© Cor Snabel
“The man is head of the family, but the woman is the neck, that allows
the head to move” is something my mother used to say, but I did find
this expression in old publications too.
Although the Church demanded absolute obedience to their husband it is
obvious the Dutch women had a strong will of their own. Why Dutch women
distinguished themselves from for instance German and French women is
hard to say. Maybe education, the jurisdiction and upbringing did make a
The Dutch legal system in the 17th century allowed a woman to institute
legal proceedings against somebody, even against her husband. If she was
unmarried and had not reached the age of adulthood (25) she needed a
guardian. An unmarried pregnant woman could persecute the alleged father
in a paternity procedure. She could force him to marry her and if he was
already married she could demand a dowry, payment of childbirth costs,
an allowance for the child and she had a good chance of winning.
Knowing she had the law on her side made a woman stand stronger in life.
The upbringing could be another positive contribution to her independent
attitude. For the Dutch it is hard to determine on what points the
behavior of Dutch women differ so much from her European sisters, but
reading the travel reports of French and English visitors make it much
John Ray, the English naturalist and indefatigable traveler, was
disconcerted, when he saw it was customary for married women of the
upper-crust to kiss a male acquaintance who came to visit them and kiss
him again as he was leaving.
Kissing in public, frank conversations, walks without chaperone were
considered shocking and improper, especially by the French, but were
quite common for the Dutch.
A diplomat visiting Mayor Gerrit Hooft’s home around 1735 met the
Mayor’s seventeen-year-old daughter Hester “being the most beautiful
girl I have ever seen, except for her teeth”. After dinner she asked her
father if the guest could accompany her to the theater and her father
agreed. He was appalled, that they were allowed without any chaperone.
“Returning home, before getting off the coach, she thanked me for a
lovely evening and she kissed me, without any double meaning, cheerful
and laughing, leaving me in utter astonishment”.