeals designed to win their support. Jacobs never accepted quietly that which she felt was unjust, a trait which would be apparent later in her years of political activism.

When the time comes, I will feel free to say that I have contributed to making the world I leave a better place than the world I entered.

—Aletta Jacobs

In 1880, Jacobs began teaching free classes in hygiene and child care to working-class women. This led to the establishment of a free clinic for poor women and children which she would operate for 14 years, in addition to her thriving private practice. She also found time to join the Union, a progressive workers' organization, and to make house calls to the slums where many of her free clinic patients lived. Although she had never intended to specialize in gynecology, Jacobs found herself drawn to the sufferings of these women and saw contraception as the necessary solution to the economic and physical problems of multiple unwanted pregnancies. She began offering her patients a contraceptive device similar to the modern cervical cap, known then as the Mensinga pessary but today called the Dutch pessary because of Jacobs' promotion of it. For distributing the device, Jacobs faced open condemnation and slander by much of the medical establishment, who opposed contraception on moral and religious grounds despite its legal status in Holland. Yet she continued dispensing contraceptives and birth-control information in an era when sex and sexuality were taboo as topics of discussion.

In the late 1880s and 1890s, Aletta Jacobs became actively involved in several causes related to women's health care and political equality. Her longest association was with the movement for women's suffrage, in which she would be a leading figure for the rest of her life. In 1883, she filed a lawsuit contending that Dutch law did not specifically exclude women from suffrage and thus she should be able to vote. The Dutch Supreme Court rejected her case, and in 1887, a new constitution explicitly granted voting rights to male citizens only. Jacobs' one-woman campaign again brought her widespread hostility by both men and women, but it also brought her into contact with suffragists across Europe and the United States.

Jacobs also promoted improvements in the working conditions of "shop girls," who were forced to stand at their counters for 12 to 14 hours at a time with only a few short breaks. Although she had the support of the shop clerks and the inspector of labor in Amsterdam, shop owners resisted her call for shorter hours and seating arrangements. However, she and her supporters refused to give up the cause, and in 1902, after much debate, including Jacobs' testimony before Parliament, a law was finally passed requiring chairs for shop clerks.

More controversial were Jacobs' efforts to end the state regulation of prostitution and state-run brothels. Having treated many working-class prostitutes in her free clinic, Jacobs was well aware of the health risks such women faced, and regarded prostitution as a social evil which no civilized people could condone. She joined other liberals campaigning for the deregulation of prostitution. This would end the humiliating medical exams and legal double standard in the fight against the spread of venereal disease; it would also end the registration of prostitutes with local police, which stigmatized them and made it difficult for them to find "honest" employment. Jacobs published essays on the subject in newspapers and magazines, and from 1895 on she spoke publicly for deregulation, again facing vocal public disapproval for discussing such "indecent" topics. She persevered, however, and as late as 1909 she spoke to an international medical conference in Budapest on deregulation and the prevention of prostitution through increased economic opportunities for poor women.

In April 1892, Jacobs married her longtime friend, the Dutch politician Carel Gerritsen, in a civil ceremony in Amsterdam. Jacobs had first become aware of the shy Gerritsen when he sent a congratulatory note after her first medical exams. He continued to correspond with her occasionally through her years at college and sent her letters of introduction to use when she traveled to London. Yet it was only after she established her practice in Amsterdam that Gerritsen and Jacobs met in person. During Jacobs' years in Amsterdam, the two became friends, a relationship which deepened when Gerritsen helped Jacobs through her grief after the death of her father in 1881. Gerritsen, an active social reformer who held progressive democratic and feminist views, had been elected to the governing body of Amsterdam from the Radical Union Party in 1888. In 1893, he became the first Radical member of the Dutch Parliament.

The relationship between Jacobs and Gerritsen developed slowly but steadily during the 1880s. They shared similar world views and goals for political and social reform; they wrote essays and speeches together and supported each other's ambitions. They also shared an antipathy to religion and embraced the ideology of freethinking; Gerritsen had been raised as a Calvinist but rejected it as an adult. Likewise, Jacobs' family was Jewish, but she does not mention any religious observation or beliefs in her autobiography. She does not seem to have identified as a Jew either, and her letters and writings clearly show that she was an atheist by her early 20s.

Gerritsen and Jacobs had considered marriage in the early 1880s but rejected it at first as an institution demeaning to women. Yet by 1892, they were spending most of their time together and became increasingly concerned that by not marrying, they risked public disapproval which could damage Jacobs' practice and Gerritsen's political career. They wanted to be able to live together and raise a family, but did not want to burden their children with the stigma of illegitimacy. Finally they decided to marry but maintain economic independence and separate living quarters within their home, forming what was known as a "companionate marriage," a union of equals.

Jacobs gave birth to a son in September 1893, but the baby survived only one day. She mourned the death deeply and noted in her autobiography that it took years to recover emotionally from her loss. It was after the baby's death that Jacobs, whose mental and physical health had suffered, decided to close her free clinic and curtail her private practice. She and Gerritsen spent much of the rest of the decade traveling in France, Germany, and Austria-Hungary, usually to organize with activists from other regions who shared their goals of universal suffrage and family planning. In 1895, the couple once again became parents, when Jacobs' young nephew Charles became their foster son. Charles Jacobs was the son of her brother Julius, who had recently died in the Dutch East Indies. Jacobs and Gerritsen raised Charles as their own and sent him to a private boarding school in 1900. He returned in 1905, when Jacobs was widowed, and lived with her until he started law school in 1910. It is interesting to note that Jacobs never mentions her foster son in her autobiography. As an adult Charles broke off their relationship completely after an argument, although the details of their difficult relationship and the reason for his estrangement are unknown.

