Interview Professor Mineke Bosch on Dr. Aletta Jacobs

This month we interviewed dr. Mineke Bosch, a professor of modern history from the University of Groningen. In The Netherlands, Professor Bosch is widely regarded as a leading expert on Dr. Aletta Jacobs. On Saturday April 25, during the Centenary of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) and on the occasion of the unveiling of a bust of Dr. Aletta Jacobs in the Peace Palace, Professor Bosch gave a fascinating speech on the prominent role Aletta played in the International Congress of Women that took place in The Hague in April of 1915. Before the unveiling ceremony, we interviewed Professor Bosch who effortlessly took us back in time to the women’s suffrage movement of the early 20th Century and the enormous task that Aletta Jacobs took upon herself when she initiated the Congress of 1915.

How did Aletta Jacobs become involved in the International Congress of Women in 1915 and how did the Congress come about?

Professor Bosch: Until the First World War broke out in 1914, Aletta Jacobs was actively involved in the women’s suffrage movement in the Netherlands as well as on an international level. The war paralyzed most political activities and the subject was avoided in the Dutch Parliament Jacobs was eager to continue her work, but the war prevented her from doing so. She did make an effort to reach out to the women’s committees that worked to provide shelter and support for the many refugees that were arriving in The Netherlands, but her heart went out to politics and women’s right to vote.

When the war broke out, the International Woman Suffrage Alliance (IWSA) held a meeting in London where many members demonstrated their opposition to the war by writing letters to embassies and envoys. In the United States, a large peace demonstration was held in New York to protest the war. In December, the German branch of the IWSA, announced that their annual meeting that would be held in Berlin in the following year would be cancelled due to the war. Aletta Jacobs then responded by writing a letter to Jus Suffragii, the international journal of IWSA,  calling for an alternative meeting as a way to oppose the war. However, it became clear that the German, French and British women were not in a position to openly participate in such a meeting. Then, Chrystal Macmillan, a prominent suffragist and Law professor from Scotland, suggested to organize an independent International Congress of Women that could be initiated by a private citizen. Upon reading this, Aletta Jacobs took the initiative to send out invitations to women to help organize a Congress in the Netherlands, which was neutral at the time, to demonstrate opposition to the war and to discuss international political events and issues such as international arbitration and a Permanent International Conference to deal with dispute settlement. Aletta’s proposal received many positive responses which led to a preliminary meeting in Amsterdam. This meeting was attended by women from Germany, Great Britain, and Belgium, that was occupied by Germany, and many other countries supported Aletta’s idea by mail. The decision to organize a Congress was made. For the actual organization of the event, Aletta could count on her fellow suffragists, Mia Boissevain and Rosa Manus for help. By doing what she did, Aletta demonstrated that women are capable of putting together an international congress, which was a very uncommon thing for women to do at that time- once women are granted political rights.

How did Aletta first become interested in peace issues? Was she a pacifist in addition to being a women’s rights activist? Was she influenced in any way by her meetings with Bertha von Suttner?

Professor Bosch: Aletta Jacobs was no stranger to the Peace issue. When she was a young girl, she had three brothers who were in army and who later fought during the colonial wars in Aceh, in the Dutch Indies. Also, when Aletta married Carel Gerritsen, they often attended meetings from the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), a very important Peace organization at the time. The parliamentarians who came together for these conferences often spoke on issues of peace, arbitration and alternative dispute resolutions. The first time Aletta Jacobs and Bertha von Suttner met was at the first International Peace Conference that was organized by Tsar Nicholas II in 1899. According to Jacobs their dispute over the importance of women’s suffrage as a way to a more peaceful world started there, and they continued their dispute at the meeting of the IPU in Christiana (Oslo) that also took place in 1899, immediately after the Hague conference. According to Aletta’s memoires, during the farewell  dinner she was asked to speech on behalf of the women present, and was afterwards lectured by Bertha von Suttner about her conviction that the women’s vote would be very conducive to bring about world peace.  The two ladies never became real friends but they certainly were part of the same world. When Bertha von Suttner attended the opening of the Peace Palace in 1913, she visited an exhibition titled ‘De Vrouw’ (The Woman) 1813 - 1913 in Amsterdam that was organized by Rosa Manus and Mia Boissevain of the Dutch Women’s Suffrage Association. At this event, Bertha gave a speech in which she stated that a women’s right to vote was indeed important.

