Myriam Everard, 'Wilhelmina Elisabeth Lensing, (writing and living under the name of Drucker)'

Radical feminist (Amsterdam, 30 September 1847 - 5 December 1925), daughter of Constantia Christina Lensing, modiste, and Louis Drucker, banker. Pseudonyms: Gipsy, Gitano, E. Prezcier.

wilhelmina drucker 1897

When Wilhelmina Drucker, a wool seamstress from Amsterdam, first attended a socialist meeting in the city’s Volkspark in 1886, she was caught up in a conflict with her paternal family that she would eventually manage to win partly because of her acquaintance with socialism. Her father was a fabulously rich banker who had never married her mother or acknowledged Wilhelmina herself, even though she had carried his name since birth and had been sustained by the scarce financial contributions he had made to his daughter’s upbringing. As an illegitimate child she had no legal claims to her father’s estate, as was the fate of the children he begot with other women. However, this condition of equal rightlessness was to alter drastically once her father married one of these other women in his later years and subsequently recognized only her children as his own. The impact of this act would become apparent when he died in 1884 and Wilhelmina’s half-brothers and half-sisters, among whom the later well-known radical-liberal jurist Hendrik Lodewijk Drucker was the eldest, got to share an inheritance of millions from which she and her sister Louise were legally excluded.

In 1885, as an incentive to bring her eldest half-brother to a more equitable division, Drucker and her sister published the roman à clef George David that held him responsible for the death of his maternal half-brother, but it failed to produce the desired effect, even after a reprint in 1886. This was the time of Drucker’s first visit to the Volkspark meeting. Soon after, she would become a regular visitor of meetings of the Sociaal-Democratische Bond (Social Democratic League, SDB), the radical electoral association De Unie (The Union), the Nederlandsche Bond voor Algemeen Kies- en Stemrecht (Dutch League for Universal Suffrage) and the freethinkers’ association De Dageraad (Dawn), where socialists, radicals, democrats and freethinkers would meet in varying configurations. What was merely an approach at first grew into active involvement when Drucker became a regular contributor to Johan Nieuwenhuis’ radical weekly Groninger Weekblad (Groningen Weekly). In her later writings she recalled the deeply formative influence of socialism in those days. It had helped her realize that her own predicament was a result of legal and conventional sanctions based on social discrepancies between the rich and the poor, and between men and women. Her entire feminist politics, to which she would devote her life from 1888 on, were grounded in this very realization.

This was the year when Drucker settled her personal score both with Capital and double standards by – this time – successfully claiming a share of her half-brother’s inheritance. The socialist movement had provided a major contribution to the outcome by offering Drucker something she would never have enjoyed as a wool seamstress: a platform and an audience. Notably so in 1888, when she published a follow-up to George David in the Groninger Weekblad called Mammon, in which she obviously depicted her half-brother Hendrik Lodewijk Drucker as the man of opulence who had unlawfully amassed his fortunes. In the piece, she made it clear to him that she would leave no stone unturned to set right the injustice at the heart of his wealth. With Nieuwenhuis as a negotiator, the threat led to a settlement that would guarantee Drucker’s financial independence for the rest of her life.

Again in 1888, she and a number of women from both radical and socialist backgrounds went on to establish the women’ and girls’ weekly De Vrouw (Woman). The objectives of the magazine, published by Nieuwenhuis and with established contributions by feminists Titia van der Tuuk and Frederika van Uildriks and socialist Johan Willem Gerhard (‘feminist’ alias: Silvia), were clear-cut: it would make a stand for women’s interests in terms of their equal rights and steer free from party politics. Although the magazine didn’t survive its second month, Drucker would remain faithful to the political blueprint that had inspired it and elaborate it over the following years. One major step was the establishment of the Vrije Vrouwenvereeniging (Free Women’s Society, VVV) in October 1889, as initiated by Drucker herself, together with the sisters Grietje and Henriëtte Cohen, Theodora van Campen-Doesburg, Feitje Acronius-Duinker, and Maria Mater-Vonk. Not only the aim of the VVV (the judicial, economical and political equality of women) and the moment it was founded (i.e. shortly after the women’s association within the Amsterdam-based SDB, Door Vereeniging Verbetering [Progress by Association, DVV], was disbanded by the local board), but also its modus operandi (for women only and politically autonomous), together with its critical stance toward political parties and movements (which the VVV could afford largely because of Drucker’s own individual independence), have led most historians of socialism to assume that the establishment of the VVV was a hostile act committed by bourgeois women with an aversion of socialism. This is a highly misleading representation of the evidence.

