Women’s Suffrage in the Netherlands 1919-2019
In the year 1919, women in the Netherlands were granted active suffrage when the amendment to the constitution by parliamentarian H.P. Marchant was accepted. The amendment proposed to remove the crucial word male from article 80 of the Dutch constitution, which read: ‘The members of the House of Representatives are directly elected by male citizens, being Dutch, or recognized as Dutch nationals by law, who have reached the age to be determined by law, which may not be below twenty-three years, and by female citizens who meet the same conditions, if and insofar as the law […] declares her fit to vote’.
As Marchant argued, the constitution effectively granted male citizens the unequivocal right to vote, but left it to the legislator to decide whether women had the right to vote. In practice, women did not have this right.
The milestone of 1919 was achieved after years of campaigning and protesting from several women’s organizations, the most influential of which was the Vereeniging voor Vrouwenkiesrecht (Association for Women’s Suffrage), established in 1894. Aletta Jacobs, the associations’ president from 1903-1919, was probably the best known First Wave feminist in the Netherlands. Jacobs was the first woman to earn a degree from a Dutch University, and later became the Netherlands’ first female medical doctor.
Dutch women already had passive suffrage since 1917, meaning that it was possible to vote a woman into office. In 1918, Suze Groeneweg (1875-1940) became the first female representative in the Dutch Parliament. Marga Klompé (1912-1986) became the first female Minister in 1956. To date, the Netherlands has never had a female Prime Minister.
In Europe, several countries had preceded the Netherlands in enacting universal suffrage. Finland was the first European nation to extend voting rights to female citizens, in 1906. Switzerland was one of the last countries in Europe to do so, in 1971.
Voting rights in the Dutch Constitution
The modern Dutch constitution which instituted the parliamentary democracy dates from 1848. Voting rights were secured in article 76 which read that Dutch citizens who paid at least twenty guilders in taxes could vote. In 1883, Aletta Jacobs wrote to Amsterdam’s City Council asking to be eligible for election in the municipality, being a tax paying citizen. The city council responded that, although it was not stated explicitly, the constitution only granted the right to vote to male citizens. Jacobs kept writing letters until finally the Dutch Supreme Court ruled that the Dutch constitution only granted voting rights to men.
In 1887 the constitution was adapted to unequivocally state that only male citizens had the right to vote, provided that they were deemed fit to do so and had reached a certain standard of wealth.
Much campaigning and many political negotiations preceded the acceptance of H.P. Marchant’s amendment in 1919. In 1922, the new constitution was formalized. Voting rights were recorded in article 81, which now read: “The members of the House of Representatives are directly elected by the citizens, being Dutch, or recognized by law as Dutch nationals, who have reached the age to be determined by law, which may not be below twenty-three years. Each voter casts one vote.”
The Association for Women’s Suffrage
On the 5th of February 1894 a small group of women from different religious and political backgrounds established the Vereeniging voor Vrouwenkiesrecht (Association for Women’s Suffrage). It was not the only Women’s Suffrage organization, but it would prove to be the most influential. The second largest organization was the Bond voor Vrouwenkiesrecht (Union for Women’s Suffrage), which was established in 1907 by a group of women who disagreed with the more radical course of the Association.
Aletta Jacobs (1854-1929), president of the Association for Women’s Suffrage from 1903 until 1919, was a tireless campaigner and public speaker. She was especially skilled in forging connections in the Netherlands and abroad, to further the international cause for Women’s Suffrage. Jacobs travelled the world with the American suffragette Carrie Chapman Catt (1859-1947), creating a worldwide alliance of women who were fighting for the right to vote.
Rosa Manus (1981-1942), feminist activist and pacifist, became a member of the Association for Women’s Suffrage in 1908. With her knowledge of languages and organizational skills she became an invaluable networker for the Association. She became a member of several Dutch and International Women’s Organizations and worked closely together with Aletta Jacobs. In 1915, Manus and Jacobs founded the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. In 1941, Rosa Manus was arrested by the Nazi’s. She was Jewish, but the mass arrests of Dutch Jewish citizens would not start until about a year later. Most likely she was wrongly suspected of being a communist. In 1942, Rosa Manus was murdered in Bernburg, having been transported there from the concentration camp Ravensbrück.
Johanna W. A. Naber (1859-1941) was a feminist journalist and writer who became a member of the Association for Women’s Suffrage in 1898. Her work as a historian often focused on women and their emancipation. Naber was also instrumental in recording the work of the Association itself. She was on the board of the International Alliance of Women and helped organize their international congress in 1908 in Amsterdam. She would go on to co-found the National Archive for the Women’s Movement in 1935, working closely together with Rosa Manus.
Suze Groeneweg (1875-1940) had worked as a teacher before moving to Rotterdam in 1903 and becoming politically active for the Social Democratic Labour Party (SDAP). She was a gifted public speaker who held the principle of solidarity in the highest regard. Although she worked for the equal treatment of women, she was not involved in any feminist organization. She reasoned that, when she placed herself in an equal position to men, she would be treated as an equal. In 1918, Suze Groeneweg was the first woman to be elected to the House of Representatives. In later years, she initiated legislation for maternity leave and actively campaigned against the firing of married women.
