Persephone Pioneers

Persephone Pioneers: Aletta Jacobs and Els Borst

This week, the University of Groningen announced that their biannual Aletta Jacobs award would go to former Health Minister Els Borst. This award has been awarded by the university since 1990, to Dutch women with an academic background who lead the way in emancipation and are role models to other women. But who was Aletta Jacobs, and why Els Borst?

Anyone who has completed their high school history courses in The Netherlands is familiar with Aletta Jacobs. She was the first woman to be granted access to medical school in The Netherlands.

Jacobs started her studies at the University of Groningen in 1871 and was not the first female university student, but she was the first to complete her studies and receive a degree. (The first female student in The Netherlands was Anna Maria van Schurman, who attended lectures at Utrecht University in 1636, but had to sit behind a curtain so as not to distract the male students.) Jacobs passed her final exams in 1878 and became a general practitioner (running her own practice) in Amsterdam in 1879. She introduced the diaphragm as a contraceptive in The Netherlands and spoke frequently (to the displeasure of many men) about the double standard involved with prostitution and the need for affordable and easily accessible healthcare for prostitutes.  Jacobs was also responsible for the push for women’s suffrage in The Netherlands. In the late 1880s, when Jacobs became a doctor, suffrage was limited to people of a certain income, which had always been men of a certain income. However, Jacobs’ income as a doctor, despite the fact that she often gave free consults, exceeded the required amount and thus qualified her to vote and be elected. When she attempted to exercise this latter right, all women were disenfranchised by law. Women were allowed to become elected officials in 1917 and were given the right to vote in 1919. From the early 1880s until her death in 1929, Jacobs was in close contact with other first wave feminists and even joined Carrie Chapman Catt on a year-long journey across three continents in 1911/12. By the time of her death, she was internationally recognized as one of the leading authorities on birth and population control.

Though Els Borst herself has said that she believes her actions and struggles are nowhere close to that of Aletta Jacobs, she seems quite a natural choice for the Aletta Jacobs award. She was the Minister of Health, Well-being, and Sports from 1994-2002 and in this capacity made many major legislative decisions, some problematic, so progressive, some controversial (and many a combination of these things).

Borst was instrumental in the reformation of the Dutch health insurance system, a reformation which I am personally convinced left many people ““ especially those on low incomes and those without children –  worse off financially. She was also behind the increased privatization of home care, the results of which are only now beginning to be truly felt. However, her greatest accomplishments work very hard to outshine her more problematic efforts. One of these accomplishments is a law passed in 1996, that gives the minister of health the right to set prices for medicine. The passing of this law resulted in a drastic lowering of the direct cost of medicine for Dutch citizens. But perhaps most importantly, she was not afraid to get down and dirty in the morass of medical ethics. Borst was behind the legislation surrounding the medical use of fetal tissue (and later, embryos) and, together with Minister Korthals, gave terminally ill citizens of The Netherlands the legal right to die with dignity.  Two days after the euthanasia law was passed, she gave an interview in which she quoted Jesus’ last words, “It is finished” (“Het is volbracht” in Dutch), stirring up even more controversy and resulting in several members of parliament submitting a “motion of distrust,” a formal method of disapproval which regularly ends in ministers stepping down. Els Borst managed to keep her position by apologizing for her words to parliament. And though I do understand her decision to apologize, because for many Dutch Christians this quote was just pouring salt into an open wound, part of me wishes she hadn’t done it, because the words are just so apt. By finishing and passing this legislation, there could finally be a legal end to suffering for an untold number of people.

The 1990s and early 2000s were a pivotal period for human rights and ethical legislation in The Netherlands. The position of drug decriminalization was fortified, gay marriage (which is not technically the correct term, since there is no separate “gay marriage” in The Netherlands; “marriage” instead being available to all consenting adult pairs of all sexes and genders) legalized, euthanasia legalized (obviously with certain limitations). And though there naturally were many problems, both in the health care sector and in society at large, it is her role in this progressive push for which Els Borst is now being recognized.

Sources for biographical information about Aletta Jacobs and Els Borst: Wikipedia Jacobs, Wikipedia Borst,, D66.

By Nanna Freeman

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

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