6 memorable women in Dutch history

6 memorable women in Dutch history

In March we celebrate International Women's Day, a day to celebrate the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. In honour of International Women’s Day in the Netherlands, we are shining a spotlight on six memorable women who have left their mark on Dutch history.

1. Kenau Simonsdochter Hasselaer

The story of Kenau Simonsdochter Hasselaer (1526-1589) is a mix of truth and legend, originating from the time the Spanish besieged Haarlem. Kenau was a merchant who delivered wood for ships in the battle against the Spaniards. When the enemy shot holes in the walls of Haarlem, she worked furiously to repair the damage with sand, alongside other citizens.

Truth and legend start to mingle as stories arise of the citizens of Haarlem fighting back by throwing hot tar and straw on the attacking Spaniards, with Kenau in the lead. In some stories, she fought back with a self-amassed army of 300 women. In other stories, she was also a witch.

Kenau was known in Haarlem for her difficult personality. The fame of her fighting spirit is probably what fuelled the stories about her throughout the centuries. Today, the word Kenau is a derogatory term in Dutch, meaning a boarish, headstrong and "mannish" woman. Some choose to honour the word, however, by using it to describe a woman who is brave, persistent and independent.

Video: YouTube / Visiting The Dutch Countryside

2. Anna Maria van Schurman

The gifted Anna Maria van Schurman (1607-1678) was the first woman to go to university in the Netherlands, and maybe even in Europe. When Anna Maria was young, she quickly became known for both her intelligence and her artistic talent.

In 1636, Anna Maria was enrolled at Utrecht University. To uphold the values of the time, she attended lectures from behind a curtain, so the male students would not see her. She developed into a famous thinker in many fields, and she corresponded with the most famous western scholars of the day.

Anna Maria understood at least 11 languages, she had many of her paintings displayed in exhibitions, and she had a great interest in insects. Another passion of hers was religion. Anna Maria joined a mystic Labadist cult, which she followed abroad as they were not welcome in the Netherlands. She died in Altona in Germany.

3. Aletta Jacobs

Although Anna Maria van Schurman was the first woman to attend university, convention did not allow her to graduate. The first woman to graduate from university in the Netherlands only showed up two centuries later, and her name was Aletta Jacobs (1854-1929).

After her studies in Groningen, Aletta continued her intellectual career by becoming the first female physician in the Netherlands. Before Aletta came around, the issue of women’s suffrage had not really been discussed, since women didn’t meet the minimum income requirements for voting privileges anyway.

When Aletta became a doctor, and tried to invoke her right to vote, a new law was created to specifically deny women the right to suffrage. Although that battle was lost, Aletta continued to fight for what she believed in. She worked to protect the rights of the Afrikaners in the Second Boerenoorlog, and to help obtain peace during World War I.

Video: YouTube / usembthehague

4. Corry Tendeloo

Corry Tendeloo (1897-1956) was one of the biggest fighters for women’s rights in the Netherlands. Born in Indonesia, Corry moved to the Netherlands as a child and became a lawyer in Amsterdam.

She became more and more involved with social movements and worked her way up in Dutch politics, where she quickly gained renown for her sharp speeches, quick wit and efforts for women’s rights. Corry ardently advocated equal pay for both sexes and the right for women to fulfil the same functions as men in the workforce.

Corry is most famous for her pivotal role in the abolition of the law stating that married women were no longer allowed to pursue a profession. She died of cancer before she could see the success of her motion, and the law was indeed abolished in 1957. Corry also played a vital part in obtaining voting rights for women in Suriname.

5. Hannie Schaft 

One of the most famous Dutch resistance fighters in World War II was "the girl with the red hair". This nickname belonged to Jannetje Schaft (1920-1945), who used the pseudonym "Hannie". Hannie’s reputation varies from that of a hero to that of a vicious assassin, and her fame stems from various books and movies that appeared, describing her tumultuous life.

Schaft helped Jewish hiders by smuggling stolen food coupons and identity documents. Eventually, she joined a rather infamous resistance group, for which she instigated various attacks on Germans, collaborators and traitors. She dyed her red hair black to avoid recognition.

Just before the end of the war, an agreement was signed between the warring factions not to execute women. However, this rule was ignored with Hannie when she was finally captured. The Germans had a particular hatred for her, as her assassinations were manifold and, in their eyes, senseless.

The story goes that the first shot fired at her execution merely grazed her, after which Hannie sneered, "I shoot better". At that, an officer emptied his machine gun on her.

Video: YouTube / House of History

6. Anne Frank

Without a doubt, the most famous on our list, Anne Frank (1929-1944) can simply not be excluded in any mention of memorable women in the history of the Netherlands. Few are unfamiliar with the story of the German-born, Jewish Annelies, or Anne, who used her diary to document her life in hiding in Amsterdam during the German occupation in World War II.

The diary covers two years, from when Anne was 13, to just before she was captured at the age of 15. After she perished in a concentration camp, her father Otto retrieved her diary and got it published, posthumously honouring Anne’s desire to become a writer.

Today, The Diary of Anne Frank is one of the world’s most famous books, and it has been published in more than 60 languages. The house where Anne Frank hid is now a museum in Amsterdam called the Anne Frank House, and it can still be visited.

Video: YouTube / Anne Frank House

Are you remembering anyone special for International Women's Day? Let us know in the comments below!

Thumb image credit: Unknown / PD-EU / Wikimedia Commons

Alexandra van Kampen


Alexandra van Kampen

English and Japanese theatre and culture are my forte. My mother was raised in England, and my grandmother in Japan. I studied Japanese Language and Culture, and Film and Photographic...

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Patrycja Krason 00:57 | 9 March 2019

Where is Maria Montessori??? She had incredible infuance on dutch education....

Miroslava Berzina 07:26 | 4 November 2019

Second row, left to right: Hannie Schaft , Corry Tendeloo , Anne Frank .