Manus, Rosa and Mia Boissevain

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Manus, Rosa and Mia Boissevain

Dutch feminists who organized a major 1913 exhibition on the status of women, and who were advocates of women's suffrage, women's rights and the worldwide peace movement, as well as active in aiding war refugees .

Mia Boissevain (1878–1959) . Name variations: Maria. Pronunciation: Bwha-se-VAY. Born Maria Boissevain on April 8, 1878, in Amsterdam, the Netherlands; died on March 8, 1959, in London, England; daughter of Jan Boissevain (director of a shipping company) and Petronella Brugmans; attended secondary girls' school; granted master's degree in biology at the University of Amsterdam, and Ph.D., University of Zurich, Switzerland, 1903; never married; children: two (adopted).

Was active in the International Woman Suffrage Alliance from 1908; organized an exhibition on the position of women, entitled "Woman 1813–1913"; was a member of the women's committee (and the general committee) to help mobilize families during World War I.

Selected writings:

Beiträge zur Anatomie und Histologie von Dentalium (dissertation, Jena, 1903); The Women's Movement in the Netherlands (Leiden, 1915); Een Amsterdamsche familie (Diepenveen, 1967).

Rosa Manus (1881–1942) . Name variations: Rosette. Pronunciation: MA-nus. Born Rosette Suzanne Manus on August 20, 1881, in Amsterdam, the Netherlands; died in 1942 at Ravensbrück concentration camp in Germany; daughter of Henry Philip Manus (a merchant in tobacco) and Soete Vita Israel; attended secondary girls' school and boarding school in Switzerland; never married.

Was active in the International Woman Suffrage Alliance from 1908 (known as the International Alliance of Women since 1926); organized an exhibition on the position of women, entitled "Woman 1813–1913"; was a member of the women's committee to help mobilized families during World War I; served as secretary of the Dutch Association for Woman Suffrage; vice-president of the International Woman Suffrage Alliance (1923); served as secretary of the Peace Committee of the International Alliance of Women (1926); was a member of the Women's Disarmament Committee of International Organizations; served as secretary of the International Peace Congress of the Rassemblement Universel pour la Paix (RUP) in Brussels (1936); was active in helping Jewish refugees (1933–42); co-founded the International Archive of the Women's Movement (IAV) in Amsterdam, the Netherlands (1935).

In 1913, the Netherlands had been a monarchy for a hundred years, since its liberation as the former Dutch Republic after being occupied by the French from 1806 to 1813. In celebration of a century of peaceful royal rule, a number of exhibitions were mounted in that year, including "De Vrouw, 1813–1913" ("Woman, 1813–1913") which was organized by two of the country's most influential feminists, Mia Boissevain and Rosa Manus. Opened by the reigning Queen Wilhelmina in May 1913, its presentation of the changing status of women drew widespread attention in the Netherlands and from visitors from around the world.

Born in 1878, Mia Boissevain was a native of Amsterdam, the capital of the Netherlands. Both her parents were from distinguished Amsterdam families: her mother was Petronella Brugmans , the granddaughter of C.F. van Maanen, who served in the Cabinet of King William I for 30 years as minister of justice, and her father Jan Boissevain was a descendant of French Huguenots who fled France in the 1680s, after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes. The Boissevain family had become prosperous merchants and shipowners in the Netherlands, and in 1870, Jan had started one of the country's first steamship companies.

In contrast to her mother's education at home by a French governess, Mia joined other upper-class girls of her generation in attending school, advancing from primary school to the secondary "Golden School," a nickname for the place where the daughters of Amsterdam's

wealthiest citizens were educated. There she learned Dutch grammar and modern languages—English, French and German—as well as mathematics and handicrafts, and took little notice of a schoolmate, Rosa Manus, who was three years younger.

