Painting over the Aletta Jacobs mural isn’t vandalism, it’s a protest

Just before Christmas, the Aletta Jacobs mural was vandalised once again because of the quote ‘studying is for ugly girls’. Sociologists Minke Hajer and Laura Keesman don’t understand why this quote hasn’t been changed yet. ‘Why are we “honouring” a female icon with a quote from a reactionary man?’

It was during the welcoming ceremony for new staff members that we first heard that the UG is a university that only ugly girls study at.

The speaker welcoming us proudly spoke about the year of Aletta Jacobs, and how there was now a mural honouring her. Sure, the mural said that ‘studying is for ugly girls’, but we should read that in the context of the time, when women weren’t allowed to attend university just yet.

We looked at each other, frowning, thinking the speaker had misspoken. But when we left the Academy building to look at the mural, there it was: ‘Studying is for ugly girls’.

Perhaps it would be a good idea if someone painted over that sometime, we felt. And then, someone did. In August 2022, the word ‘ugly’ was crossed out by protesters belonging to the group Slappe tijden, slimme meiden. In late December, this happened again, and the quote was changed to ‘studying is for everyone’.

In response to this, rector magnificus Cisca Wijmenga tweeted that while it was a good thing ‘that art makes people question things and that their interpretations can vary; it’s not a good thing when this leads to vandalism’. But can these actions even be considered vandalism? Perhaps we should take them as criticism, or a protest.

Rina Knoeff had shown earlier that this quote is incorrect from a historical perspective

Earlier, Aletta Jacobs professor Rina Knoeff showed that this quote, which isn’t by Jacobs herself, was incorrect from a historical perspective. Theodoor, the man responsible for the quote, was making a statement protesting the admission of women to university.

Knoeff: ‘Is it really necessary to repeat these insults? Is this how we want to remember Aletta Jacobs?’ We’d also like to ask whether it’s necessary to ‘honour’ a female icon with a quote from a reactionary man.

If the message is intended to celebrate Jacobs’ importance or the UG as a progressive institute, it’s not coming across. In fact, the quote ‘studying is for ugly girls’ takes away from the impact Jacobs has had. First of all, there’s no proper source. Any unsuspecting passer-by, student, or new employee is liable to think that the quote can be attributed to Jacobs herself.

Second, the message extends beyond the context of the mural and whoever sees it. When it’s repeated, for instance during a welcoming speech, it loses even more of its context.

What does this quote say about how the UG feels about its history with Jacobs?

What is the artwork’s aim? What is the university trying to convey with this quote? After all, the university commissioned the piece and continues to support the message in spite on repeated criticisms. A university art committee should be aware of the social impact that art can have.

What does this quote say about how the UG feels about its history with Jacobs? What does it say about the university that out of all the things they could have this mural across from the Academy proclaim, it essentially says that studying at the UG is only for ugly girls? This message is neither something Jacobs believed it, nor does it represent the university that welcomed her all those years ago.

While there’s always the risk of art being misinterpreted, there’s no mistaking what this particular quote says. However, it is wholly unclear who the quote is attributed to, whether Jacobs actually agreed with it (as we know now, she didn’t), and whether the university actively propagates this view.

The above-mentioned protests weren’t just intended to get people to question things. On the contrary, they were a criticism. Not only is that the criticism appropriate, it’s also bigger than the mural, Jacobs, or the university alone. It’s about realising that words matter. Words have meaning; they impact how we think about certain things.

 It’s about realising that words matter

Fortunately, words can also help us change our outlook. If you want to change your view on the world, if you want more equality, you have to think about what your words mean.

That’s exactly what the protesters were doing. By crossing out ‘ugly’ and turning ‘girls’ into ‘everyone’, they’re propagating a bigger message about equal rights and the image of women. Studying isn’t just for ugly girls, it’s for all women, and for all men, and anyone else who doesn’t identify as cisgender. In other words, studying is for everyone. It would be a small adjustment, but it was have a great impact.

The next question, and it’s a big one, is whether this university can learn from its actions. Here, they are presented with the opportunity to change a misleading quote. So we’d like to call on the institute to celebrate and admire Aletta Jacobs and everything she represents using her own words, not those of the men who opposed her.

Minke Hajer is a post-doctoral researcher and Laura Keesman is assistant professor. They both work at the sociology department at the Faculty of Behavioural and Social Sciences.

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