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Wives of professors, students and alumni played a crucial role in Leiden’s women’s rights movement

Aletta Jacobs, Suze Groeneweg and Joke Smit are familiar names from the Dutch women’s rights movement. Less well-known are the feminists who operated at the local level. PhD candidate Agnes van Steen researched the history of the Leiden women’s rights movement (1860-1990) and found that the university produced many feminists.

‘I focused on the first and second feminist waves’, Van Steen says. ‘And there were people in both waves who had a relationship with the university. In the first wave, these were mainly professors’ wives, so the wives of male professors − there were hardly any female students in those days. In the second wave, you see mostly students, alumni and university lecturers getting involved in the Leiden women’s rights movement.’ This article focuses on some of them.

Aletta Lorentz-Kaiser circa 1903. Photo: J. Goedeljee, North Holland Archives

Professor’s wife Aletta Lorentz-Kaiser

One of the first Leiden feminists was Aletta Lorentz-Kaiser (1858-1931). She was married to Hendrik Lorentz (1853-1928), a physicist who won the Nobel Prize and was a professor at Leiden University from 1878. ‘Initially, Lorentz-Kaiser was mainly involved in charity work for children’, says Van Steen. ‘She was involved in founding Leidsche Kinderbewaarplaats, a forerunner of modern childcare. But once the women’s rights movement emerged, she soon joined the Leiden board of the Vereeniging voor Vrouwenkiesrecht. (Association for Women’s Suffrage). She was also one of the founders of the Nederlandsche Bond voor Vrouwenkiesrecht, (The Netherlands Association for Women’s Suffrage), an association born out of dissatisfaction with the radical views and actions of the Vereeniging voor Vrouwenkiesrecht.

Wilhelmina van Itallie-van Embden. Photo: Van der Stok, Leopold van Itallie collection

Professor’s wife Wilhelmina van Itallie-van Embden

Another professor’s wife worth mentioning is Wilhelmina van Itallie-van Embden (1870-1959). She came to Leiden with her two children and her husband Leopold van Itallie (1866-1952) in 1907, when Leopold was appointed Professor of Pharmacy and Toxicology. Itallie-van Embden soon became inseparable from the Leiden women’s rights movement. She was a source of information for many Leiden feminists and ensured that the Leiden branch of the Vereeniging voor Vrouwenkiesrecht was not disbanded when its membership dwindled. She was also one of the few women on the Leiden Municipal Council before the Second World War (1921-1927) and later served on other political bodies, such as the Provincial Council of Zuid-Holland (1926-1927) and the House of Representatives (1928-1933). ‘It is only because she did not live in Amsterdam that she isn’t much better known’, says Van Steen.

Lizzy van Dorp, 1901. Photo: A. van der Grient, Atria collection

Student Lizzy van Dorp

Of the few students who played a role in the first feminist wave, Lizzy van Dorp (1872-1945) is a fascinating example. She was the first woman in the Netherlands to study law. Like Aletta Lorentz-Kaiser, she was a board member of the Leiden chapter of the Vereeniging voor Vrouwenkiesrecht, later opting for the more moderate Nederlandsche Bond voor Vrouwenkiesrecht, which she co-founded.

Gerda van Dijk in Leidsch Dagblad from 24-12-1983. Foto: Dirk Ketting

Assistant professor Gerda van Dijk

One woman who played a prominent role in the second wave was Gerda van Dijk (b. 1941). She was an assistant professor of sexology at the university, a member of the Leiden-Oegstgeest chapter of the feminist organisation Man Vrouw Maatschappij (Man Woman Society) and an advocate for women’s self-determination over their own bodies. ‘Van Dijk supported the fight for the legalisation of abortion and against domestic and sexual violence’, says Van Steen. In 1987, she was appointed assistant professor of sexology at the University of Amsterdam. This chair was an initiative of the Nederlandse Vereniging voor Seksuele Hervorming (Dutch Association for Sexual Reform), an association that supported the sexual revolution.

Jan Ernst Heeres and Huib Drion

Although the Leiden women’s movement was mainly populated by women, men also got involved, says Van Steen. ‘Jan Ernst Heeres (1858-1932), for example, a professor of the history of the Netherlands East Indies. He was actively involved in the Nederlandsche Bond voor Vrouwenkiesrecht, where he also served on the board. Huib Drion (1917-2004) is an example from the second wave. He was a professor of civil law at Leiden University and was actively involved in Man Vrouw Maatschappij.

PhD candidate Agnes Van Steen

PhD candidate Agnes Van Steen

In a sense, Van Steen can also be counted among this group of Leiden University feminists. While studying history in 1976, she founded the Leidse Werkgroep Vrouwengeschiedenis (Leiden Working Group on Women’s History) to draw attention to women in history. And she later wrote articles on the Leiden women’s rights movement for the Dirk van Eck Foundation. Her dissertation, in which she looks at the two feminist waves and the periods in between from a Leiden perspective, is the culmination of her years of studying women’s history.

Text: Sabine Waasdorp

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