Suffrage in the Netherlands: endogenous change?

By Victoria Isabella Cornelia Smit

Similar to the rest of the world, the Netherlands has not always had universal suffrage. Even though there were organizations that promoted universal suffrage, it was not until 1919 that women were allowed to vote (Bos, 2000), and only in 1922 that they were automatically given their ballot. But even prior to the law changes and to the organizations, there was a change that made voting explicitly for men only. In this blogpost I want to draw attention to the institutional change in 1887: when the law (Kieswet) was explicitly excluding women (, 2016).

For the story of layering we need illustrate one story: that of Aletta Jacobs. She was a feminist who had attended university, as one of the first females in the Netherlands (, 2013). After her studies she worked as a doctor.

It was 1883, and the law stated that every person who was sound of mind and financially independent and earned more than a certain threshold in taxes could vote (, 2016). As a doctor, Jacobs fit all these criteria, unlike other women in the Netherlands. She had - in theory - become a beneficiary of the law, rather than being excluded from voting like most women. So she wrote a letter to the mayor of Amsterdam requesting her ballot. Unfortunately, it became a legal battle that ended up at the Supreme Court of the Netherlands (, 2016).

The battle was essentially about the ambiguity of the law that prior to this change did not prohibit women from voting. It would be interesting to examine the role of Jacobs as a subversive: she tried to use the system to change it, but the Supreme Court and lawmakers disagreed enough to become strong veto points and layer the institution to fit their preferences.