Transforming the Public Sphere: The Dutch National Exhibition of Women's Labor in 1898

Transforming the Public Sphere: The Dutch National Exhibition of Women's Labor in 1898

by Maria Grever

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In 1898, the year Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands was inaugurated, five hundred women organized an enormous public exhibition showcasing women’s contributions to Dutch society as workers in a strikingly broad array of professions. The National Exhibition of Women’s Labor, held in The Hague, was attended by more than ninety thousand visitors. Maria


In 1898, the year Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands was inaugurated, five hundred women organized an enormous public exhibition showcasing women’s contributions to Dutch society as workers in a strikingly broad array of professions. The National Exhibition of Women’s Labor, held in The Hague, was attended by more than ninety thousand visitors. Maria Grever and Berteke Waaldijk consider the exhibition in the international contexts of women’s history, visual culture, and imperialism.

A comprehensive social history, Transforming the Public Sphere describes the planning and construction of the Exhibition of Women’s Labor and the event itself—the sights, the sounds, and the smells—as well as the role of exhibitions in late-nineteenth-century public culture. The authors discuss how the 1898 exhibition displayed the range and variety of women’s economic, intellectual, and artistic roles in Dutch culture, including their participation in such traditionally male professions as engineering, diamond-cutting, and printing and publishing. They examine how people and goods from the Dutch colonies were represented, most notably in an extensive open-air replica of a “Javanese village.” Grever and Waaldijk reveal the tensions the exhibition highlighted: between women of different economic classes; between the goal of equal rights for women and the display of imperial subjects and spoils; and between socialists and feminists, who competed fiercely with one another for working women’s support. Transforming the Public Sphere explores an event that served as the dress rehearsal for advances in women’s public participation during the twentieth century.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“A unique study based on a virtual treasury of archival materials, Transforming the Public Sphere touches on many of the most important issues of major concern today to historians of feminism and women’s history.”—Marilyn Boxer, coauthor of Connecting Spheres: European Women in a Globalizing World, 1500 to the Present

“Despite the veritable explosion of historical work on exhibitionary culture in the last decade, relatively little attention has been paid to the role of women in organizing the transnational spectacles that dominated the culturescapes of imperial modernity . . . . Transforming the Public Sphere . . . offers an important corrective to this oversight.”—Antoinette Burton, from the introduction

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Transforming the public sphere

The Dutch national exhibition of women's labor in 1898
By Maria Grever

Duke University Press

ISBN: 0-8223-3296-5

Chapter One

Feminists and the Public Sphere

In 1893, 21 million people visited the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. In the White City, they strolled through palatial pavilions that celebrated the Western world's economic, political, and social progress. They also milled through the Midway Plaisance amusement park to be entertained by a range of sideshows and performances. One of the visitors was a young Dutch woman named Cecile Goekoop-de Jong van Beek en Donk, who was touring Europe and the United States along with her husband. The couple visited the exposition in Chicago during the month of October. In letters to her sister Elisabeth in Amsterdam, Cecile Goekoop enthusiastically exclaimed how impressed she was by the white marble replicas of Greek architecture, reflecting the brilliant autumn sun. She could hardly have suspected that five years later, she was to head the organization of a Dutch national exhibition on women's issues. The National Exhibition of Women's Labor, held in The Hague in the summer of 1898, was modeled on the same principles as the World's Columbian Exposition, and as such it fell into the nineteenth-century tradition of national and international exhibitions. Although much smaller in scale, the exhibition in The Hague also, for instance, followed thecharacteristic division into national and colonial exhibits. Like the larger fairs, The Hague's exhibition also emphasized industrial progress, featured conferences, and offered sideshows and souvenirs to visiting tourists.

This book is about The National Exhibition of Women's Labor held in 1898. It tells the story of how the women's movement in a small, Western nation with a large colonial empire used an exhibition to put women's social position on the political agenda. By choosing the exhibition as their forum, Dutch women created a new public sphere. They created, to borrow Nancy Fraser's term, a counterpublic, in which the parameters of speaking about gender shifted dramatically.

The exhibition in The Hague constituted a milestone in the development of Dutch feminism. Under the umbrella term women's labor, new coalitions were formed and new political tools deployed. A small but crucial factor in this process was the link that Dutch women had established with kindred spirits organizing women's exhibitions abroad. In this study, we interpret these developments in three contexts. First, we examine the exhibition's role as a feminist intervention in the process of constructing the public sphere and citizenship. Second, we look at the event in The Hague as an important chapter in the history of gender and visual culture. And third, we consider how women shaped and adapted the format of the colonial exhibition. This will shed light on the imperial context in which Western women's movements, and the Dutch women's movement in particular, claimed citizenship in the nation-state.


The year 1898 proved a special one for the Netherlands, for it was then that Wilhelmina, heiress to the Dutch throne, would turn eighteen. Wilhelmina, the only surviving child of King Willem III-who had died in 1890-was to ascend to the throne on September 6. Various local and national festivities were organized to coincide with her inauguration. Amsterdam staged a great Rembrandt exhibition, which attracted thousands of visitors. There were pageants recalling the nation's glorious past, while an exhibition of traditional dress from various regions displayed the uniqueness of Dutch cultural heritage.

