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Aletta Jacobs archives included in UNESCO heritage register

31 October 2017

UNESCO has recognized the importance of the archives of famous Dutch feminist Aletta Jacobs by including them in its Memory of the World programme. This recognition gives the work of the first woman to officially attend a Dutch university a protected status. Aletta H. Jacobs (1854–1929) started her studies in medicine at the University of Groningen in 1871. She gained her doctorate on 8 March 1879, for a thesis on the physiology and pathology of the brain.

Aletta Jacobs
Aletta Jacobs

Aletta Jacobs’s archives are held at Atria (Institute on Gender Equality and Women’s History) in Amsterdam, and contain images, objects and documents pertaining to the struggle for women’s rights, both in the Netherlands and further afield. The UNESCO Memory of the World project aims to safeguard and facilitate access to documentary heritage judged to be authentic, unique, irreplaceable and of global importance, and thus of remarkable value.

Recognition and status

Known primarily for her role in the women’s suffrage movement, Jacobs was also the first woman to graduate from a Dutch university. She gained her medical degree in 1878, having been given special permission in 1872 to attend university by the then Prime Minister Thorbecke. She went on to become the first Dutch woman to gain a doctorate.

‘Aletta Jacobs’ archives reflect the pioneering role she played on many fronts’, says Atria director Renée Römkens. ‘Inclusion in UNESCO’s Memory of the World grants the archives the protection and appreciation they deserve. Of the over 400 archives in the register, only four were formed by women. Atria is proud to house these important archives and hopes that more archives of historically important women will get the recognition they deserve.’

The nomination was submitted by Atria with support from the Board of the University of Groningen and the Sophia Smith Collection, an American repository of primary sources in women's history.

Role model for women

Jacobs played an invaluable role in improving the position of women, both in Dutch society and abroad. Even today she is a role model for many girls and women. For a quarter of a century she was the leader of the Dutch suffragettes of the Vereeniging voor Vrouwenkiesrecht, and she played a part in the international peace movement. After her studies, Aletta Jacobs contributed to the improvement of working and living conditions for women in many ways. As a doctor, she introduced contraceptive pessaries in the Netherlands and was involved in the establishment, in 1881, of the Nieuw–Malthusiaanse Bond, an organization promoting birth control, predecessor of the NVSH, the Dutch Association for Sexual Reform. She held free surgeries for working class women, was concerned about the fate of prostitutes, and lobbied for better working conditions, including a place to sit, for shop employees.

Statue Aletta Jacobs Harmony complex

Aletta Jacobs Prize

The University of Groningen honours Aletta Jacobs with a prize in her name, awarded every two years. There is a statue of her in the Oude Kijk in 't Jatstraat, in front of the Harmonie Complex housing the Faculty of Arts and the Faculty of Law, and the University Museum exhibits her surgery.

Last modified:14 April 2020 4.59 p.m.
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