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The Aletta Institute in Amsterdam and Its International Collections

By Annette Mevis

Aletta Institute for Women's History


   Women and Social Movements, International—1840 to Present has drawn on a number of the leading women's history archives around the world. One of these is the Dutch archive, Aletta — Institute for Women's History. This essay provides an overview of the Aletta, describing its goal and mission, followed by a short history. To assist users of the WASM International database, it will be useful to note the Aletta's major international collections, mentioning the specific materials digitized for the WASM International web site.

1   What is the Aletta — Institute for Women's History?

   Since October 2011 the Dutch Aletta — Institute for Women's History has been located in the beautiful city centre of Amsterdam, very near the Municipal Archives and University Library. The Aletta Institute is an archive and library, an information centre and producer of knowledge and information, all about the position of women. Aletta is the home of the renowned collection, the International Archives for the Women's Movement. By collecting and making available the heritage of women's movements in the Netherlands, Aletta aims to inspire, to expand knowledge on the position of women and to promote research in this field. By sharing knowledge and information about women's history and women's position in society as widely as possible, Aletta contributes to securing women's rights and empowering all women.

   Today Aletta has a collection of almost 100,000 books, 6,000 titles of women's and feminist journals from all over the world, 1,300 linear meters of archival documents, 30,000 photographs, posters and objects, and a growing number of video oral history collections. The Aletta aims to use oral history to record personal memories that are either not well represented in, or even completely missing from, traditional records.

   On the ground floor of the Aletta Institute you will find the reading room with some 500 red shelves filled with books, published since the year 2000, and the latest issues of around 175 different journals and periodicals. The first floor is a climate-controlled repository for about 3,500 linear meters of material.

   The second floor provides offices for the Aletta staff of approximately 30 persons. Additionally, a number of scholars, including four professors, are affiliated with Aletta. Aletta also works with a variety of partners on different projects, such as the FRAGEN project in which women's libraries and academic researchers throughout Europe have been selecting core feminist texts—such as books, articles and pamphlets—that were influential in the development of feminist ideas in the 1970s and 80s.

2   A Short History of Aletta — Institute for Women's History

   The Institute was officially founded in 1935 as the International Archives for the Women's Movement by Johanna W.A. Naber (1859-1941), Rosa Manus (1881-1943?) and Willemijn Posthumus-van der Goot (1897-1989). Each of these women represented a different generation in the Dutch women's movement and had her own reasons for wanting to establish a women's archive. Johanna Naber was a self-taught historian and knew from experience how important it was to preserve archival material. In 1930 Rosa Manus received the books and papers of Aletta Jacobs —the first female medical student and doctor in the Netherlands—who had died in 1929. That made Manus think about "organizing a real feministic library which I hope, will prove useful to the feminists."[1] And many more women who had been active in the women's movement around 1900 were elderly or had died. Posthumus-van der Goot was the first woman to receive a doctorate in economics in the Netherlands. She was one of the young, mostly academically trained, feminists who needed well-documented information, for example, to defend women's right to paid work, which had been disputed and undermined by the Dutch government, in particular since the early 1920s. The IAV's goal was to promote knowledge and scientific study of the women's movement in the broadest sense, a goal to be realized by establishing a library and archive in which the cultural heritage of women would be gathered and preserved, and by publishing books about the past and present of the international women's movement.

   In May 1940, Nazi Germany occupied the Netherlands. Although the Nazis generally kept a relatively low profile in the first year of the occupation, in June 1940 they had already paid two visits to the IAV. On July 12, 1940, the Sicherheitspolizei removed the entire contents of the IAV and subsequently transported it to Berlin.

   The re-opening of the IAV took place in October 1947, with Willemijn Posthumus-van der Goot succeeding Rosa Manus as president, after Rosa Manus had died in the Ravensbrück concentration camp in 1942 or 1943. Many efforts were made to trace and retrieve the stolen IAV property. The first decades after the war generally were a relatively quiet period for the IAV. Since its founding, the IAV had shared space with the International Institute of Social History, occupying a few rooms of its own within the IISH. In 1981, however, the IAV moved to a bigger location, at Keizersgracht 10 in Amsterdam, which it shared with the Information and Documentation Centre for the women's movement (IDC), the feminist journal LOVER, and the Stichting Vrouwen in de Beeldende Kunst (SVBK, Foundation of Women in the Visual Arts). The IAV experienced enormous growth during this period, both in terms of the number of visitors, the size of its collections, and the number of people working at the institute. Following a period of successful "cohabitation" and increasing cooperation, the IAV, IDC and LOVER merged in 1988, forming the International Information Centre and Archives for the Women's Movement, abbreviated in Dutch as IIAV.[2] As a consequence of this growth, the space in the premises at the Keizersgracht became soon too small. In 1994 the IIAV moved to a renovated former Catholic church in the east of Amsterdam.