Not coincidentally, many of the events alluded to the seventeenth century-the period known as the Dutch Golden Age-while they appeared to ignore the recent past. The nineteenth century had seen economic and political stagnation in the Netherlands. In economic terms, the Netherlands lagged behind its more rapidly industrializing neighbors, Belgium, England, and Germany. Toward the end of the century, the agrarian-based Dutch economy suffered from a prolonged agricultural crisis. The Netherlands lacked a strong industrial proletariat-although Dutch farm workers in the North were influenced by anarchism, the socialist movement was still in its infancy; socialists were not elected to parliament until 1897. The Dutch bourgeoisie amassed wealth through trade, banking, and-from the 1880s onward-private exploitation of colonial resources.

The Netherlands had colonies in Asia (the Indonesian archipelago), South America (Surinam), and the Caribbean islands. In terms of territory, Dutch colonial rule had not expanded in the nineteenth century. While other European powers were vying to conquer new African colonies, the Dutch concentrated on subjugating parts of the Indonesian archipelago that, until then, had been indirectly ruled through indigenous viceroys. These expansionist ambitions led to a few colonial military victories: on the island of Lombok in 1894, and in Aceh province in 1896.

The inauguration of the first Dutch queen offered various groups in society an opportunity to call attention to their national and imperial agendas. To some, the crowning of young Wilhelmina heralded a revival of Dutch glory. It was a time of reemerging nationalism, with national identity defined in explicitly imperial terms. This nationalist revival went hand in hand with a fondness for the monarchy and offered many people something to cling to in the rapidly changing society of the day. The Dutch women's movement took inspiration from the crowning of a female monarch and seized the opportunity to express its hopes and desires for the future. After all, the movement reasoned, if a woman could fill the highest post in the Netherlands, then it was high time the nation realized that women could-and already did-play an important role in other areas of society. To convey this message, they chose a vehicle used only once before in the history of the international women's movement: a national exhibition. Following the example set by their Danish counterparts three years earlier, some five hundred Dutch women independently organized the National Exhibition of Women's Labor.

From July 9 to September 21, 1898, the exhibition in the dunes between The Hague and the North Sea coast attracted 90,000 visitors-most of them women, including Queen Wilhelmina and her mother Emma. In the exhibition's large, white wooden buildings with wide verandas and pavilions, objects and activities portrayed all facets of Dutch women's labor. The Hall of Industry showed live factory girls at work, while elsewhere women displayed their skills as typists, cigar makers, and pharmacists. In a mock Javanese kampong, women and men from the Dutch East Indies demonstrated batik dyeing and other skills. Exhibits devoted to social work, nursing, and education displayed the large contribution women had made to these fields. In the library, visitors could read books written by (and about) women, while in the art hall they could view paintings by Dutch women artists. Every week, conferences and lectures attracted new visitors to the grounds. With this exhibition, the Dutch women's movement had, in the words of one journalist, "erected its own temple."

The Dutch women's movement had already been making its voice heard for more than three decades before it mounted the exhibition. From 1860 onward, the Dutch public had learned of the economic, social, cultural, and political restraints placed on women. Opinion-makers had spread their views in brochures, articles, pamphlets, and at public gatherings. Debates dealt with such issues as women's working conditions, the lack of educational opportunity for girls, occupational hazards for housemaids, the need for legal recourse against the fathers of illegitimate children, the legal incompetence of married women, and their subservience to their husbands. Women established associations that campaigned for the right to paid labor or fought against legalized prostitution. New magazines urged subscribers to support women's causes. A few novels pointed to women's subordinate position in society. With these forums of public debate conquered, the stage was set for women to expand their territory with an exhibition.

Overtly political exhibitions remained virtually unknown to the Dutch in the late nineteenth century. National expositions usually displayed achievements in various sectors of industry, the arts, and craftsmanship, while the public gazed at the spectacle and bought the goods offered. Political movements traditionally sought publicity through serious writings and public statements. The worker's movement had recently added strikes and demonstrations to its repertoire. The women's movement, however, was no ordinary political movement. With its heterogeneous and diffuse constituency, it campaigned on a wide range of issues. Its activists came from disparate religious and ideological backgrounds. The Dutch women's movement-like its counterparts in many other countries-encompassed groups that held diametrically opposed views on such issues as the expansion of educational and professional opportunities for women and the need for labor protection and changes in marital law. From 1884, for example, a small but influential group of upper-class women campaigned against the trade in women and the legalization of prostitution in brothels. Outside influences, like England's Josephine Butler, helped to shape this nascent women's movement. In 1894, the Dutch Woman's Suffrage Association (Vereeniging voor Vrouwenkiesrecht; vvvk) lobbied for the recognition of women's civil rights, a political demand that the Dutch until then had only heard from a few radical socialists. Although the Netherlands had long remained involved in the slave trade (it did not abolish slavery in the West Indies until 1863), the country had no strong abolitionist movement. This deprived the Dutch women's movement of the kind of important training ground that had proved so crucial to the development of the American and British women's movements. In the 1890s, a few women began calling themselves feminists, while many more who did not use this tag nonetheless felt a part of the women's movement in a wider sense. For such a multifaceted movement, the exhibition proved an excellent medium.

