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International Women's Day: four important women of the UG

Date:06 March 2021
Our pride and glory: Aletta Jacobs!
Our pride and glory: Aletta Jacobs!

Every year on 8 March, it’s International Women’s Day, the annual day dedicated to celebrating women. In this blog, I’d like to shed some light on the most important women who have studied at the University of Groningen over the years! 

Before I dive into it, let me first give a little Women’s Day history lesson for all of those who don’t know about it yet or need some freshening up. The first International Women’s Day was celebrated 110 years ago when German revolutionary Clara Zetkin proposed at the 1910 International Socialist Women's Conference that the 8th of March should be an annually celebrated day to honor working women. Seven years later in 1917, the 8th of March was the first time women gained suffrage in Soviet Russia, which made it an iconic day for the socialist movements across the world. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the feminism movement started to bloom and since 1975, the United Nations has been celebrating the day worldwide. 

Throughout the years, the University of Groningen has accommodated some pretty important women. I’ll elaborate on (in my opinion) the most notable four over the past 100 years, two from the last century and two from this century. 

Aletta Jacobs (1854 - 1929)

You’ll know her name from the big orange exam building and maybe from the statue in front of Harmoniegebouw, but did you know that she is one of the most important figures in feminism, introducing the first wave of feminism to the Netherlands? Aletta Jacobs was the first woman ever to receive a medical degree, which she received from the University of Groningen! In 2017, her personal archives have been recognized as UNESCO-heritage and included in the UNESCO Memory of the World International Register. Also, since the 1990s, every two years the University of Groningen awards a notable female academic with the ‘Aletta Jacobs prize’, which is awarded to women who have played a pioneering role in emancipation and acts as an example for other women. This year, it will be awarded to the Dutch labor party politician Khadija Arib.  

Anda Kerkhoven (1919 - 1945)

Another famous feminist medicine student who studied at the University of Groningen: Anda Kerkhoven. Anda transferred to the University of Groningen from Batavia, Indonesia (now known as Jakarta) after not wanting to conduct experiments on animals, which wasn’t necessary for Groningen. Once arriving in Groningen, Anda was a convinced pacifist in the period leading up to World War II. During the war, she was a member of the Dutch resistance, acting as a recruiter of other pacifist resistance members and an important messenger for the resistance. She was eventually caught in 1944 and executed in 1945. Anda is forever remembered at the University of Groningen, in the stained glass window memorial in the Academy Building. Together with Aletta Jacobs, they are the only two women in the window memorial. 

Amina Helmi (1970 -) 

Another important woman for the University of Groningen is prof. dr. Amina Helmi, an Argentinian astronomer, and professor at the University of Groningen. In 2019, Helmi was named winner of the Spinoza Prize (basically the Dutch Nobel Prize), the most prominent scientific award in the Netherlands, honoring researchers who are the best in their field. Helmi’s research focuses on the evolution and dynamics of galaxies, known as ‘stellar archaeology’. Fun fact: a stellar stream in the Milky Way was named after Amina Helmi, now known as the ‘Helmi Stream’. 

Cisca Wijmenga (1964 -) 

Lastly, I’d like to shed some light on our very own rector magnificus, prof. dr. Cisca Wijmenga. Wijmenga is a professor of human genetics at the University of Groningen and the UMCG. She also won a Spinoza Prize back in 2015 for her research into the genetic factors associated with coeliac disease. In 2018, she has crowned a Knight in Order of the Dutch Lion. In 2019, she was named rector magnificus of the University of Groningen, becoming the first woman ever to be rector magnificus since the University’s foundation in 1614. 

Rector Maginificus Cisca Wijmenga standing proudly next to her portrait up on the wall with all the other rectors.
Rector Maginificus Cisca Wijmenga standing proudly next to her portrait up on the wall with all the other rectors.

While there are countless more important women who I would love to write about and praise, I’ll keep it at these four women for now. Hopefully, they can act as an inspiration to all women (and men!) studying at the University of Groningen today. Maybe in 20 years, someone will be writing about one of you!

About the author

Hey! I’m Danique, a Dutch/American studying International Relations and International Organizations with a mild obsession with coffee, cats, and rowing. If you can’t find me, look for the girl (almost always) wearing pink and writing blogs.


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