Get Elected poster- giant super women standing over the 2 parliament houses in Canberra

Get Elected! Poster by Carol Porter, RedPlanet, 1997; H98.210/1. This work is in copyright.

Dr Aletta H. Jacobs

There are many names in the history of feminism and women’s rights but, unlike Mary Wollstonecraft, Vida Goldstein or Emmeline Pankhurst, the name Dr. Aletta. H. Jacobs (1854-1929) is little known, even though many of her papers have been collected by UNESCO in their Memory of the World archive.

Portrait of Aletta H. Jacobs

Aletta H. Jacobs, UNESCO Memory of the World

The first female university student and female physician in 19th century Netherlands, she is remembered today for several other firsts and pioneering actions. These included the establishment of the first birth-control clinic in the world, and leading the Dutch Women’s Suffrage Association for twenty-five years.

Our particular interest is, however, in her vision and eye for the future with her building one of the earliest, broadest and most useful single sources for the study of women’s history, now known as The Gerritsen collection of women’s history. The collection was taken to the next level in 1974 when the enhanced collection was released on microfilm opening new doors internationally to a broad collection of researchers, activists, students and the public.

Dr. Jacobs was married to C. V. Gerritsen, an alderman and member of the Dutch Parliament. She began collecting works on, and related to, the evolution of a feminist consciousness and the movement for women’s rights and had developed a library of around two thousand titles by the time she retired from her medical profession.

The Gerritsen Collection

The material that the Gerritsens collected was varied and included books, serials, pamphlets and essays on women’s rights, historical and legal status, suffrage, education, abortion, marital and sexual relations, prostitution, and religion. It spanned over 400 years and was made up of works in fifteen languages. Some of the issues covered in the collection, sharply highlighted in the cartoon below, are shocking when viewed in the 21st century:

Image of lawyer with destitute woman
Suffrage campaigning: How the law protects the wife, 1909 Wikimedia Commons

Jacobs also collected works that were, for example, anti-suffrage and critical of women’s rights and aspirations to education and professional status. In this regard, the collection includes German journalist Arthur Kirchhoff’s 1897 book, Die Akademische Frau, (The academic woman) a 376 page work that focuses on women’s suitability to university education. The essays collected in this work are a mix of the positive and negative and provides a focused snapshot of attitudes at the end of the 19th century.

The collection also holds the Anti-suffrage campaign manual by Ethel Brigham Leatherbee, published in 1915, and this reminds us that there was substantial opposition through the 19th and early 20th centuries to women’s rights, by both men and women. This title must have been added in Chicago after the original collection was sold and Jacobs had retired from her medical practice. 

Men lining up to read literature on table outside the National Anti-suffrage association
National Anti-Suffrage Association Library of Congress, 1911 LC-USZ62-25338

Jacobs had sold the collection after Gerritsen’s death in 1903 and it was purchased by the John Crerar Library in Chicago. The Chicago library continued to add to the collection, mostly with English language titles, up to 1954. At this point in time, at close to double the collection’s original size, it was then sold on to the University of Kansas and was further developed and then microfilmed in the early 1970s. The collection has continued development and the latest edition contains women’s history material up to 1977.

The State Library acquired the microfiche collection between 1975 and 1981 and use has escalated over the years, especially since the individual titles were added to our online catalogue. The collection has since been commercially digitized and usage has now further increased with the acquisition of the digital version, accessible online to all Victorian library members.

Image of the Gerritsen online database homepage

While researching the Gerritsen Collection is rewarding do not forget that the State Library collection in general also has a range of supporting material including overviews and biographies such as The criminal conversation of Mrs. Norton: Victorian England’s “scandal of the century” and the fallen socialite who changed women’s lives forever. Norton was instrumental in the introduction and the passing of the Infant Custody Act 1839 in parliament that gave married women actual rights over their children under the age of seven, and legal access to their older children if separated or divorced — prior to this act women had no rights in this area. Several of Norton’s works touching the legal status and rights of women in England are in the Gerritsen Collection.

book cover showing women with writing quill

Atkinson, Diane, 2013, The Criminal Conversation of Mrs. Norton, Chicago Review

There is so much more to explore in the library catalogue and databases, and the Gerritsen Collection is enriched by it’s print and online companions just as it lays a fabulous foundation for the discovery of women’s history. Jacob’s collection now sits beside several other online collections such as Women’s Studies Archive and Gender: Identity and Social Change and Aletta Jacob’s pioneering work continues to reward and provide a fertile legacy in the 21st century.

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