Regarding the members, both the founders and the initial members came from the same social backgrounds as the SDB-following. Some were even married to SDB members or had been DVV members before. And although Drucker never seems to have joined a political party, she financially supported a host of socialist initiatives. In 1889, for example, she lent the SDB half of the sum required to purchase the Constantia building (named after her mother, Constantia Lensing) as the new home of the Amsterdam socialists. In 1891, she was one of the sponsors of the new paper De Socialist (The Socialist), and in 1895 became a shareholder of the politically independent, socialist Volksdagblad (People’s Daily) that was about to be launched. Moreover, the ties between the SDB and the VVV were far from hostile initially. Reports of VVV meetings appeared in the SDB paper Recht voor Allen (Rights for All) SDB leader Ferdinand Domela Nieuwenhuis was the guest speaker at the first public assembly of the VVV in 1890 and the VVV on occasion scheduled its meetings in Constantia itself. Reciprocally, Drucker was often invited as a guest speaker at SDB gatherings and various social democrat women’s rallies all over the country during the first years of the VVV. Until 1893, she used to address large suffrage meetings, and she did so side by side with the socialists. Not only did the VVV present itself at Labour Day festivities as a matter of course during those years, but Henriëtte Cohen also represented Drucker at the German Socialist Congress in Halle in 1890, while Drucker herself took part in the Socialist International Congress in Brussels in 1891 as a representative of the VVV. At the latter occasion, the mutual compatibility of feminism and socialism was explicitly affirmed, partly due to Drucker’s own contribution. For, together with the representatives Emma Ihrer and Ottilie Baader from Germany, Louise Kautsky from Austria, and Anna Kuliscioff from Italy, Drucker had submitted a resolution that called on socialist parties in all countries to include judicial and political equality of men and women in their manifestoes. The resolution was indeed accepted by the Congress. Wilhelmina Drucker meant business with socialism, as a sign of which she took the initiative to set up the Comité ter Verkrijging van Stedelijke Stoomwasscherijen (Committee for Municipal Steam Laundries), in order to promote one of the VVV’s pet topics, the collectivization of domestic labour, in collaboration with the revived  DVV, the SDB and a great number of trade unions. In addition, whenever Drucker chose to stand up for women’s rights to defend their interests – which she did on a regular basis – she apparently never lost sight of the socialist movement as her main point of reference during these years. There were two issues that became increasingly controversial, however. Whereas the socialists promoted labour protection for women, Drucker demanded equal terms of employment for men and women. And where the former focussed on extending the franchise to a larger proportion of men only, the latter insisted on women’s right to vote on the same terms as men’s. Socialist leaders promptly distanced themselves from these debates and at some point even made no secret of wanting to get rid of Drucker. In 1893, finally, Drucker must have concluded that the women’s cause was up to women and that she was on her own now. Together with Dora Schook-Haver, her sister in arms at the VVV, she set up a women’s weekly called Evolutie. It is not just the name that already suggests a departure from the revolutionary socialists around Domela Nieuwenhuis, but in her very first editorial Drucker radically expands her politically independent position: ‘We reject … belonging to any political party or being annexed by one; instead we value what is right in each and reject what is wrong’. The only platform she did not distance herself from was De Dageraad, where she would make her appearance as a speaker and a debater even after 1893. In addition, she was a member of its national board from 1910 to 1919.

Only when Drucker broke free from the socialist entourage with which she had become associated even to non-socialist feminists, did coalitions with women from other circles become an option – which she fully embraced, both within and outside the VVV. Already in 1893, the VVV called on every like-minded movement to form an alliance that would exclusively strive for women’s electoral rights, which would result in the Vereeniging voor Vrouwenkiesrecht (Association for Women’s Suffrage, VVK) one year later. Even without ever holding a national position in the VVK, and because Evolutie gave her the platform, Drucker as a member still made her radically feminist view on VVK politics felt on a national level. She put it to her political opponents outside the VVV and to members of political parties within its ranks, that the VVK was an independent political movement with its own political aim (equal votes for men and women) and should therefore only engage with political parties on its own terms. This became and would remain the official VVK policy. When, however, in 1916 the VVK overtly sided with the voting policies of the liberal coalition, and thus surrendered its women’s vote principles, Drucker left the VVK and together with some fellow travellers founded the Neutrale Vereeeniging voor Vrouwenkiesrecht (Neutral Association for Women’s Suffrage).

