The Phenomenon of the Married Woman Writer in the Dutch Republic

In this blog post, Nina Geerdink makes a startling discovery. Even though it has often been noted that many Dutch women stopped writing once married, she finds that there was a sizable group of women who did continue or even start writing after getting married. Here, she shows that their motivations for writing were complex but often related to their husbands.

The Marriage Net: Allegory on Marriageby Hendrik Noorderwiel (1647). Rijksmuseum, SK-C-1550

In the afterword to her inspiring monograph about English and Dutch women writers in the early modern period, the editor of this blog, Martine van Elk, asks some intriguing questions about Dutch women writers. Among these, the question most difficult to answer is probably, ‘Why did Dutch women often stop publishing their writing once married when English women did not?” (260). Earlier in her book, Van Elk has argued the reason must have been “ideologically motivated and culturally specific” (13-14), but further research would be necessary to get to the bottom of the Dutch ideology referred to. It is this blog’s aim to take a first, tentative, step towards it, by looking at some of the exceptions: the women that did continue publishing their writing after their marriage or in some cases started writing at that moment.

Courtyard with women by a linen closet, by Pieter de Hooch (1663). Rijksmuseum, SK-C-1191

Indeed, there are exceptions to the rule. From a quick count in Met en zonder lauwerkrans (With and without laurels, a comprehensive anthology of early modern Dutch women writers), it appears that 19 out of the 62 women writers active in the Dutch Republic between ca. 1600-1750 mentioned in the book published literary works while married. Maybe there were more, but for many women we don’t have enough biographical information to decide whether they were married or, when we know they were, whether they published only before or also during their marriage. The published works of the 19 women that did so for sure were often supportive of their husband’s jobs or public roles, which could very well be an explanation for the fact that they did not live up to what was expected from them as housewives in the Dutch Republic, that is putting down their pens and focusing on their household and children.


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Titlepage of Van Westrem’s Ziels-opwekking (1725). GoogleBooks.

A group of women for whom the supportive function is very evident is clergymen’s wives. Women like Fransina Jakoba van Westrem (active around 1725), Alegunda Ilberi (active around 1730), and Magdalena Pollius (active around 1745), all published pious works, in some cases combined with occasional poetry distributed within their husband’s network of clergymen. They are presented on the title page of their books as “the housewife of,” and their husband’s job is mentioned emphatically. In some cases, the husband-clergyman is also present in the work itself, with a laudatory poem or an introduction. In all cases, the edifying function of the book is, more or less explicitly, presented as a justification of the fact that a married woman had taken up her pen. As Van Westrem formulated it: in ‘atheistic days’ like hers, it was important that everybody who had the ability, made him- or herself strong for the praises of God.[1] The publications of clergymen’s wives could support their husbands’ work within the community, by edifying the members of his congregation, or even, theoretically, enlarge this congregation by addressing and edifying people who were not a member of the church yet.

For other married women the supportive function of their works is less evident at first sight, but in almost all of the cases, some tentative further research does lead to at least a hypothesis about such a function. There are women like Anna Maria Paauw (?-1710) and Cornelia Pluvier (ca. 1626-1711), who wrote occasional poetry within their husbands’ networks of possible clients or patrons. Both women were married to a painter who depended for his income on the rich and wealthy elite of the towns they lived in. Indeed, Paauw wrote occasional poetry within this elite network in her hometown Gouda. Frequently, she even wrote poems on the same occasion that her husband had written poems on. Less work by Pluvier, who was married to Willem Kalf, has survived, so we don’t exactly know to whom she addressed her poetry, but we do know she was known within the network of poets that addressed poetry to the elite of Amsterdam.

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Poem with Emblem by Coomans, published in Zeeusche nachtegael (1623). A1v-A2r.

One of the earliest and in any case the most famous example of a Dutch married woman who published her writings is Johanna Coomans (?-1659). because of her own and contemporaries’ reflections on this fact.[2] Only a few of her writings survived, which makes it, just like in the case of Pluvier, difficult to investigate the possibility of a relationship with her husband’s job. Would it be too far-fetched to assume that her writings, aiming at a network in the province of Zeeland and singing the praises of this province, did advance her husband, who worked there as a high official?

Portrait of Maria-Louise van Oranje-Nassau, by Louis Volders (1710)

Sometimes, poetry turns out to be a rather direct attempt to advance a husband’s position. This is true of Aurelia Zwartte (1682-?), who was married to a Leeuwarden burgomaster. At some point, he was turned down as burgomaster, and apparently the family encountered even more social troubles. Zwartte refers to the misfortune in several poems, which she presents as consolation for her husband. By dedicating her printed collection of poetry to Maria-Louise van Oranje-Nassau, the stadholder-governor (‘stadhouder-regentes’) in Friesland, she seems to have tried to put her family’s misfortune in the spotlight for the ruling elite, maybe hoping for a favour that could improve their situation.

Birthday poem for Charles I by Elisabeth Hoofman. Photo by Nina Geerdink. Universiteitsbibliotheek, Leiden, shelf mark PORTEF qu 10:60.

