Childhood Feminist Heroes

We’re all feminists here (right? I didn’t take the wrong exit on the information highway and end up at one of those fauxminist sites again?), even though we may not have been born as such. Some of us didn’t convert to the ways of feminism, womanism, or related and equally valid and kick-ass ““isms until a little later in life. But I’m quite sure that, with hindsight, most of us can identify one or two feminist heroes we idolized while growing up. For me, that hero was Catrijn Willen Claaszoonsdr, more commonly known as Trijn van Leemput(te).

I first encountered Trijn in De Val van de Vredeborch (The Fall of the Freeburgh), a novel by Dutch historical and SF YA author Thea Beckman. This book is a mostly fictional account of the life of the Leemput family, who rose to prominence in the city of Utrecht during the final stages of the Eighty Years’ War in the 16th century.  Though fictional, the story is based on what facts have survived from the period. The address at which they lived, the positions held by Jan Jacob van Leemput, the number and names of the children, the rise of the family, have all been historically verified. Furthermore, it features historic events such as the Iconoclastic Fury, the reign of the Duke of Alva/Alba, and the sacking of Oudewater. And though this book was the first time I encountered these events and learned about this part of Dutch history, it was the kick-ass nature of Trijn van Leemput which stuck with me the most.

Throughout the course of the book, she is busy protecting her daughters from the “Spaniards,” she throws a couple of robbers down the stairs, she comments on the savage raping and pillaging that goes on after the sacking of rebellious towns and the way her fellow countrymen are taking advantage of the downfall of the citizens in these towns, and she is the strong woman standing behind her man. In the end, all her strength and her anger at the injustices faced by her family and her city as a result of the Eighty Years’ War culminates in her leading the women of Utrecht on a charge to tear down the fortress which had been used by the Spanish to subdue the people of the city: the Vredeborch. Built initially to protect the city from outside threats, the occupation of Utrecht had caused the fortress’ guns to be turned on the city itself. In De Val van de Vredeborch, the Vredeborch becomes the center and symbol of oppression and personal tragedy, and Trijn van Leemput’s charge on it is fully understandable. While the powerful men of Utrecht, after the retreat of the Spanish, debate what the fortress’ fate should be, Trijn ties her blue apron to a broom and marches through the streets of Utrecht, rallying her fellow women to her side and convincing them to bring pickaxes, knives, anything that could damage the fortress.

The women attack the walls of the fortress ferociously, and the narrator muses that some of them might have seen “the face of a Spaniard, who left their children fatherless” in the stones they were gouging out of the walls. In the end, they damage the fortress enough that the wise-and-dignified men of the city have no choice but to concede and tear the fortress down completely.

It’s a powerful image, a powerful story, and one that has been the subject of much debate. But though Trijn’s march on the Vredeborch has often been considered part truth, part myth, two contemporary sources, Arnold Buchelius’ Diarium and Johannes van Beverwijk’s Van de uutnementheyt des vrouwelicken geslacht (“Of the excellence of the female sex”) indicate that this part of Utrecht’s history is indeed more fact that fiction. The city council must have agreed, because in 1995 they placed a bronze statue of Trijn van Leemput near the house where she and her family lived. The placard reads the same as the anonymous painting accompanying this post: “Dit is “˜t beeld van Leemput’s vrouw, die moedig heeft gedaan,/ dat burger noch soldaat, in Utrecht heeft bestaan” (This is the image of Leemput’s wife, who bravely did / that which civilian nor soldier, in Utrecht dared to do).

Perhaps there is something more important than the veracity of the account, and that is that this story stuck with me more than any other as I grew up. When asked to write about a personal hero in a college seminar on leadership, I wrote about Trijn van Leemput and was singled out as the person with the best essay topic (see? Sometimes feminism does lead to profit!). And I get incredibly sad that not more people can experience the magic of Trijn, as the book has only appeared in Dutch. Once I win the lottery and realize my plans to open a publishing house that buys the rights to amazing, untranslated books, and then translates and publishes them, this one will be the first on my list to do.
But maybe I, too, am missing out on some great childhood feminist heroes, either from history or from fiction. Do you have any? Why do you love them so? What impact have the had on your life, if any?


By Nanna Freeman

Anglo-America-loving Dutchie with a grad student twist and a mad dash of self-mockery.

Sometimes I also write things here:

14 replies on “Childhood Feminist Heroes”

Elizabeth I for me; there is this amazing series, the Royal Diaries, which are fictionalized diaries of prominent women throughout history. Elizabeth was, I think, the second one I read and I loved her. Lifelong obsession began to be as awesome as her.

This series is seriously the bomb, though. Another great one was the story of a girl of a tribe who is fighting against the Chinese Empire; it was Lady Chi’a Kuo. There were ones on Cleopatra, Isabella of SPain, Kristina of Sweden and another on an African Queen. I still have them and plan to pass them on to my kids. More info here:

wow, now I need to read that book. Do you think if I got a good Dutch dictionary…?:) There are children’s publishers who make a point of sourcing children’s books in other languages and publishing them in English.

My favourites: Eleanor of Aquitaine kicked serious ass in France and England (and brilliantly played by Kathryn Hepburn in The Lion in Winter); Queen Maedhbh of Connacht; and Gráinne Mhaol, the pirate queen.

My Dutch is terrible but now I want to read about Trijn van Leemput. She seems to kick ass, and also having lived in Utrecht I’m sure I’d love the history too. I could be mistaken but I’m pretty sure I’ve seen that Trijn statue on the Oudegracht, but never knew who she was.

It’s sort of across from het Nijntje-pleintje (the square with the statue of Miffy), so if you’ve been at that side of the Oudegracht (and if you lived in Utrecht, you probably have)then you’ve seen it.
I think ordering a copy of De Val van de Vredeborch and working your way through it would be a great way of brushing up on your Dutch!

well, mine is exotic too… as an Israeli girl I had to read in the fourth grade the story called “Sarah, hero of NILI”. it tells the story of Sarah Ahronson who (I’ll give you the short version) was a spy for the British against the Ottoman before and in WWI in Palestine(her family created an intelligence network which she became an important part of). She was a young women, strong and independent, had an a fair with a man without wedlock. In the end the Ottomans capture her and she killed herself so she want reveal secrets. Heroic indeed.
I was so impressed by her. later in life I learned that she was probably a horrible manipulative woman, and might have been involved in a “mystery death” of some woman. so she’s my hero no more.
But she made me as a child wanted to be strong and independent, and that what I grew up to be.

And really, isn’t that positive influence all that matters in the end?
If Trijn van Leemput turned out to have been a typical hausfrau who never did anything historically notable, that wouldn’t have changed how much I loved the story or the influence it had on me.

Mmm…Princess Cimorene from The Enchanted Forest Chronicles, definitely. She’s the first heroine I can remember thinking that I wanted to be like her not for her cool clothes or her prettiness or whatever, but for her BAMF-itude. There are many more, but Princess Cimorene was the first.

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