Did Aletta participate also in other peace activities than you mentioned prior to the Women’s Congress?

Professor Bosch: In 1905, Aletta and her husband travelled to St. Louis, Missouri in the United States to attend another meeting of the Inter-Parliamentary Union. Together with her husband, she published a book on her travels through the United States, titled Letters from and about America in which Carel Gerritsen also writes extensively about this meeting.

After the Congress in 1915, Aletta went on a peace diplomacy mission and traveled to various countries to bring attention to the resolutions that were adopted during the Women’s Congress. What were Aletta views, in retrospect, to these special missions? Did she belief that her message had any effect on governmental leaders?

Professor Bosch: It is very funny, because she discusses these missions very vivaciously in her memoires. When I read this for the first time, I was stunned to learn that she was able to meet with all these governmental leaders, from the German Chansellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg, the British Prime-Minister Herbert Asquith tothe American President Woodrow Wilson. Aletta Jacobs was never one to keep business cards, but she did keep a letter from President Wilson which proves how important this meeting was to her. It was remarkable that Aletta had access to these statesmen. It was suggested later on, that Aletta was sent on a secret diplomatic mission by the Dutch government. Apparently, the Dutch government was interested in hosting a Peace Conference after the First World War but lost to Versailles. Supposedly Jacobs was asked to inform these statesmen of this proposal by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The women at The Hague were in fact opposed to this and wanted to put a stop to these secret diplomatic missions that would often lead to war. Aletta definitely did not pat herself on the back for these diplomatic missions and her meeting with these statesmen. I do believe that Aletta found President Wilson the most interesting of all which was probably due to the position of the United States at the time.

Did Aletta ever become an active member of Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF)?

Professor Bosch: Aletta Jacobs followed the developments in the early years of WILPF. She was in Zürich when WILPF was founded there in 1919. Actually she attended this conference at precisely the moment when the decisive debate on the suffrage Bill was held in Parliament. She also attended a peace congress in 1925 in Washington D.C, USA.

Throughout her life Aletta operated in male dominated world. How did she manage to do this?

Professor Bosch: By having a good sense of self and getting pleasure from thinking up strategies to achieve her political goals. By nature, she was a political person and I think she wanted to be part of political life. When she realized that this wasn’t possible she became an active member of the women’s movement. She was deeply committed to women being able to stand up for themselves and to see that justice would be done to women in society and for women to get the right to vote.

What was the most important lesson we can learn from Aletta’s life?

Professor Bosch: To never give up and to believe in yourself!  She maintained an approach that was not focused on conflicts but on finding solutions. Before the Congress of 1915 took place, she emphasized that the Congress was not about questions of guilt,  but would rather focus on finding solutions. Aletta Jacobs always stayed away from conflicts and fights that are so often part of politics.

She definitely was no push over! I like the way in which she was referred to as ‘our brave little president’ in a report of the opening evening of the Women’s Congress. You have to know that she was only 1.54 m tall.

Do you believe that Aletta deserves to have a bust in the Peace Palace? Why is this important? What is your personal opinion on this?

Professor Bosch: YES, there is no doubt about the importance of having a bust of Aletta in the Peace Palace. Two ladies who had prominent roles in the International Congress of Women, namely Jane Addams - whom Aletta asked to preside over the Congress - and Emily Greene Balch, became Nobel Peace Laureates. This was decades later, but it does make one wonder what would’ve happened if Aletta had been alive during this time. She did receive an honorable mention by the Nobel Committee taking the initiative to the Women’s Congress in 1915.

It proves that the Congress Aletta Jacobs inspired did make an impact on an international level. To me this means that Aletta Jacobs rightfully deserves to have a bust in the main hall in the Peace Palace in The Hague.

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