Such hope for advancement most certainly played a role in the writing and publishing of poetry of Elisabeth Hoofman (1664-1734). Hoofman, born in a wealthy, intellectual family, initially wrote primarily social poetry for acquaintances. She only started to write for possible patrons after she and her husband encountered financial problems (probably because they lived beyond their means). When Hoofman’s husband was offered a job in Germany in the retinue of the landgrave of Hesse-Kassel, Charles I, in 1721, this seemed a good opportunity to solve their money problems. Hoofman immediately started to write poems for her husband’s new employer and his family. It seems that in this way she tried to secure his position, and later, after the landgrave’s death in 1730, the family’s pension. Her efforts seem to have been unsuccessful in the last phase of her life: after her husband died in 1732 the landgrave’s sons refused to pay Hoofman a widow’s pension.

Poem on the death of Charles I, by Hoofman. Photo by Nina Geerdink. Universiteitsbibliotheek, Leiden, shelf mark PORTEF qu 10:61.

Before her marriage and her family’s decline, Hoofman was, as were many women writers, reluctant to print-publish her poems. Apart from some Latin poems that appeared in print without her involvement and against her wishes, Hoofman print-published only two poems in this period, both addressed to close relatives. Between 1726 and 1736, however, Hoofman print-published nine poems, seven of which were addressed to landgrave Charles I and his sons and successors William VIII and Frederick I of Sweden. Her son-in-law, the official court printer of Hesse-Kassel, published a collection of her religious poems in 1734. It can be no coincidence that Elisabeth put her reservation for publishing aside in a period in which her financial situation was bad, while the poems she wrote and published were almost all addressed to people who did improve this situation or were able to do so. The two published poems that were not addressed to members of the landgrave’s family were written for Hoofman’s cousins, of whom we know they supported her financially on a structural basis.

This short overview of exceptional Dutch women who published their writings during marriage suggests their authorship is supportive of their husband’s job and public function, by networking in circles of colleagues, possible clients or patrons, by publicly supporting their husband’s cause, by offering consolation when needed, or by advancing their husband’s public image. Many of the women discussed in this blogpost not only continued publishing after marriage, but their publications increased or they started publishing after marriage. Marriage was possibly an incentive to publish. How does this observation relate to the question posed as the starting point of this blog? What does it say about the Dutch phenomenon that women were supposed to stop publishing after they married? I think it shows we should connect the phenomenon to the ideology of the ‘ideal housewife’, which in any case reinforces Van Elk’s idea that there is an ideological reason for it. The ideal housewife, in the Dutch context, had first and foremost the task to support her husband. This supportive function was traditionally carried out within the household, where it meant taking care of the daily business and the kids. However, it seems that this support, if possible and necessary, could also be offered in the public domain. Women that did not support their husbands publicly although they had been active as poets before marriage, might really have been too busy within their household, as they often contend, but it is also possible that the husbands of these women were not in a job or function where they could benefit from their wives’ writing, or their wealth and social standing was such that they did not really need advancement. If their authorship could not support their husbands in their public role, Dutch women indeed were expected to stop publishing, and they most often did.

Nina Geerdink is an assistant professor of early modern Dutch literature at Utrecht University. She is currently working on a NWO-funded project about poets and profits in the Dutch Republic. She has published a monograph about the authorship of the Amsterdam poet Jan Vos and his relationships of patronage (Hilversum, 2012), an edited volume about early modern war literature (Hilversum, 2013), and several articles about literary authorship, politics and literature, women’s writing, and more specifically the Amsterdam woman writer Katharina Lescailje.

Further Reading

Nina Geerdink, ‘Possibilities of Patronage: the Dutch poet Elisabeth Hoofman and her German Patrons’, in Carme Font Paz & Nina Geerdink (eds.), Economic Imperatives for Women’s Writings in Early Modern Europe, Leiden: Brill, 2018 [forthcoming].

Els Kloek, Vrouw des huizes. Een cultuurgeschiedenis van de Nederlandse huisvrouw. Amsterdam: Balans, 2009.

Riet Schenkeveld-van der Dussen et al., Met en zonder lauwerkrans. Schrijvende vrouwen uit de vroegmoderne tijd 1550-1850: van Anna Bijns tot Elise van Calcar. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 1997.

Martine van Elk, Early Modern Women’s Writing: Domesticity, Privacy, and the Public Sphere in England and the Dutch Republic. Cham: Springer/Palgrave MacMillan, 2017.

Lia van Gemert et al. (eds.), Women’s Writing from the Low Countries 1200-1875: A Bilingual Anthology. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2010.

[1] See Martine van Elk, Early Modern Women’s Writing. Domesticity, Privacy, and the Public Sphere in England and the Dutch Republic. London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2017, 44.

[2] Quoted by Nelleke Moser, ‘Fransina Jakoba van Westrem (?-?; actief ca. 1725). ‘Geen breinwijk mannenwerk, maar vrouwen-huisgezangen’’, in M.A. Schenkeveld-van der Dussen et al. (eds.), Met en zonder lauwerkrans. Schrijvende vrouwen uit de vroegmoderne tijd 1550-1850: van Anna Bijns tot Elise van Calcar. Amsterdam, Amsterdam University Press, 1997, 488-490, 488.


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