Next to women’s right to vote, the second topic of debate in Drucker’s programme was the economic independence of women, regardless of their marital or parental state. Women deserved to have free access to the labour market and participate in it under the same terms as men. Needless to say, Drucker, with the fervent support of Schook-Haver, primarily vented her opinions through Evolutie. Still, as she was convinced that independent women’s organizations formed the basis of true change in the labour market as well, the VVV instigated, in 1897, the foundation of the seamstresses union “Allen Eén” (All United), in which she would remain personally involved for some time to come. Together with Allen Eén and the women diamond cutters union, established in 1896, the VVV subsequently founded a Comité voor Vrouwen-Vakvereenigingen (Committee for Women’s Unions), which in 1899 gave birth to both a laundresses’ and a maids’ union. Despite the fact that both unions turned out to be short-lived as independent bodies, they definitely managed to mobilize women from the various trades. Even though the VVV had originally instigated it, Drucker wasn’t personally involved in setting up the National Exhibition of Women’s Labour in 1895. She did however attend every exhibition congress and on many occasions entered debates as an audience member.One particularly effective initiative in the field of women’s labour was the Nationaal Comité inzake Wettelijke Regeling van Vrouwenarbeid (National Committee for the Statutory Regulation of Women’s Labour), which she founded in 1903 together with socialist feminist Marie Rutgers-Hoitsema. As the representative body of eight women’s organizations, the committee monitored the Government and whenever a bill or policy threatened to curb women’s economic independence or violate the principle of equal terms of employment for men and women, it would step in. Thus it opposed every attempt to fire female civil servants upon marriage and was particularly successful in mobilizing opposition to a bill on the subject proposed by Calvinist prime minister Theodoor Heemskerk in 1910. In the debate on special protective legislation for women, Drucker and Rutgers-Hoitsema again managed to voice the concerns of women who would otherwise have turned penniless because of imminent labour prohibitions. Meanwhile, Drucker had maintained several international contacts since 1891, participated in numerous international congresses, and at the Stockholm congress of the International Woman Suffrage Alliance in 1911, together with Rutgers-Hoitsema, set up a coalition of feminists, called the International Correspondence, that would oppose special labour protection of women – a matter of certain ambiguity among feminists themselves.

The third battleground where gender equality needed to be settled, was the field of marriage and sexuality. Again Evolutie would be Drucker’s main platform to expose any wrongs, such as the confinement of women to marriage and motherhood, the degrading submission of married women to their spouses, the double standards on sexuality that permitted men what women weren’t allowed, and the outlawed status  of illegitimate children. According to Drucker, these abuses originated from the economic dependence of women, from false assumptions about female sexuality, and from fundamental injustices in marital and familial law. She therefore opposed matrimonial power, the prohibition of paternity suits, and the distinction between legitimate and illegitimate children, and instead promoted free marriage as a bond between equals, which required economic independence of women and legal availability of contraceptives first and foremost. When in 1897 the Vereeniging Onderlinge Vrouwenbescherming (Women’s Mutual Support Society, OV) was founded to protect single mothers’ interests, Drucker was among the first to join. During the factional struggle that initially divided OV, she consistently took sides with the radical view of OV as a militant organization that would unite women regardless of their marital or parental status in the struggle against unjust laws and outmoded conventions. When over the years the predominant view within OV had developed from feminist activism into compassionate philantropy – more specifically regarding its position on (unmarried) women gone astray and their children who suffered the consequences  – the radicals founded their own relief centre in Amsterdam in 1905 where women’s solidarity would rule. Drucker helped fund it. When from the same radical faction emerged the Comité voor Moederschapsbescherming en Sexueele Hervorming (Committee for the Protection of Motherhood and Sexual Reform) in 1912, she once again was among its first members.

The 1917 constitutional amendment and the 1919 amendment of electoral laws marked the realization of feminism’s top priority, i.e. women’s right to vote, and Drucker lived to see the day. As before, she faced the new situation without overtly taking political sides. She distanced herself from the fuss about separate women’s lists or women parties and, instead, she cautioned Evolution readers not to become obsessed by winning Parliament seats and to keep the struggle for equal rights going both in and outside of Parliament. As ever, she put her shoulder to the wheel herself. She joined the Comité tegen Gezinsloon (Committee against Family Wage) in 1920 and from 1923 she participated in various action committees against the discharge of married female civil servants. By the same time, Drucker joined a large group of critics, among whom the famous liberal politician Samuel van Houten, who in a broader sense exposed the new system of proportional representation and paid MPs as party dictatorship and place-hunting. In the same milieu worries arose about the increasingly interventionist objectives  of the Government since World War I and subsequent rises in public spending. The main voice for these concerns was the Nederlandsche Bond van Belastingbetalers (Dutch League of Taxpayers), of which Drucker had been a founder in 1919. Because some of the taxpayers would eventually drift off to the extreme right, some have suggested that Drucker by now nursed proto-fascist sympathies herself, but the opposite is true. Not only did she distance herself from the League as early as 1922, but in the following years she even devoted a number of Evolutie issues to extremely critical evaluations of (proto-)fascist initiatives. She insisted that however much parliamentary democracy needed restructuring and extra-parliamentary expansion, it should never deliver itself to a regime of strong men like Mussolini. So, by the end of her life, Drucker defended her own take on extra-parliamentary politics against right-wing anti-parliamentarism in the very same way she had done some twenty-five years before, when faced with the anti-parliamentarist SDB. Both her unyielding belief in equality and her polemic approach had marginalized Drucker throughout her long active life in politics, often under the then rather pejorative labels of ‘radical’ or ‘ultra’. Nevertheless, through Evolutie she had evolved as a both feared and admired institute that would set the standard for all kinds of feminists. And so, on December 10th 1925, every single division of the women’s movement made its appearance at her cremation ceremony at Westerveld Cemetery.


Originally published in Dutch in Biografisch Woordenboek van het Socialisme en de Arbeidersbeweging in Nederland 8 (2001) 151-158

Translation Pieter Kiewiet de Jonge

Photo from De Nederlander, February 20, 1897