Women confined to the kitchen? Not in Scheveningen around 1900. There, some women ran entire shipping companies. This is according to new research by history student Sjors Stuurman. He compiled the results in a book he wrote for Muzee Scheveningen.
Scheveningen women used to have a reputation for being strong and determined. While their husbands were fishing at sea, the women made sure everything in the village ran smoothly. The general impression is that the emphasis here was on housekeeping and taking care of the children, says Sjors. ‘But these women were not just mothers. I discovered that they had a much broader range of occupations than was previously thought,’ he says.
Not just men’s business
It used to be assumed that women mainly worked in fishing as net-makers or fish sellers. Although that was true for a large majority, as many as two-thirds of all working women were employed in other sectors. A popular profession among Scheveningen women was that of servant. These women did all kinds of household chores for wealthy families in The Hague, such as for ambassadors or members of the House of Representatives. It was also relatively common for them to work in education. ‘These were typical women’s professions at the time,’ Sjors explains.
But there were also women who held relatively unusual positions in society. Sjors discovered that a number of women whose hudbands passed away, then took over the shipping business themselves. One of these was Klaartje Vrolijk. By keeping a firm hold on the reins, she managed to amass a large fortune during her lifetime. Converted to current standards, she had as much as 1.7 million euros in the safe. ‘So the shipping companies were not just men’s business, because strong women like Klaartje could also become successful,’ says Sjors. ‘She managed all that really well.’
Independence? More than normal
This was surprising for a time when women did not have the freedom to make independent financial choices. In fact, until 1957, married women in the Netherlands were legally incapacitated. They could not open their own bank account or buy a house their husband’s permission. Yet Scheveningen women did not consider their freedom as anything out of the ordinary. Rediscovered interviews with elderly fisherwomen taken in the 1980s made it clear that they considered such independence perfectly normal. ‘From an early age, you were used to your father being at sea, so you didn’t know any different than that as a woman you kept things going while your husband was at sea,’ Sjors explains.
So when women became financially independent under the law in 1958, not much changed in practice for Scheveningen women. ‘They themselves said they had always handled the finances anyway, even before it was officially allowed. One woman said her husband earned the money and she spent it. That’s how it was done generation after generation.’
Out of necessity
It sounds progressive: women working and being financially responsible for a business and household, but actually it was mostly out of necessity. ‘Their husband’s salary was often not nearly enough to feed the family, so they also had to earn money on the side. Moreover, it was often tough for these women to keep up with all the obligations in their lives while their husbands were at sea,’ Sjors says. ‘So the essential point I want to make with my book is that Scheveningen women were go-getters who kept the village going, and their stories are important to tell.’