Marga Klompé (1912-1986) studied chemistry, mathematics and physics at the University of Utrecht. In the Second World War, she was active in the Dutch resistance. She became politically active for the Catholic People’s Party (KVP) in 1945. In 1956, Marga Klompé became the first female Minister in the Netherlands, of the Ministry for Social Work.
Although before 1917 the Dutch constitution excluded not only women, but working class men as well, organizations for Women’s Suffrage and socialist groups campaigning for universal male suffrage were not always natural allies. The socialists often feared that the women’s cause would diminish their own chances, and many prominent socialists were outright anti-Women’s Suffrage. One exception was Goose Wijnand van der Voo (1806-1902), a teacher from Rotterdam who published the magazine De Rotterdamsche Lantaren in which he campaigned for universal suffrage. He empathetically stated that as citizens, women should be included in the fight for voting rights.
H.P. Marchant (1869-1956) co-founded the Free-Democratic Union (Vrijzinnig-Democratische Bond) in 1901. He was a member of the House of Representatives from 1900 until 1933. In 1918 he took up the cause to amend the Dutch constitution and extend universal suffrage to all citizens, including women. Marchant did not align himself with feminism, but rather propagated that voting rights for all citizens was imperative for democracy.
Slowly but surely from the 1900s onwards, the strictly separate male and female living domains started to blend. Women were finding their way into the male dominated worlds of work and politics. Anna Polak (1874-1943) from Rotterdam co-organized the Exhibition for Women’s Labour which was held in The Hague in 1898. She went on to found the Association for Women’s Labour. In 1908 she became director of the National Bureau for Women’s Labour, which worked to improve women’s positions and opportunities on the labour market. Anna Polak was murdered in Auschwitz in 1943.
Both sides in the debate on Women’s Suffrage made use of political cartoons as a campaign tool. For newspapers and magazines, the fierce dispute provided a rich source of inspiration for some of the most poignant political illustrations.
The [top left] cartoon of the Cat and Mouse Act refers to a British Law enacted in 1913, which stated that suffragettes participating in a hunger strike in prison would be released when they grew too weak, rather than being force-fed. After regaining their strength, the women would be re-arrested and imprisoned.
In the United States, well known suffragettes such as Carrie Chapman Catt, Susan B. Anthony, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were early members of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). While the organization was rooted in the abolitionist movement, in later years some American suffragettes were criticized for abandoning their African-American peers and favoring only white women’s causes.
In Great Britain, several organizations campaigned for Women’s Suffrage since 1870. The movement is energized when in 1903 the Pankhurst family from Manchester gets involved. Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters Christabel and Sylvia become well known as the active core of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU).
The British campaign for Women’s Suffrage is marked by violence. On what became known as Black Friday, the 18th of November 1910, two women die by police force during a demonstration. Many women are imprisoned and start a hunger strike, to which the government responds with an order to force-feed them. In 1912, 150 suffragettes take to the streets armed with rocks and hammers to destroy store-fronts and office windows in the centre of London. In 1913, Emily Davison walks in front of the King’s horse and is trampled to death. From 1918, women above 30 who had legal possessions had the right to vote. In 1928, all British women gained the right to vote.
In 1792 Mary Wollstonecraft published one of the first feminist pamphlets, ‘A vindication of the rights of woman’.
John Stuart Mill published ‘The Subjection of Women’ in 1869, having written it with his late wife Harriet Taylor Mill. It was republished along with the couple’s other writings on the subject in ‘Essays on Sex Equality’. Mill became a member of the British Parliament in 1865 and, a year later, he was the first person in the history of the British Parliament to call for women being granted the right to vote. He attributed the credit for most of his work for this cause to his wife.
Second Wave Feminism
In the Netherlands as well as in most of the Western world, a Second Wave of feminism started in the 1960s and lasted for about two decades. Where the First Wave focused on Women’s Suffrage, the new feminist movement addressed a wider range of issues such as reproductive rights, sexuality, equal treatment in the workplace, marital rape and domestic violence.
In the Netherlands, one of the best known action groups was Dolle Mina, who were especially skilled at attention-grabbing stunts such as bra burnings, a mass whistling-at-men action, and closing men’s public restrooms off with pink ribbons. Many local action groups were active during the same period, as well as a number of one-topic action groups such as Wij Vrouwen Eisen, which demanded legal access to abortion.
Third and Fourth Wave Feminism
Starting in the 1990s, Third Wave feminism did not focus on legislative change as the previous movements had done. Rather, the raising of feminist consciousness, feminist theory, and intersectionality were key. Anita Hill’s testimony against Supreme Court nominee Justice Clarence Thomas, whom she had accused of sexual harassment, is often considered to have triggered the Third Wave.
From the 2010s, a Fourth Wave has emerged in feminism. Intersectionality is now a key focus, with more awareness of the ways in which social and political identities (race, gender, class, sexuality, etc) overlap and intersect. As such, groups that were traditionally marginalized both within and outside the feminist movement, are now prioritized.