Mia did not like homework and looked forward to having school behind her, but she reached graduation without being sure what to do with her life. For a while she joined her eldest sister, Elisabeth Boissevain , a social worker for a private organization, Liefdadigheid naar Vermogen, on trips through the slums of Amsterdam. In the poorest neighborhoods of the city, she witnessed families living in stuffy single-room apartments, where wet laundry hung from the ceiling and stoves were used in dangerously close quarters, but the work brought her little satisfaction. Mia did not find poor people helped much by such charity, and viewed the efforts as a drop in the ocean.

Persuaded to take a botany course by her other sister, Anna Boissevain , who studied medicine, Mia began attending the lectures of professor Hugo de Vries. At the end of the 19th century, a growing number of women in Europe were attending college, but when the 17-year-old Mia first entered De Vries' lecture room, she caused a stir in the all-male class. Some of the young men made room for her in the front row, where women students were expected to sit, and Mia soon liked the course so much that she became a student of zoology at the University of Amsterdam in 1896. Within five years, she obtained her master's degree and then spent a year of study in Zurich, Switzerland, where she obtained her Ph.D. in 1903, with a dissertation entitled Beiträge zur Anatomie und Histologie von Dentalium. Back in the Netherlands, she was hired as a curator at Artis Magistra Natura, a museum of the Amsterdam Zoo. After the deaths of her parents in 1904 and 1905, her inheritance gave her an adequate income for the rest of her life, and she shared a household with her brother in the village of Bilthoven, near the city of Utrecht.

I have often wondered, what would have happened to the exhibition if Rosa Manus had not offered all her time and strength.

—Mia Boissevain

In the 1890s, much research was under way on the brain weight of humans and animals, and it was generally held that women's brains were of lesser weight (and therefore less intelligent) than men's, an assumption that Boissevain disputed, to many heated discussions with her colleagues at the laboratory. During her student days, although Mia Boissevain did not feel discrimination against her as a woman, she was conscious of undertaking an enterprise that was new for women. In her memoirs, she described the unease she felt when she met one of her colleagues from the laboratory at a ball or some other evening social occasion.

In Switzerland, Boissevain had also been drawn into discussions with female scientists interested in the feminist movement. Back in the Netherlands and wanting to know more about the position of women in her own society, she sought out Dr. Aletta Jacobs , the first female student in the Netherlands and the country's most famous feminist, with an international reputation. Dr. Jacobs was kind and open to discussion, and gave Boissevain leaflets dealing with the legal position of women in the Netherlands; when preparations began for a congress on women's suffrage to be held in Amsterdam in 1908, Jacobs turned to Boissevain for help.

The congress was an initiative of the International Woman Suffrage Alliance, led by the American feminist Carrie Chapman Catt . During the meeting Boissevain became acquainted with well-known Dutch feminists Johanna Naber and Wilhelmina Drucker as well as many militant English suffragists who were to be imprisoned over the next few years for their cause. Boissevain later remembered discussions between the militant and the moderate feminists as often heated, but always under the control of Catt. Around this time, Catt also "discovered" Rosa Manus.

Born in Amsterdam in 1881, Rosa Manus, the daughter of a tobacco merchant, was raised in another well-to-do family. She spent her childhood on one of the canals in the center of the city, the Kloveniersburgwal, where she was born at number 92 (Mia was born at number 74); later, her family moved to the neighboring small town of Baarn. Three years younger than Mia, Rosa had attended the same primary and "Golden" secondary schools, then followed another practice common to upper-class girls by spending a few years at a foreign "finishing" school, in Switzerland. (Two of Mia's sisters had attended such a school in France, where heat was lacking and the food was bad, which may be the reason that she, as the youngest, never enjoyed the finishing school experience.)

Like Boissevain, Rosa Manus never had to earn a living; as an unmarried woman of the bourgeoisie, she lived in the home of her parents, where she helped her mother to run the house and took part in many social and philanthropical activities. An inheritance from her grandmother gave Manus income of her own, which she wanted to use to open a shop. She had even rented a place when her father intervened, forbidding her to go into business because he believed it improper behavior for a girl of her class. Deeply disappointed, Rosa plunged back into philanthropic work, distributing soup to the poor, and was soon managing several soup kitchens.

