The Independent Lives of Dutch Women

(excerpted from The Women of the House: How a Colonial She-Merchant Built a Mansion, a Fortune and a Dynasty, by Jean Zimmerman, Harcourt)

In the markets and on the quays, Dutch women were “frugal, busy, and always doing something, not only the housework,” as the Italian merchant Lodovico Guicciardini described them. Amsterdam’s female citizens bartered decisively, unapologetically, noisily, and often more forcefully than the merchants with whom they did business. The women of seventeenth-century Holland had an unorthodox approach to the opposite sex compared to their European counterparts. Wives, it was commonly known, ruled their households like queens, telling their husbands when and where to remove their shoes, even dictating which rooms men were permitted to enter. An English naturalist reported that it was customary in Holland for married women “even of the better sort” to kiss men – men who were no more than acquaintances – upon greeting them or taking their leave, a far-too-forward gesture as far as he was concerned. Dutch women were, he said, “more fond of and delighted with lasciviousness and obscene talk than either the English or the French.” Another English writer marveled at the liberties the women took for granted: They ice-skated through the night, relieved themselves in public, even went tavern-hopping with their friends. One activity, however, seemed to make the strongest impression: The women of Holland engaged openly in conversation with men as they walked with them in the streets of the town, unapologetically, sans chaperone.

The inclusion of girls distinguished the schools of the United Provinces and, it could be argued, propelled the country toward its Golden Age prosperity by equipping a corps of literate, savvy female colonists to build their futures in the New World. Girls were awarded the chance – as a right rather than a luxury – to learn the same fundamental skills as their brothers, the reading and writing and arithmetic they would need to make successful lives alongside the men of the Dutch Republic. No higher education was available for girls or women, nor would it be for hundreds of years. Yet the academic opportunity the united Provinces offered its female citizens was extraordinary for its time: Holland was the sole nation in seventeenth-century Europe to offer girls primary education as a matter of course.

The core curriculum in Holland’s primary schools remained essentially the same for the sexes. James Howell, an English visitor to Amsterdam, described the autonomy that resulted from the superior education Dutch girls received. Women were expert “in all sorts of languages,” he wrote in a 1622 letter. “In Holland, the wives are so well versed in Bargaining, Cyphering, & Writing, that in the Absence of their Husbands in long sea voyages they beat the Trade at home & their Words will pass in equal Credit.” In 1630, 57 percent of Amsterdam’s bridegrooms and 32 percent of brides were able to sign their marriage certificates; in 1680 the numbers had risen to 70 percent of men and 44 percent of women. While the percentage for Dutch women was lower than for Dutch men, scholars agree that literacy for women surpassed that of any other European nation.

The Dutch Reformed Church prescribed equality for women. It shared some scriptural elements with Puritans and other Protestant denominations, but differed significantly in its teachings regarding men and women, advocating mutual respect rather than wifely submission to a husband and suggesting that companionship, gemeenschap, constituted a primary reason for marriage. According to the church, a proper wedded relationship featured the husband as literal head of the household, but he must demonstrate his worthiness for that role by accepting management of the household as his wife’s responsibility and treating her with respect. Calvinist doctrine even emphasized the importance of physical affection as the foundation for a godly union, with fornication in abundance to provide the godly mortar (sex should satisfy the female fornicator, too, said the good church fathers).

In addition, Dutch law offered women a measure of invincibility. Holland’s legal system was fairer to women than any other in Europe.

An unmarried woman in Holland, a maiden or widow, could expect to be treated under the law precisely as a man would be. If married, she determined her own rights within that relationship, according to the provisions of the nation’s unique civil laws, by selecting one of two different types of marriage.

If a woman chose the manus marital option, she accepted the status of a minor under the guardianship of a husband, who would henceforth serve as her legal representative. She had no standing in court. She could not defend herself; her husband must appear on her behalf if she was charged as a defendant. She also could not institute any proceedings against another party or enter into any contract without her husband’s authority. (Any payment for such a contract must be made to her husband.) The practice for this marital option – time honored, but distinctly less popular in the seventeenth century than in previous eras – was for a woman to pool her possessions, including debts and future profits and losses, with her husband at marriage as part of a community of property managed by the husband. The family finances would be entirely under his control.

Three features commended life under manus. First, the legal system offered a leg up for a woman who entered a marriage with no material resources of her own. If her spouse perished, the shared community of property would be cleaved in two, and she could rely upon half going to her while the other half went to her husband’s heirs. Similarly, manus allowed a woman to assume the quite possibly loftier rank of her husband’s family, a marker that was worth something in a still-feudal world. Finally, under manus a  wife’s financial liability was limited in the event of a failed business deal on the part of her spouse – with the legal reasoning that if she didn’t have the authority to make the transaction, why should she take any responsibility for it? In practice, it was a respectable and frequent course of evens for a widow under manus to simply lay the house keys on the coffin  of a deceased husband who had squandered her share of the community of goods and literally walk away, free and clear from any claims on resources she never had any control over. A wife’s sole authority under manus was the power to operate as a domestic manager, a role the courts honored to the extent that it could not be denied her without judicial action.

Holland provided an alternative for women who dislike the manus option. Under the precepts of what was termed usus, a wife retained all the rights she had a single woman (the same rights as any Dutch man) and the relationship of husband and wife became a partnership of equals. A wife was free to appear in court as either a plaintiff or defendant, or to represent her husband before the judge. To secure the advantages of a marriage under usus, a woman made a prenuptial agreement with her husband that circumvented the community of property and the husband’s extraordinary powers over his wife.

The legal conventions surrounding inheritance, too, distinguished Holland as a uniquely egalitarian society. At the death of either spouse, in cases of intestacy, the survivor could expect to receive at least 50 percent of the estate, even under manus, regardless of how much property a spouse brought to the marriage, with the remainder going to the heirs of the deceased. (Wealthy widows were commonplace in Holland and the Dutch colonies.) By the same token, Dutch law prohibited parents from relying upon gender or birth order to deed their offspring property in wills. That meant daughters were not arbitrarily deprived of an inheritance. Dutch inheritance strictures had their mirror opposite in England, where firstborn sons received all of a family’s major property holdings, such as land and houses. Daughters, in contrast, customarily received only household goods (flatware and furniture). Female heirs often faced the future after a parent’s death without a home or the assets to obtain one. Widows customarily came away from high-flying marriages with only the dowry they had brought to the altar.

Regardless of whether she married, and in distinct contrast with English law, any Dutch woman could institute legal proceedings against any individual, female or male, even her husband.

Conservative and pragmatic, confident in their equality under the law, Dutch women applied their schooling and street smarts to shaping New Netherland. Commerce was in their blood. They also took a stubborn pride in the domestic traditions of the Old World, the female traditions, the ones that would last. Their strength was rooted in home, hearth, and the marketplace, and carried over to America as carefully as a packet of garden seeds.