Being a feminist in the Netherlands: surprisingly, it’s a challenge

The Netherlands has a reputation for being a progressive and tolerant country. After all, there is a wealth of coffee shops and legalised prostitution, right? However, it turns out the Dutch society has its fair share of problems too. One problem I wasn’t expecting: a pushback against feminism.

How can this be in a country full of strong and independent Dutch women? Well, maybe that is exactly the problem. Do the Dutch believe that they have achieved a completely equal society, where feminism is no longer necessary?

No need for feminism in the Netherlands?

At first glance, I can see why you might think so. But look a bit closer, and it will reveal worrying statistics.

Dutch working women are paid on average 13,7% less than working men, says the Institute on gender equality and women’s history. The Netherlands also only ranked 25th place on The Economist’s glass-ceiling index, which measures equal treatment in the workplace. For a so-called progressive country, attitudes towards women in the workplace seem to be stuck somewhere in the 50s.

There is a long way to go not just in terms of policy, but also in breaking down stereotypes that slow down societal change. Talking to other feminists in The Netherlands, I learned that my views are often seen as radical. To be honest, this was news to me.

Getting your Dutch feminist groove on

My first step to mend my broken feminist heart was to dive into the history of feminism in The Netherlands. I wanted to honour those Dutch feminists who came before me. In a book written by two Dutch professors, Rosemarie Buikema and Iris van Der Tuin, there are interesting examples of the evolution of feminism in the Netherlands. Here are just some of them:

  • Mata Hari: the famous spy during WWI, unapologetic sex symbol and feminist icon.
  • Hannie Schaft: the kick-ass ‘girl with the red hair’ that fought the Nazis during WWI.
  • Aletta Jacobs: the first female doctor in the Netherlands that fought for women’s rights.

READ MORE | 11 kick-ass Dutch women you should know of this #InternationalWomensDay

First wave of feminism

Yes, feminism existed before Beyonce. Dutch feminist writer, Cecile Goekoop-de Jong, wrote the political fiction book, Hilda van Suylenburg in 1897. It addressed the crucial first-wave questions of how to liberate women. This included campaigning for women to get the vote, as well as economic independence.

Second wave of feminism

The feminist revival of the 1970s brought important developments for women in the Netherlands. This included the creation of fierce feminist activist groups, like the MVM (Man-Vrouw-Maatschappij) and Dolle Mina. They raised important debates around female autonomy at the time. These included the fight for abortion to be legal, free contraception, challenging gender roles, and fighting the gender pay gap (an ongoing struggle).

If you’re interested in learning more about this period, Buikema and Van Der Tuin suggest reading the article “Discontent of Women” (Het Onbehagen bij de Vrouw), written by journalist and professor Joke Smit and published in 1967.

Third wave of feminism

Over the Hill is the 2007 documentary by Dutch filmmaker, Sunny Bergman and daughter of a second-wave feminist activist. After working as a model and soap opera actor, Sunny embarked on a journey to analyse the influence of the beauty industry on women’s relationships with their bodies. A very pertinent analysis in the golden age of make-up, dermatologists, and plastic surgeons.

How have you found attitudes towards feminism in the Netherlands? Is it what you expected Let us know in the comments!

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in August 2021, and was fully updated in March 2022 for your reading pleasure.


Feature Image:Depositphotos
Maria Rita Reis
Maria Rita Reis
Maria Rita is an ex-International Relations teacher on a lifelong affair with the news. She enjoys reading about light topics such as minorities, terrorism, and war. An immigrant, a polyglot and a very curious human, she's always rooting for the underdog. Keeping up with international politics and understanding the power of language are two of her biggest passions. Not surprisingly, a lot of her time is spent drinking obscene amounts of coffee and laughing at silly linguistics memes.

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  1. It has its shortcomes, specially for women with children. Exemple1: short parental leave for dads. Example 2: when the government does not pay in full for children to attend daycare for when both parents work 40 hours a week it leaves the women who gets pay less to stay home one extra day to take care of the children, not everyone can afford 8 euros an hour day care not subsidesed.

  2. The Netherlands is the most sexist “modern” Western country. Girls are from a young age on subtly instructed to become housewives dependent on men and blatant misogyny gets overlooked. If one speaks up against misogyny, they’re seen as the problem in the Netherlands. When it comes to women’s equality, the Netherlands is incredibly backwards. As a class, women are very poor compared to men as a class, because opporturnities are given to mediocre men before talented women. Modern Durch culture encourages insulting and diminishing women. It needs to.change.

  3. As an immigrant, I don’t know what to say when my concerns are dismissed not only by men not taking me seriously, but the relatively few women in leadership positions, struggling (often against each other) for a limited place in a man’s world, and saying that NL has equality. But in meetings, men routinely talk over women and utter putdowns, and the women just fall silent and take it, when this happens. When men spread out on the train and dig their elbows into our ribs so they can text in comfort, we make ourselves as small as possible. Yesterday a man called me a “stupid bitch” (in English) when I, in my imperfect Dutch, asked him to keep to his 50% of the dual seat on the bus. The Finance Minister, Sigrid Kaag has called for female financial literacy, and she is often mocked. At the corporate leadership level, we’re 8% and males 92%, and we are only one in three in middle management. Yes, Virginia, there is a problem in NL. And the hardest thing of all is finding and getting with other women so we can discuss these issues in a safe environement.

  4. Not to mention that the vast majority of women’s movements in NL are the so called liberal feminism.. be and do what you wish as long is your choice kind of feminism. This type of feminism is not interested in fighting the roots of the problem, it gives a superficial feeling of individual empowerment that doesn’t lead us women anywhere as a class in society.

    • I think you are just considering a small fraction of feminists and labelling them of being incapable to carry out feminist activities, when in reality it’s the contrary it’s the men who have been falsely accusing of feminists not being honest with their drafted objectives.

  5. maybe if you did something constructive with your life, people would actually respect you, instead of being forced to “respect” you via laws or quotas.. Aletta Jacobs broke through by earning respect with her achievements, not blogging about how “unfair” everything is.
    also, it makes no sense that feminism doesnt even promote femininity. earning respect for acting masculine wont make you respected as a woman, it will make you respected as a man. even though at the end of the day you want a family and children anyway – so whats the point of fighting femininity?? feminism hasnt made any woman happy. yall make no sense.

  6. Thank you, Michael, that was lovely of you to respond. Would like to hear some of your original thoughts!

    I take note of the unconscious expectation of unpaid domestic work, childbearing, childrearing and other distaff obligations… and how that has bled into office life. I do try to keep my boundaries, but in the Dutch workplace, my performance is graded not by OKR’s but on the “verwachtingen (expectations)” of men. And how responsive I am to them, to drop what I am doing and give them my full attention.

  7. This is so aggravating. The way women are expected to give up their careers when they have kids; and that going back to work part-time is supposed to be a gift rather than what it really is in keeping women from excelling. Keeping women dependent as their salaries suffer. And then there is parenting, the school, and the social organizations. If a man does something mediocre they are applauded while every single thing that goes wrong is pointed at the mother. If you look simply at the law around maternity and paternity leave, it tells you all you need to know. I hope the NL can grow in to what their PR team spreads, but most of the men (who have the control) here that I’ve seen don’t want it to change at all. They get to stay children all their lives while their second round of motherly care (their partner) come in and clean up their room. Can we get rid of ‘kitchen princess’ the same way we got rid of ‘zwarte piet’?


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