In the period leading up to the National Exhibition of Women's Labor, discussed in chapter 2, it became clear that organizing the event would require the women's movement to bridge its internal divisions in age, religion, social class, and political views. One of the movement's elder pioneers from the 1870s, Mina Kruseman, happily wrote to the central committee that "the reports of her death were greatly exaggerated" and that she would gladly contribute to the exhibition. However, the various generations of women did not always cooperate so smoothly, and all too often conflicts ensued. As elsewhere, problems also arose when the women made attempts to transcend class divisions in the interest of their emancipation. Still, many countries did see the formation of new coalitions at the turn of the century. In England and the United States, women's trade union leagues bridged the gap between middle- and working-class women in their joint struggle for labor legislation and protection. In Germany and Scandinavia, women of divergent political tendencies found common ground in the demand for paid pregnancy and maternity leave.

The exhibition's central theme-women's labor-reflects this ambition to overcome class divisions. The phrase encapsulated both factory labor, performed by working-class women, and professions held by middle-class women. It also mirrored a complex combination of old and new discourses. In one sense, labor referred to the notion of productive labor (industriousness as a virtue) upheld by nineteenth-century Dutch liberals. In their view, a civilized nation was built on honest labor, rationality, and morality. Therefore, working meant making a worthwhile contribution to the nation, and productive labor by women was thought to legitimize women's claim to citizenship. In another sense, however, the concept of women's labor had acquired negative connotations. By the 1890s, it had lost its neutral tone and had become widely associated with low wages, poor working conditions, immorality, unemployed men, and neglected children. In this sense, the use of the term women's labor constituted a conscious political intervention by the organizers of the exhibition in The Hague. The exhibition, they decided, would portray civilized and decent forms of employment and would emphasize the role of productivity in social and industrial progress. This is why it displayed the work of well-to-do middle-class women who aspired to skilled vocations. At the same time, it allowed visitors to enter the world of working-class women through live demonstrations of factory, workshop, and farm work, though it paid only scant attention to the perspective of working-class women themselves. All in all, the exhibition shifted the connotations of women's labor in the public debate. As we will show in chapter 3, the organizers created new representations of gender and class difference in the public domain through a variety of (trade) exhibits. As a result, women's labor came to be seen less as a social problem and more as a modern challenge.


In our interpretation of the exhibition as a transformation of the public sphere, we use Jurgen Habermas's concept of the public sphere, as well as later studies that have critiqued this concept from a gender perspective. The distinction between the so-called public and private spheres has played an important role in the development of women's history. Like Nancy Fraser, we believe that Habermas's differentiation between three arenas of public discourse holds great importance. In his analysis of late-eighteenth-century Western European society, Habermas distinguished between the state, the market, and the public sphere (Offentlichkeit). It is in this third arena that people can participate through rational communication about matters of common interest, about politics. This "public sphere" of newspapers, clubs, and private associations is distinct from the state (whose monopoly on coercion limits free interaction between citizens) and from the market (where the distribution of wealth and property determines human relations). The public sphere, or civil society, constitutes the space where people with no stake in the outcome of the debate discuss issues of general interest, where the economic power and legal status of the interlocutors is "bracketed." Since the age of Enlightenment, this has been the arena in which new forms of citizenship are molded.

Habermas's interpretation of the public sphere proves both descriptive and prescriptive and has been the focus of much criticism from scholars in the field of gender studies. Some have pointed out that Habermas failed to recognize the masculine nature of the public sphere, never taking into account that the boundary between the public and private spheres coincided with the dividing line between the masculine and feminine domains. Some have argued that the exclusion of women from rational communication in the public sphere made civil society a masculine domain. Indeed, many arenas of public debate were accessible to men only. Yet defining the public sphere as masculine problematically means that women who did take part in public debate can only be seen as exceptions operating "beyond their sex." In our interpretation of the 1898 exhibition as a feminist intervention in the public sphere, we find Nancy Fraser's critique of Habermas more useful. According to Fraser, Habermas was wrong to assume that the nineteenth-century bourgeois public sphere constituted the only public domain. She argues that the public sphere was not a monolithic entity, but consisted of a variety of publics and counterpublics. She believes the various public domains took shape simultaneously with, and often in opposition to, the dominant bourgeois public sphere. Counterpublics differ from the classic public sphere; they have different criteria for participation and different style and content standards of communication. The National Exhibition of Women's Labor, we believe, is an example of a counterpublic in both senses. First, new actors participated in this counterpublic. For the first time in Dutch history, women independently organized an exhibition, and working-class women such as servants spoke in public. Second, the exhibition shifted both the form and content of the debate about gender and society.


Excerpted from Transforming the public sphere by Maria Grever Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

Maria Grever is Professor of History and Theory at Erasmus University Rotterdam and a participant in the research program of the Nijmegen Center for Women’s Studies, both in the Netherlands.

Berteke Waaldijk is Associate Professor of Women’s Studies at Utrecht University in the Netherlands.

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