In the years of her marriage, Jacobs focused more and more on her work for women's political rights. In 1895, she became head of the Amsterdam section of the Association for Woman Suffrage, serving as president after 1903. In 1899, both she and Gerritsen participated in the first international women's suffrage conference in London, sponsored by the International Council of Women, later known as the International Woman Suffrage Alliance (IWSA). At the conference, Jacobs met three American women who influenced her work, and in turn were influenced by her work—Susan B. Anthony , Carrie Chapman Catt , and Charlotte Perkins Gilman . Moved by Gilman's analysis of married women's economic dependence as one of the keys to women's oppression, Jacobs translated Gilman's Women and Economics into Dutch to make it available to her colleagues.

In 1904, Carel Gerritsen's failing health and her own political commitments led Jacobs to shut down her private practice for good, after 24 years of providing health care and education to the women of Amsterdam. In June, she and Gerritsen traveled to the United States for the Interparliamentary Union meeting in St. Louis, followed by a tour across America. It was to be Gerritsen's last trip abroad. They returned to Holland in January 1905; Gerritsen died of cancer six months later. In her grief, Jacobs found it impossible to work at all for many months; her own health suffered badly, and she took an extended trip to Switzerland to regain her strength.

By 1906, Jacobs had returned to her political activism. In 1908, she organized the large IWSA conference in Amsterdam. Over the next two years, Jacobs, age 55 in 1909, was too ill and overworked to travel or speak much, yet she managed to produce a constant stream of writings—essays, letters, and editorials on suffrage, prostitution, and birth control, a collection of travel writings by herself and Gerritsen, and the Dutch translation of South African feminist Olive Schreiner 's Women and Labor.

Her health restored, Jacobs set off on a world tour of colonial Africa and Asia in July 1911. Her traveling companion was the American suffragist Carrie Chapman Catt, who had first suggested the idea several years earlier. For 16 months, the two women traveled by ship, train, and carriage to major cities in South Africa, Egypt, Palestine, India, Indonesia, China, Japan, and Russia. At each stop, they met contacts in suffrage movements, organized speaking engagements on women's rights, and observed women's cultural and political positions. By the time she returned to Holland, Jacobs had come to believe that it was not enough to petition a government to extend suffrage rights; the suffragists needed to show the government that the public supported universal voting rights. In consequence, the Association for Woman Suffrage began a series of public events and demonstrations which brought the message of suffrage rights to the people of Holland.

At the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Jacobs' long-held pacifist and anti-military views and the prospect of a Europe torn apart by war led her to add antiwar organizing to her suffrage work. She felt strongly that women had a mission to protest the suffering and sacrifice of war, rather than easing its burden through nursing and other traditional tasks, and joined the international women's groups petitioning for peace. The large International Congress of Women held in The Hague in 1915, primarily organized by Jacobs and the American social reformer Jane Addams , was dedicated to promoting pacifism among the nations of Europe. Following the conference, Jacobs and Addams were sent to submit the Congress' resolutions for world peace to the leaders of Western nations involved in the conflict as well as neutral countries. This mission took them from Holland to personal meetings with heads of state in London, Paris, Bern, Rome, and Washington, D.C., where they met with Woodrow Wilson. The receptions they received were usually polite but nowhere did they receive a positive commitment to peace.

Yet Jacobs did not neglect the slow progress towards women's suffrage in Holland even during the war years. To the contrary, her associations became ever more vocal and public in their demands for equality. In 1918, the adoption of a revised constitution allowed Dutch women to run for political office; Jacobs was one of the first female candidates to run for Parliament, although she did not win. In September 1919, the goal she and many others had sought for decades was achieved when the Dutch Parliament finally voted to allow women full suffrage rights.

Aletta Jacobs soon returned to two other issues of concern to her, international peace and family planning, publishing articles and attending conferences across Europe well into the 1920s. She also maintained her contacts with the IWSA, which was continuing its work in other countries, and began writing her autobiography, which she hoped might inspire younger women to a life of activism. But her personal life was suffering from her total commitment to political causes. Jacobs had had virtually no income of her own since she had ceased practicing medicine, and a series of financial setbacks apparently caused by poor investments led her to file for bankruptcy in 1922. For her remaining years, she lived off the generosity of friends in The Hague, but her economic problems could not keep her from her social and political work.

An elaborate public celebration in honor of her 70th birthday, held at The Hague in February 1924, confirmed her status as a nationally and internationally respected physician and equal rights activist. At the end of the year, her autobiography Memories appeared. Despite failing health and her advanced age, Aletta Jacobs continued traveling and attending international conferences on women's rights, peace, and family planning until a few weeks before her death on August 10, 1929. She was deeply mourned by feminists and pacifists around the world for her lifetime of achievement, and is still honored as a national hero in the Netherlands.


Bosch, Mineke. Politics and Friendship: Letters from the International Woman Suffrage Alliance, 1902–1942. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1990.

Jacobs, Aletta, Memories: My Life as an International Leader in Health, Suffrage, and Peace. Ed. by Harriet Feinberg. NY: The Feminist Press, 1996.

suggested reading:

Addams, Jane, et al. Women at the Hague: The International Congress of Women and Its Results. NY: Macmillan, 1915.

Bonner, Thomas N. To the Ends of the Earth: Women's Search for Education in Medicine. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992.

Feinberg, Harriet. "A Pioneering Dutch Feminist Views Egypt: Aletta Jacobs' Travel Letters," in Feminist Issues. Vol. 10, 1990, pp. 65–77.

McLaren, Angus. A History of Contraception. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990.


Aletta Jacobs Papers in the International Archive for the Women's Movement, International Information Center and Archive for the Women's Movement, Amsterdam.

Laura York , M.A. in history, University of California, Riverside, California

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Jacobs, Aletta (1854–1929)

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