February 9, 1854, is the birthdate of Aletta Jacobs, a Dutch physician and feminist who spent her entire life breaking down the barriers that limited women’s opportunities. Her accomplishments included being the first woman in the Netherlands to earn a university degree, the first to become a medical doctor, the founder of what may have been the world’s first birth-control clinic, and the leader of the fight that brought the vote to Dutch women.
Aletta Henriette Jacobs was born in Groningen, in the north of the Netherlands, and grew up in the nearby small town of Sappemeer. She was the seventh of the 11 children of Abraham Jacobs, a physician, and the former Anna de Jongh, both secularized, “free-thinking” Jews. Aletta’s parents were also strong believers in education for all of their children, girls as well as boys.
Generally, when they finished primary school, girls in the Netherlands went on to something of a finishing school, and only boys attended high school. From an early age, however, Aletta had expressed her desire to follow in her father’s footsteps and become a doctor.
At age 13, she did begin attending “ladies school,” but after two weeks she refused to go back. Her parents not only accepted her decision but arranged for her to pursue her education at home, beginning with French, German, Latin and Greek. Later, the headmaster of the local high school allowed her to sit in on classes there as well.
The first female student in the land
In 1870, after an older sister had begun attending pharmacist’s school, Aletta took the admission exam to do the same. But this was only an interim goal, and the following year, she was in touch with the prime minister, Johan Rudolph Thorbecke, to request permission to study at Groningen University.
Thorbecke responded by granting her admission for a year. After a successful first year, Aletta was admitted as a full-fledged student.
In 1876, Jacobs moved to Amsterdam University, where, two years later, she received her medical degree, which was followed by a doctorate in medicine in 1879. A short time after that, she opened an office in the working-class Amsterdam neighborhood along the Herengracht.
It wasn’t long before Aletta Jacobs became focused on medical care for women and then women’s rights in general. In 1880, the Dutch General Trade Union gave her space in its headquarters to operate a clinic for destitute women and their children. A short time later, she opened an additional center to provide counseling on family planning, which may well have been the world’s first birth-control clinic.
At the time, Dutch law did not specifically withhold the right to vote from women; it simply wasn’t an issue. Until 1883, that is, when Aletta Jacobs, not finding herself on the voters’ register, wrote to Amsterdam city hall requesting to sign up. Her request was turned down, and an appeal to the country’s high court denied – after which the law was rewritten to explicitly limit the franchise to men.
Jacobs’ campaign to gain the vote for Dutch women continued until 1919, when Queen Wilhemina finally signed the so-called Jacobs Act (a year before American women got the vote). In the meantime, Jacobs became an international campaigner for women’s suffrage, and joined the American suffragette Carrie Chapman Catt on several world tours to pursue that goal.
Jacobs also became an anti-war activist: In April 1915, while World War I raged across Europe, she arranged for neutral Netherlands to host a women’s conference in The Hague, with participants from both belligerent and non-belligerent states. That would lead to the founding of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.
Aletta Jacobs was married, from 1892 until his death, to Carel Victor Gerritsen, a grain merchant, member of parliament and reformer, who supported her political and social activities in full. The couple’s only child died shortly after birth.
The year before Jacobs’ death, she wrote to Carrie Chapman Catt of her satisfaction in having accomplished “the three great objects of my life”: making education available to women, making motherhood “a question of desire, no more a duty,” and attaining political equality for women.