How Aletta Jacobs’ role in women’s emancipation is related to Tax Law

Sigrid Hemels

Today, the elections for the Provincial Council take place, and last Wednesday, the world celebrated International Women’s Day. These two moments ask us, each in their way, to reflect on our right to vote. Aletta Jacobs has been recorded in books as a doctor, feminist and pacifist, and she was a pioneer in the fight for equal rights for women. However, few people know that Jacobs played an undeniable role in women’s suffrage as we know it in the Netherlands today. In an episode of the Podcast of the University of the Netherlands, Sigrid Hemels, Professor of Tax Law at Erasmus School of Law, reflects on Jacobs’s traces in today’s suffrage system. In doing so, Hemels shines a different, refreshing light on the dreaded ‘blue envelope’.

In the episode ‘How a woman put an end to men’s suffrage’, Hemels guides listeners through Aletta Jacobs’ fight for women’s rights. For over twenty-five years, Hemels could overlook the house where Aletta Jacobs prepared for her doctor’s exam in her student room from her own home in Amsterdam. Last October, when the Supreme Court digitised the ruling in the case brought by Aletta Jacobs in 1883, which knows fiscal characteristics, Hemels knew: this story must be retold.

From the age of six onwards, Aletta Jacobs wanted to become a doctor and, thus, following her father’s and eldest brother’s footsteps. Nothing could stand in the way, including her being a woman. For many girls, education ended after primary school. But not for Aletta Jacobs: after a frustrating two weeks at the ‘school for young ladies’ and several bumps, she took her exam as an apprentice pharmacist. She was then permitted by minister Thorbecke, as a 17-year-old, to go to university. Despite - or perhaps thanks to - much resistance and criticism, she graduated and obtained her PhD. After her PhD, Aletta Jacobs left for the Medical School of Women’s and Paediatrics in London, founded by a female doctor. This woman was also active in the English women’s suffrage movement and introduced Aletta Jacobs to progressive London circles.

No taxation without representation

Aletta Jacobs believed it was a great injustice that women were not allowed to vote. Once she returned from London, she started reading the Dutch constitution. As it turned out, one was allowed to vote in the Netherlands if one had Dutch and civil rights and paid enough taxes. These last two requirements were problematic for women because married women did not have civil rights, and unmarried women often did not earn enough money to meet the tax threshold.

Aletta Jacobs, however, was unmarried and, as a doctor, she paid a sufficient amount of taxes. Jacobs applied to be placed on the electoral roll at the next municipal elections. Her request was denied. While the constitution may not have explicitly mentioned that women were not allowed to vote, of course, it could never have been the intention of the constituent to allow women to vote. Jacobs appealed to the court and then appealed to the Supreme Court, but in vain. Aletta Jacobs’ fight initially led to a constitutional amendment stating that only men could vote. However, Aletta Jacobs remained active in both the Dutch and international women’s suffrage movements.

At age 65, in 1919, Aletta Jacobs finally saw Dutch women gaining the right to vote. Her goal in the fight for women’s suffrage had been accomplished. Therefore, according to Hemels, paying taxes appears in a totally different light.

More information

Listen the entire podcast of the University of the Netherlands here (in Dutch).

Read a more extensive version of the story in an opinion piece of Sigrid Hemels in NTFR here.

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