   One event is important to mention in this short history. After many efforts to retrieve IAV property in the years following 1945, all hopes of getting documents back had evaporated. In the 1960s the institute received money from the German government as compensation, Wiedergutmachung. However, an announcement in a Dutch newspaper in 1992 came as a stunning surprise: a Dutch historian and journalist had visited the Osobyi (Special) Archive in Moscow and had seen there as Fond 1475 the archive of the International Archives for the Women's Movement! Although a treaty about the return of the archives was signed immediately in 1992 and despite continuing visits from ambassadors and other high-ranking officials, a visit by Queen Beatrix to Russia was needed to set the bureaucratic wheels in motion. Finally, in May 2003, twenty-five big boxes of IAV material arrived back in Amsterdam.

   In August 2009 the institute renamed itself Aletta — Institute for Women's History. The IIAV changed its name with a view to becoming more known to a broader public, both in the Netherlands and internationally. "Aletta" is a reference to one of the most famous Dutch feminists of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, Aletta Jacobs (1854-1929). But Aletta is more than a reference to an inspiring woman and international activist; it is also a symbol for all women who dare to make change happen.

   In addition to the new name, Aletta also completely updated its website, already one of the most used sources of information on women worldwide. The most important change is that there is now a single search function that allows one to search in all the databases, giving immediate access to articles, images, book titles, archival documents, and much more. Aletta has also become part of WorldCat, the largest bibliographic database worldwide. In September 2011 it moved back to the city centre of Amsterdam.

3   Documents/collections on women's international activism

   Since its founding in 1935 the institute has collected archives from individual women and women's organizations, publications and visual material about women's issues, women's lives and women's struggles for equal rights and freedom to choose. Because Rosa Manus served as the institute's first president for almost five years and because Manus was part of a large international network, a great deal of international material came in. As a women's library and archive the IAV itself was part of the women's movement. It also organized gatherings and talks on specific subjects, contributing to sustaining the women's movement in the Netherlands and the ongoing production of women's history worldwide.[3]

   Aletta Jacobs's books and papers—consisting of many letters from women and men all over the world—formed the basis of the initial collection. As Mineke Bosch has written, "The many letters from women like Alexandra Grippenberg, Susan B. Anthony, Olive Schreiner, Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Emily Hobhouse reflect the versatility of Aletta Jacobs's feminism. The letters in the last decade of the nineteenth century often deal with material requested by Aletta Jacobs for her and her husband Gerritsen's library, which was sold to the Crerar Library in Chicago as the Gerritsen Collection in 1904. The letters written between 1900 and 1920 deal with suffragism and peace activities. The letters dating from the twenties testify to a renewed emphasis on birth-control. An article published in the USA in 1920 sparked off a large stream of letters asking for more information."[4] Fortunately, Jacobs's papers had been hidden in a bank safe before the German occupiers looted the premises of the institute at Keizersgracht 264 in July 1940, which is why they were still there in 1945.

   The second more substantial international collection that came in already before World War II was the collection of Rosa Manus herself, consisting of the documents she had created, received, and gathered during more than thirty years of activity in the international women's and peace movements. Rosa Manus's personal archive principally consists of her papers related to the International Woman Suffrage Alliance (from 1926, International Alliance of Women for Suffrage and Equal Citizenship); the International Committee for Peace and the League of Nations (Peace Committee); the Peace and Disarmament Committee of the Women's International Organizations; the Dutch National Council of Women; and the International Council of Women—organizations well represented in WASM International. But she also donated her books, brochures, pamphlets, cuttings and photographs to the IAV. Her collection of photographs of international conferences is particularly spectacular. Manus's papers and photographs were among the property stolen by the Nazis in 1940, only to be returned in 2003.

   The archive of the institute itself—created between 1935 and 1940—also can be considered a collection on women's international activism, as argued by Francisca de Haan in her article, "Getting to the Source. A `Truly International` Archive for the Women's Movement (IAV, now IIAV): From its Foundation in Amsterdam in 1935 to the Return of its Looted Archives in 2003."[5] Based on her detailed study of the IAV's history, including its pre-war archive, she concluded that to a considerable extent the IAV's international orientation came from Rosa Manus, the institute's co-founder and first president. Rosa Manus had been actively involved in the international women's movement since 1908, and was vice-president of the International Alliance of Women for Suffrage and Equal Citizenship beginning in 1926 (among other prominent positions she occupied in the international women's and peace movements). Thanks to Manus's extensive network, built up over thirty years, leading figures of the International Alliance of Women and the International Council of Women—including Margery Corbett Ashby, Cécile Brunschvicq, Carrie Chapman Catt, and Baroness M. Pol Boël—became IAV board members and/or sent materials to the institute.[6]

   Another valuable international collection consists of the papers of Mien van Wulfften Palthe-Broese van Groenou (1875-1960). In the last year of her life, Aletta Jacobs lived in the house of Mien and Richard van Wulfften Palthe-Broese van Groenou in The Hague. Mien and two of her sisters had also been active in the women's suffrage and peace movements. For example, Mien accompanied Aletta Jacobs in 1915 on her journey to European capitals to offer governments the resolutions of the 1915 International Congress of Women at The Hague. She donated her papers to the IAV, which contain letters from Aletta Jacobs, Franciska and Rosika Schwimmer, and Anna Howard Shaw. The collection also includes documents regarding the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) and the Joint Demonstration on the Nationality of Married Women in The Hague, on the occasion of the First Codification Conference of the League of Nations in 1930.

