“Women are not there yet, but they need to persevere”

Published on: 14 November 2022

Today is Equal Pay Day. Although the position of women has improved tremendously over the past century, there is still a financial gap between men and women. A conversation with historian Els Kloek about women in the Netherlands catching up, a maid shooting at men, and the pros and cons of part-time jobs.    


She has a doctorate in science, but has been referring to herself for years as an “entrepreneur in history” and a “historical researcher”. Els Kloek sees herself as a hands-on kind of person who would rather just get to work than get caught up in theoretical debates. Who would rather study the history of ordinary people than that of royal houses and wars. And especially the history of women, because they were often overlooked by historians.

Kloek was at the forefront of the Digitaal Vrouwenlexicon van Nederland (Digital Women’s Lexicon of the Netherlands), and wrote the widely acclaimed book ‘Vrouw des huizes – een cultuurgeschiedenis van de Hollandse huisvrouw’ (Lady of the house – a cultural history of the Dutch housewife). She especially made a name for herself with the monumental, two-volume reference work ‘1001 vrouwen uit de Nederlandse geschiedenis’ (1001 Women from Dutch History), which includes 2 x 1001 biographies of well-known Dutch women from the past thousand years. 

Digital exposition “Women and Income”

The position of women in the Netherlands has clearly improved over the past century. This is reflected in the exhibition “Women and Income”, set up on the occasion of 100 years of ABP; a beautiful, digital journey through time with extraordinary stories about extraordinary women. One of the compilers is historian Els Kloek. You can visit the exhibition about 100 years of women online: Welkom bij 100 | De Expositie - ABP 100 jaar (pensioenvannederland.nl).

In what ways has the position of women in the Netherlands improved over the past hundred years?

“Women having jobs has become normalized. Remember, women used to be expected to quit working as soon as they got married. Moreover, women have only been legally “competent” since 1957; before that time, they were not considered capable of managing their own finances. The invention of the pill meant that women could more or less plan when they had children, and plan their careers accordingly. And since 1980, as a result of the Equal Treatment Act, men and women have been legally equal. This social revolution occurred very gradually over the last century.”  


But the wage and pension gaps are still there…

“Yes, and of course that in itself is downright bizarre. Because why do women often get paid less than men for the same work? I think we have to be a little patient, because laws and measures do not immediately change how people live and think. Nevertheless, I am hopeful when I look at what has been accomplished in the last hundred years. It just takes time. Take education for example. That is always a huge emancipation factor. Girls can get the same education as boys in the Netherlands. Girls can choose so many subjects! A century ago, that was unthinkable. And women no longer have to devote their entire adult lives to raising children. Thanks to all kinds of resources, they can kick out their husbands if they want to. Until recently, there were dire consequences for women who did, or tried to do that.”


Women are often told they earn less because they are more likely to choose part-time jobs. How do you see that?

“That wage gap is indeed partly because women are more likely to work part-time. But that doesn’t explain why, in practice, they often get paid less than men for equal work. I always like to turn it around: why don’t men take more part-time jobs? Part-time jobs really aren’t that bad. If you have children, you also want to be able to raise them and take proper care of them. I find it problematic that many young families now have such overcrowded schedules. They often have money worries, have discussions about household chores, are bothered by the fact that childcare and school times don’t fit with their own work hours. And then they also have to tend to their careers.... In short, they have to jump through many hoops at once.”

How did you deal with that in your own career?

“After graduating from university, I started working full-time. But I didn’t really enjoy that. I then opted for a different job that was part-time. I was fortunate to be able to afford that financially, which has really been a privilege. This freed up time for me to do things that I really enjoyed, that my heart desired. Which, incidentally, was often work-related. In that respect I still have a bit of the traits of a hippie from the sixties, haha.”


So women’s fate is largely in their own hands?

“Absolutely. It is still often pointed out to women that they are dimwits who just want to sit at home all day with the children. And that it is therefore their own fault that they are not pursuing a career or earning very little. The women are blamed once again. But I think men should also push up their sleeves. Take on more household tasks, for example. A lot has already changed for the better in that respect; when I was growing up, for example, it was unthinkable for a man to change diapers; the few who did, kept quiet about it. Afraid of being called a wimp. Those days are over, fortunately. And that’s a good thing! Of course, it has also helped enormously that housework takes much less time than it used to, thanks to washing machines and other appliances.”


What women do you see as icons of the Dutch women’s empowerment movement?

“Oh, there are many. One of my favorite ones is the maid Neeltje Lokerse. She was standing in the Binnenhof in The Hague, armed, in 1902. That was where the father of her newborn child worked; he was also her employer. He refused to acknowledge his child. When he came out, she shot at him, but she didn’t hit him. She just wanted to draw attention to the matter with her action. She was immediately arrested, but later acquitted. After that, she devoted her life to improving the position of servants, unwed mothers and prostitutes, by giving lectures, for example. Very brave, because those women were all disenfranchised at the time. Other icons are Corrie Tendeloo and Clara Meijers. Tendeloo was a politician who campaigned for legal equality between men and women. Thanks to a motion by her, the forced dismissal of civil servants upon marriage was abolished in 1955. She also saw to it that the legal incompetence of married women was abolished. And Clara Meijers saw to it that a separate Women’s Bank was established for women in 1928. At the time, it was virtually impossible for women to get a loan if they wanted to open a store, for example, or needed a mortgage for their own home.”


Why have you been focusing on the history of women in the Netherlands your whole life?

“I was born in 1952, a time when women were still expected to be submissive to their husbands. I was still a student when I witnessed the establishment of Dolle Mina, in 1969 in Leiden. That feminist action group fit in with the spirit of the times; it was fascinating to me. When I started studying history, my attention automatically gravitated towards the history of women in the Netherlands. I have always maintained that fascination. Looking back, I can see that a lot has improved for women. We’re not there yet, but we need to persevere and stay alert. Someday men and women will be completely equal; I am convinced of that. That outdated male bastion is gradually being demolished more and more.”

By 2122, there will no longer be a pension gap between women and men

Research firm Motivaction conducted research on the future image of the position of women. These are some of the results:

  • Typically male and female occupations: Over a quarter of Dutch people believe that in 2122 there will still be occupations that are typical for men (such as IT or defense) and for women (such as healthcare or education).
  • Women in top positions: More men than women think it is likely that there will be as many women as men in top positions in 2122. Nearly 7 in 10 women do find this desirable; men are less likely to find it desirable (60 percent).
  • Part-time and full-time work: 56 percent of the Dutch consider hope that by 2122 the division between part-time and full-time work will be fairly divided between men and women. Also, half of the Dutch population would like to see a full-time work week consisting of 32 hours. Over a third of the people in the Netherlands also think that it is likely to happen.
  • Wage gap: Half of the Dutch population believes the wage gap will be closed by 2122. 79 percent of women think this is very desirable; among men the percentage is 66 percent.
  • Pension: Three in five Dutch people hope that in 2122 everyone will receive a basic pension and you can also accrue a supplementary pension for unpaid work (such as volunteer work or informal care). In short, by 2122 there will no longer be a pension gap between women and men in the Netherlands.