Aletta Jacobs: Female Graduate and Women’s Physician

To finish this first week of March we have an article up our sleeve to someone you already got a short introduction to in our stories: Aletta Jacobs. 📝

Aletta Jacobs was a Dutch physician who was the first woman to attend and successfully graduate from a university in the Netherlands. Even if this is a great achievement in itself, her impact on the world of women did not stop here. She used her position in medicine to take further steps: research on contraceptive devices, opening clinics to teach women about hygiene and childcare and even active contribution to the fight for women’s suffrage in the Netherlands. 🥼🩺

Read about all the different issues Aletta Jacobs tackled and how she did that in the full article below!

Aletta Henriette Jacobs | *09-02-1854 | † 10-08-1929 | The Netherlands | Doctor/Physician and Feminist

Aletta Jacobs was a Dutch physician. She was the first woman to attend and successfully graduate from a university in the Netherlands. This was no easy feat. First she attended school in her village, but after completing this there were no viable options in regard to secondary education that were open to women. Jacobs knew she wanted to become a doctor, as her father was a doctor as well, but this seemed too ambitious for a woman at the time. A family friend suggested she should try to take the pharmacist assistants exam. After this she attended the Rijks Hogere Burgerschool, after gaining permission from its director, to prepare for her exam to become a pharmacist. 

After successfully passing this exam she wrote to the prime minister of the Netherlands, Johan Rudolph Thorbecke, after learning that a (male) student was granted access to university to study medicine because of his degree in pharmacy. Her note asked for this same permission. After some correspondence with Thorbecke he granted her a year of being a probationary student. Thorbecke passed away shortly after, but granted her permission to officially study medicine before that. She earned her license to practice medicine in 1878, and earned her doctorate in 1879, after writing her dissertation on the brain, a subject that had not been studied extensively at the time. 

Jacobs was a pioneer in her academic journey, but her big impact on women’s lives did not stop there, she played a major role in both birth control and women’s health as well as women’s suffrage.

When she settled in Amsterdam, she only treated women and children, because at the time, women were not allowed to treat men. In doing this she saw the lack of knowledge about proper hygiene and childcare, and how this contributed to the high rate of infant mortality. This led to her hosting clinics to teach about these things, which soon became incredibly popular. She also saw how poor women often had so many children they were physically exhausted and unable to properly take care of all of them, causing her to research contraceptive devices, specifically the pessary. She did not charge women for this and thus made birth control available for these women for the first time. Being able to control the number of children women had was a huge step towards emancipation.

In 1883, Jacobs learned that women were not explicitly banned from the vote, and as the elections drew near, she asked the city council why she was not on the list of eligible voters. At the time, one would need to make a certain amount of money, and thus pay enough taxes, to vote. Jacobs paid enough taxes to meet this minimum, so she should theoretically be allowed to vote. She took this case to the city council, where she was rejected, then to the Amsterdam District Court, and to the Supreme Court after that, but was rejected at both. This led to women being explicitly banned from the vote in the constitution. In turn, this was a major trigger for the women’s suffrage movement in the Netherlands. She joined the Vereeniging voor Vrouwenkiesrecht (Association for Women’s suffrage), of which she later became president. She was president from 1903 until 1919, during this time she did not only work towards women’s suffrage, but she also travelled the world, educating women on hygiene, sanitation, and sexual and reproductive health. In 1919, the bill on women’s votes was officially passed and signed by queen Wilhelmina. After this Jacobs resigned as president of the VvVk, and she saw women go to the polls for the first time in 1922. In 1929, 50 years after her graduation from university, Jacobs passed away and on her deathbed she grieved that “there is still so much to do in the world”.


Author: Lily Randoe
Image: Julius Oppenheim

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