   Finally, in recent years some major international women's organisations have chosen Aletta as the home for their archives: the Business and Professional Women International (formerly IFBPW), the International Federation for Research in Women's History (IFRWH), and the International Federation of University Women (IFUW). These archives are valuable sources for the writing of women's history and contribute to our broader mission of preserving women's cultural heritage.

   The collection of periodicals and magazines is also a wonderful source for studying international activism for women's rights. In 1938 the IAV already had 98 non-Dutch titles. At the very height of the so-called second feminist wave there were some 600 subscriptions, 300 Dutch, 300 from all over the world.

4   Sources from Aletta in WASM International

   Kathryn Kish Sklar and Thomas Dublin selected more then a hundred documents from the Aletta collections, dating from 1902 until 2002, almost 8,000 pages in total. Most of them are the published congress and conference reports and/or resolutions of international organizations: the International Alliance of Women (IAW, and its predecessors IWSA and IAWSEC), the International Council of Women (ICW), the International Federation of Business and Professional Women (IFBPW, nowadays, BPW international), the International Federation of University Women (IFUW) and the Associated Country Women of the World (ACWW).

   Literally unique is the archival material in the database. First, there is a notebook that came into the possession of the Aletta Institute from a niece of Martina Kramers (1863-1934). It contains in Kramers's handwriting the minutes of the first International Woman Suffrage Conference, held February 12-17, 1902 in Washington, on the initiative of the National American Woman Suffrage Association. These minutes are followed by notes from Carrie Chapman Catt regarding her activities after this conference until November 1902.[7] The official founding congress of the IWSA, the International Woman Suffrage Alliance, was held in Berlin in1904. However, it is called the "Second Conference" and the counting of the international conferences—commonly every three years—goes on from there. The Aletta Institute has all the published reports. The reports from 1904 until that of the 32nd conference in 2002 are digitized in WASM International.

   Martina Kramers's notebook also contains some documents of the fourth conference of the IWSA in Amsterdam 1908, among other things, a text by Millicent Garrett Fawcett and Anita Augspurg and a report of the Badge Committee and proceedings of a meeting of "Officers and one Representative each from 11 nations to settle unfinished business."

   Sklar and Dublin also selected material from the archives of the International Federation of University Women (IFUW). The IFUW was founded in 1919 after World War I by women graduates who believed in the importance of working together for peace, international understanding, and friendship. This organization also held Triennial Conferences (sometimes two, sometimes four years in between), the first in 1920 in London, England. Seven reports (1926, 1929, 1932, 1968, 1978, 1981 and 1984) are found on the WASM International website. An example of an unpublished document is the report "Activities of the IFUW in connection with the ILO" from 1967.

   The Aletta Institute continues to collect material with an international focus. For further information or to offer material please contact the archivist.



[1] Carbon copy of a letter to Clara Hyde, May 20, 1930, Archive Rosa Manus in Aletta, Institute for Women's History, 91.

[2] Francisca de Haan and Annette Mevis, "The IAV/IIAV's Archival Policy and Practice: Seventy Years of Collecting, Receiving, and Refusing Women's Archives (1935-2005)," in Saskia E. Wieringa ed.,Traveling Heritages. New Perspectives on Collecting, Preserving and Sharing Women's History (Amsterdam: Aksant, 2008), pp. 31-34.

[3] Francisca de Haan, "Getting to the Source. A `Truly International` Archive for the Women's Movement (IAV, now IIAV): From Its Foundation in Amsterdam in 1935 to the Return of Its Looted Archives in 2003," Journal of Women's History, Vol. 16, No. 4, (Winter 2004), p. 154.

[4] Mineke Bosch, "Gossipy Letters in the Context of International Feminism," in Arina Angerman, et al. eds., Current Issues in Women's History (London: Routledge, 1989), p.149.

[5] Journal of Women's History, Vol. 16, No. 4, (Winter 2004), 148-72.

[6] Francisca de Haan and Annette Mevis, "The IAV/IIAV's Archival Policy and Practice. Seventy Years of Collecting, Receiving, and Refusing Women's Archives (1935-2005)," in Saskia E. Wieringa ed.,Traveling Heritages. New perspectives on collecting, preserving and sharing women's history (Amsterdam: Aksant, 2008), p. 28.

[7] In an article for the Dutch journal Historica, Mineke Bosch has described how she "discovered" this notebook and its value. "Het zwarte schriftje van Martina Kramers," Historica, Vol. 26, No. 1 (February 2003), 6-9.