In 1908, Manus took part in the International Woman Suffrage Alliance in Amsterdam,

as one of the performers of a wooden shoe dance. The story goes that Carrie Chapman Catt was so impressed by Rosa's display of passion and will power in the dance that she asked her to join the alliance's organizing committee. Soon Rosa and Mia were setting up an information desk for foreign visitors.

Three years apart in age, Rosa and Mia had not been friends at school, but at this third congress of the alliance they began a friendship that was to last the rest of their lives. According to Boissevain's later memory, it was during this meeting, when the issue of women's suffrage was raised, that she realized she had always been a feminist. At ages 30 and 27 respectively, Mia and Rosa belonged to their country's second generation of feminists; after the congress, they continued to be dedicated to the cause of women's suffrage. Together they founded a Committee of Propaganda, which was officially installed by Aletta Jacobs, and organized many evenings of debate. Sometimes no one showed up, but at other times there were so many people that the police would be summoned for crowd control. Manus became secretary of the Dutch Association for Women's Suffrage and accompanied Jacobs in this capacity as Dutch representative to the next congress of the alliance, held in London in 1909. In 1910, she became special organizer of the alliance, traveling to the city to handle the advance planning for the next congress; later she was vice-president of the organization, but primarily she worked in the background.

In 1912, it was Boissevain's idea to organize an exhibition on the changing status of women over the period of 1813 to 1913. She and Manus coordinated the work of establishing 24 divisions, each with a separate theme. The preparation time was only eight months, a short period in which to launch such a huge project, and they did not receive the collaboration of some women's organizations. But in May 1913, "De Vrouw, 1813–1913" opened on time and won a request from Queen Wilhelmina for a guided tour, proudly given to her by Boissevain.

Separate pavilions housed portions of the exhibition organized around themes, such as The Woman in her Home, Education, Childrearing, Women's Rights, and Women's Work. Women's Work drew particular attention, with its display of women in home industries, where the pay was low and the conditions often humiliating. The display about the former Dutch colonies of the Dutch East and West Indies, with its replica of an Indonesian house, was outstanding; it also included a provisional Indonesian restaurant, which brought in considerable money. A large hall was devoted to the issue of women's suffrage, but when Carrie Chapman Catt arrived to make her passionate plea for the women's right to vote, it was not large enough for the crowd that had turned out, and an even larger hall had to be found for her lecture.

A year after the exhibition, when Europe was suddenly thrust into the First World War, Boissevain and Manus found their attention shifted to the issues of refugees and other war related problems. On August 1, 1914, Germany declared war on Russia; that same night, Rosa phoned Mia, who was then staying in the country with her youngest brother, and described a women's committee being formed in Amsterdam to help the wives of men mobilized for military service; in that period of uncertainty, it was feared that the men's families could not provide for themselves, and there was the question as well of who would take over the men's work. Meeting in an orphanage of the Walloon church, the committee was soon working in close cooperation with the city councilor of poor relief, collecting money, providing food and organizing courses in first aid. Later the committee became part of the General Aid Committee (Algemeen Steuncomité), of which Boissevain became a member.

In the fall of 1914, after the city of Antwerp, capital of neighboring Belgium, was captured by the Germans, thousands of Belgians fled across the border into the Netherlands. The Dutch government, located in The Hague, decided to accommodate as many as possible of the refugees, who at the time were forced to live and sleep in the open air. When the village of Bilthoven, where Boissevain lived, admitted 100 refugees, she went from house to house, collecting linens and mattresses, and asking people to lodge the Belgians. Boissevain herself accommodated seven refugees, four of whom—a mother with three children—remained with her throughout the winter of 1914–15.

After the war ended in 1918, Boissevain adopted two children and became less politically active, but traveled extensively in Europe. Boissevain and Manus saw each other less often after 1920, but in a letter to Lucy E. Anthony dated November 15, 1926, Manus wrote, "We do not see each other often, but when we are together, we are very close friends again, and enjoy each other's company." In 1929, the two women went on holiday together, and from the city of Wiesbaden in Germany they wrote to Johanna Naber that the holiday "brought back memories from the good old days."

