Aletta H. Jacobs (1854-1929)
Aletta Henriėtte Jacobs was born on February 9, 1854 in Sappemeer, as the eighth
child of a Jewish doctor's family. Her parents were Anna de Jongh and Abraham Jacobs.
At the age of thirteen she left the village school. The ladies' school she attended thereafter
became a nightmare for her, and after two weeks she refused to return to school. Aletta then stayed at
home; during the day her mother taught her housework, while in the evenings she learned French and
German. Later on her father taught her Latin and Greek. In 1869, for the first time, a girl had taken
the admission examination to become a pharmacist's assistant; Aletta Jacobs did the same in 1870.
After some efforts she was permitted to attend classes at Groningen University for a period of one year,
she started on April 20, 1871. On May 30, 1872 her request for permanent admission was granted.
(See inv.no. 596.) In October 1876 she continued her study at Amsterdam University. She received her
medical degree on April 2, 1878, and her medical doctorate on March 8, 1879. During these years Jacobs
became concerned with social injustice; among other things, she learned how absurd the
Dutch marriage laws were.
In March 1879 she went to London for a few months. She had decided to go to London because she had read
in British women's magazines about how professors, doctors, and students were actively sabotaging women's
attempts to study medicine in England. She returned to Amsterdam to attend the conference on the
advancement of medical science on September 8-15. Afterwards she began to practice as a doctor on the
Herengracht, in the house of a widow from whom she rented a few rooms.
Through B.H. Heldt, leader of the Dutch General Trade Union, Jacobs was introduced to other members of
the trade union's board. In the winter of 1880 Heldt made available several rooms in the union's
building, so that Jacobs could offer a course for women to teach them the rudiments of hygiene and
the rudiments of caring for infants. One result of these classes was that she decided to hold a free
clinic two mornings a week for destitute women and children, a practice she continued for fourteen
years. These free clinics for poor women brought her in close contact with the issue of birth
control. Early 1882 she read about the use of the Mensinga pessary, which from then on she always
prescribed. She maintained her clinic until 1904, when she celebrated the twenty-fifth anniversary
of her doctorate in medicine on March 8, after which she retired from her practice.
Despite the fact that Jacobs fulfilled all the necessary conditions for enfranchisement, she was not send
a ballot like everyone else. When in 1883 her name was not on the just published new voter registration,
she decided to send a letter to the mayor and councillors of Amsterdam. Her request was refused, because it
was the 'spirit' of the law not to extend suffrage to women. A result of this decision, and because of the
Supreme Court' rejection of her appeal, the adjective 'male' was added before 'Dutch citizen' whenever
enfranchisement was mentioned.
In 1894 the Dutch Association for Woman's Suffrage was established. Jacobs became president of the Amsterdam
branch in 1895. In 1903 she accepted the association's leadership. In 1919 votes for women became a legal
reality in the Netherlands.
Jacobs also worked for the International Woman Suffrage Alliance (IWSA). Among other things she made two
trips with Carrie Chapman Catt to help women in their fight for woman suffrage. In September 1906 they
travelled to Austria-Hungary and from June 1911 till November 1912 through Africa and Asia.
Jacobs detested war and viewed armed violence as an unmitigated evil. In 1898 she participated in the first
international peace conference hosted by the Netherlands. At first, Jacobs did little work for pacifism,
although she always accompanied her husband, Carel Victor Gerritsen (1850-1905), whenever he attended the
meetings of the Interparliamentary Union. When the First World War started in 1914, Jacobs became more
active because she wanted to call on women from every nation to protest against the horrors of war. The
German women decided to abandon their plans to hold an International Woman Suffrage Alliance conference
in Berlin in June 1915. Instead, Jacobs, with the help of many other women, organized the International
Congress of Women, in The Hague, from April 28 till May 1. At the end of the conference, it was decided
that a women's deputation would present the resolutions both to the neutral countries and to those at war.
Jacobs and Jane Addams assumed responsibility for most of the work involved.
In 1919 Aletta Jacobs moved to The Hague. First she lived on her own, in the Van Aerssenstraat 46, from
October 1928 she lived with Mien and Richard van Wulfften Palthe-Broese van Groenou. She died on August
10, 1929 in a hotel in Baarn, during a visit to Rosa Manus.
Source and further reading
Aletta Jacobs, Memories. My Life as an International Leader in Health,
Suffrage, and Peace. Edited by Harriet Feinberg; translated by Annie
Wright (New York 1996: The Feminist Press).