“Sir, why is there so little talk about women in class?” Richard Zuiderveld (35), history teacher at the Carmel College in Emmen, was speechless for a moment when three girls from his class asked him this question.
“It was a very fair question,” he says. “And it got me thinking. In my lessons I did talk about Aletta Jacobs and Mata Hari, but that was about it.’
Zuiderveld decided to look for stories about women who have played a special role in history. There were enough, as it turned out. “You just don’t hear much about it.” He read the reference book 1001 women from Dutch history by historian Els Kloek, scoured the internet and made a selection of the most spectacular stories.
The result of his search has been in the shops since last week: Power women in the Netherlands, as the title says, is a children’s book with 25 biographies of female players from Dutch history. The first part, about legendary international women, was published in 2020.
Well-known names are featured in the latest issue, including Queen Wilhelmina, resistance fighter Hannie Schaft and ‘flying housewife’ Fanny Blankers-Koen. But there is also attention for lesser-known figures, such as Weyn Ockers, aka ‘the slipper thrower’ – a nickname she derives from throwing a slipper at a statue of Mary in the Oude Kerk in Amsterdam. Ockers had to pay for this rather innocent act by drowning during the devastating Iconoclasm of 1566.
Also ‘Goeie Mie’, which in the Guinness Book of Records is listed as the greatest poisoner of all time, plays a part. In industrial times, the nurse pretended to be a benefactor for poor factory workers, but in the meantime poisoned dozens of people with arsenic, only to cunningly take their money.
‘Is Goeie Mie a power woman?’, Zuiderveld wonders aloud. He is silent for a moment. Then, suddenly certain: ‘No, she is not a power woman, but her story does symbolize a certain period in history.’
The title suggests that only heroines are staged, but there are plenty of villains in the book.
‘That is a conscious choice. What you see in some children’s books is that women are only portrayed as heroines. I don’t think that’s a fair picture. If you want to show several historical sides, then you should also mention the female villains or victims. By the way, the title was invented by my students. After the book was finished, I asked them to provide suggestions on notes. This title came out the most often.’
Is this a feminist book?
‘No, that’s not the point. There is no political agenda to this book. Everyone deserves a place in history, whether you are a man or a woman. Only the balance is now skewed.’
Why is it that history books are mostly filled with men?
“Women were often not given the same opportunities as men to occupy positions of power, so many people believe they played a minor role in history for that reason. While on the other hand it can also be an excuse. You can talk about powerful men from the Middle Ages, but also about Countess Jacoba van Beieren.’
You mean: it’s a choice not to name women?
‘Secure. It’s really not the case that until 1960 women were all alone at home. There were women who served in the army dressed as men, women who wanted to live an adventurous life or die a heroic death. Only it wasn’t written about because it was a shame.’
Who is your favorite female historical hero?
Maritgen Jans, a 17-year-old girl who sailed with the West India Company. She cut her hair, dressed as a man and registered under a different name. I think that’s so cool! Once discovered as a woman, she was disembarked and forced to marry.’
Historical facts are ‘polished’ in the book with descriptions of the atmosphere and invented conversations. Why did you choose this shape?
‘I want to make history accessible to children and I believe this can be done through stories. Moreover, there was little information available about some women, so I took more freedom to make a fictional story.’
Have you changed your teaching style since being addressed by girls in your class?
‘Yes, but it takes time. I do bring women forward, but it’s still not at the core of my classes. This also has to do with the fact that I have to take into account learning objectives from the government. The textbooks are based on that.’
Shouldn’t the textbooks simply be adapted so that more attention is paid to historical women?
‘Something should indeed change, if only by adding a small sentence like: Willem van Oranje became successful thanks to the women he was married to. For without the money of Anna van Egmond and Anna van Saksen (his first and second wife, then two more followed, red.), he had simply been a destitute nobleman.’
Why doesn’t that happen, add such a sentence? Are textbook publishers so conservative?
‘Not necessarily. I myself write for a publisher of English teaching methods and there I proposed to give more space to historical women. That was well received.’
Yet most publishers do not seem to realize this yet.
‘True, but history is such a broad subject and history teachers want to tell so much that you have to filter.’
It’s all about making the right choices, isn’t it?
‘Yes, I hope that people who make teaching methods read this book and think: hey, how nice! In our next edition we will put these women in it. That would of course be fantastic.’
Ninety percent of all biographies in the English-language online encyclopedia Wikipedia are about men, according to a recent study by Erasmus University. According to the researchers, this is because 90 percent of the people who write articles for Wikipedia are men themselves. In order to narrow the ‘gender gap’, students from the University of Rotterdam have added as many Wikipedia articles about women as possible.