With celebrations of suffragettes all the rage, much focus is currently on attempts to gain the vote for women. This was, of course, only a small part of the battle even for 1st wave feminists. Issues of the right of women to control or own their bodies – whether the specific concern be birth control, family planning, abortion or sex workers – has been on the agenda for over 100 years – and probably in various places throughout history for millennia.
Achieving equality, where it has been achieved at all, has been a struggle for particular individuals, for groups of women and eventually movements. Unfortunately, women’s rights is a matter of one step forward, two steps back. So we can never assume that whatever gains have been made will be retained. So looking to history, and the lives of particular women, is one way of fortifying ourselves for the battles we need to be part of.
Aletta Jacobs, the first female doctor in Holland, was an activist in the peace movement as well as in the woman’s movement and in her daily life. Her death on August 10, 1929 provides an excuse to write about her. She pioneered health reform and access to birth control. But even before this point Aletta had won a victory. It took the personal support of the Prime Minister for her to gain access to sex-segregated higher education.
After attaining her degree, Jacobs immediately set up free clinics for the working-class, which she ran 2 mornings a week. In 1882, she went a step further and founding the first birth control clinic in the world. Her focus on prostitutes made her a double target, just as her insistence that the working conditions of salesgirls required reform angered entrenched capitalism. She clearly was only interested in perpetuating immorality.
In l903 Aletta Jacobs left her medical practice in order to focus on the broader issues for women. She worked with international organizations for women’s suffrage, undertook a world tour (taking in South Africa, the Middle East, India, Ceylon, the Dutch East Indies, Burma, the Philippines, China and Japan) with ex-IWSA president Carrie Chapman Catt studying the conditions of women and reporting to the Dutch paper De Telegraaf. Suffrage for Dutch women was achieved in 1919.
Jacobs energies did not just focus on women. In 1914, with the outbreak of WWI, she used her international women’s network to fight for peace and she even travelled to the USA in an attempt to persuade President Woodrow Wilson to mediate the conflict. She remained an activist until her death in 1929.
So what can we learn from this.
1. Education matters. There is currently an international movement, rallying around 16 year old Afghani, Malala Yousafzai, to provide access to education for all the world’s children. Malala is a survivor of terrorist action which aimed at silencing her insistence that women and girls, as well as boys and men, have a right to education.
A second side to this is that formal education provides the tools, one would hope, for critical analysis. If you have never thought of birth control as a matter of a woman’s control over her own body, it is time to rethink the matter. In the West we consider autonomy to be an essential right – in fact a precursor of rights. But autonomy assumes that our bodies are our own. If we want to be reckless, we can. If we want to exercise we can. If we want to carry a child, we can. If we do not want to carry a child, we have the right to that decision too. But without access to birth control and abortion, to say we have a right is meaningless.
2. A commitment to social justice matters. Not just seeing the conditions of others, but being prepared to work to alleviate these conditions. I guess this requires bravery – at least the courage to act on one’s convictions. I’m a coward, but activism isn’t only about large battles or standing in the front line. While signing a petition may seem a small thing to do, for example, every name counts.
One other aspect of this is the inter-relatedness of rights. Aletta demonstrated that compassion has many faces and that caring about women leads to caring about men and the whole of humanity and the world we inhabit.
3. Networking is key. We can’t do anything on our own. Women are said to be good at networking and maintaining relationships. Aletta Jacobs did not achieve what she did on her own. From the outset she worked with others. This does two things. It makes us realise that we are not alone – that there are others who value social justice and human rights. Secondly, numbers bring power. Sharing the burden and multiplying the effect.
My aim is not to be preachy, but to suggest that we don’t create a pantheon of great women, unlike us in every way. Rather, that we take small steps to demand equality for overselves and for our daughters, but that we also see that we can have guidance in this from those who have come before us.
If you are a Harry Potter fan, you will know that Mad-Eye Moody had advice that is relevant here. He tells the young heroes that they need to be “forever vigilant”. Unfortunately there is wisdom, not paranoia here. It is not just that in every generation we have to fight the same battles anew. It is that we always have to watch out for impositions on our equality, because whenever we think there are gains there is slippage.