Manus continued to work for Carrie Chapman Catt. In 1922, she accompanied Catt on her women's suffrage campaign, making an excursion through South America. During this time, Manus was also drawn to the peace movement. In 1926, she became secretary of the Peace Committee of the International Alliance of Women, and she played an important role in organizing the big Disarmament Congress of the League of Nations held in 1932. As secretary of the Women's Disarmament Committee of International Organizations, she helped to collect eight million signatures from women all over the world in favor of peace. She was also active in organizing the International Peace Congress held in Brussels in 1936, a controversial undertaking because the organizers were accused of creating communist propaganda.

In the years after the First World War, women in many countries obtained the vote, and while many gender issues remained unchanged, the struggle for women's rights became less urgent. Like a number of feminists, Manus turned to other issues, such as disarmament and peace. Many members of the International Alliance of Women feared the dangers of Italian Fascism and German Nazism, and were witnessing the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe; some of the members of the alliance itself were not free of anti-Semitic feelings. At an alliance congress held in Copenhagen, Denmark, in 1939, a representative from Egypt stopped speaking to Manus after discovering she was Jewish.

After the death of her father in 1931, Rosa and her mother had moved back to Amsterdam, where she sensed the situation of Jews across Europe becoming more alarming. After Hitler came to power in Germany, she organized aid for German refugees as she had done earlier for the Belgians, and she became one of the founders of the General Women's Committee for Refugees (Neutraal Vrouwencomité voor Vluchtelingen). With family members living in Germany, she became well aware of what was happening to Jews under the Nazis. Her work, meanwhile, was hindered by the Dutch government, which was pursuing a restricted policy of admitting only a limited number of German refugees, while many more crossed the border illegally.

Frightened by this time, Rosa began to anticipate what would happen when the Nazis came to power in the Netherlands. Early in 1940, shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War, she collected her letters and personal documents and brought them to the International Archive of the Women's Movement (IAV) in Amsterdam, which she had co-founded in 1935.

In 1941, in a birthday greeting dated August 6 and sent for Manus' birthday on the 20th, which she probably never received, Carrie Chapman Catt wrote, "You certainly will become just as old as me, so you still have twenty-two years to go." A few days later, Manus was arrested in Amsterdam by the Gestapo, brought to a prison in Scheveningen, and afterwards transported to Ravensbrück, the women's concentration camp in Germany. In May 1942, her family received news that she had died there as a result of a kidney disease from which she had never previously suffered. Eyewitnesses later claimed that she was being transported to Auschwitz when she was shot, as a result of "maladjusted" behavior.

Mia Boissevain lived until 1959, and died during a trip to London.


Boissevain, Mia. Een Amsterdamsche familie. Diepenveen: unpublished typescript, 1967.

Bosch, Mineke, and Annemarie Kloosterman. Lieve Dr. Jacobs. Brieven uit de Wereldbond voor Vrouwenkiesrecht, 1902–1942. Amsterdam: Feministische Uitgeverij Sara, 1985.

Hagemeijer, Pauline. "In de schaduw: Miss Manus." Carla Wijers et al, eds. Tussen aanpassing en verzet. Vrouwen voor het voetlicht 1929–1969. Culemborg: Uitgeverij Lemma, 1989, pp. 33–48.

Posthumus-van der Goot, W.H., and A. de Waal, eds. Van moeder op dochter. Utrecht: Bruna, 1968 (or. 1948).


Archive of the exhibition on the changing position of women entitled Woman, 1813–1913 is located in the Municipal Archive of Amsterdam, the Netherlands.

Correspondence and documents of Rosa Manus are located in the International Information Center and Archive of the Women's Movement (IIAV) in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.

Personal documents of Mia Boissevain and her family are located in the archive of the Boissevain family in the Municipal Archive of Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

Monique Stavenuiter , Ph.D., University of Groningen, and researcher at the University of Nijenrode, the Netherlands

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Manus, Rosa and Mia Boissevain

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