‘Studying is for ugly girls’ on Aletta Jacobs mural doesn’t befit the uni

The statement ‘Studying is for ugly girls’ on the Aletta Jacobs mural next to the UB is wrong, because it’s inaccurate. Why did we put an actual quote by Aletta on her t-shirt, asks Aletta Jacobs professor of health & humanities Rina Knoeff.

People have been talking about the Aletta Jacobs mural in UKrant for a few weeks now. They’re mainly wondering whether the statement ‘Studying is for ugly girls’ was the right choice.

The mural’s creators say the statement is meant to engender debate, while critics says that the mural could be demoralising for insecure students. But no one is asking about the origins of the quote.  

The text ‘no woman who aspires to be emancipated can claim to be a beauty, while all who are against it can’, certainly isn’t by Aletta Jacobs. On top of that, it’s a misquote.

In her book Herinneringen van Dr. Aletta H. Jacobs, Jacobs only sporadically addresses beauty in relation to emancipation. When she was accused of wanting to attend university ‘in order to more easily meet men’, Jacobs said she dressed modestly and simply because she didn’t want to draw attention to herself.

Jacobs was more upset by the insinuations by a ‘colleague from Leiden, who called himself Theodoor’. It’s this Theodoor who originated the quote that’s used in the mural.

The text isn’t by Aletta Jacobs and it’s a misquote

Theodoor was mad about the fact that Aletta Jacobs had asked for an extension on her admissions exam. On May 15, 1871, a month after Jacobs had enrolled at the Groningen university, he wrote a piece for the Studenten Weekblad, saying it was easy for her, the first female student, to get preferential treatment, but that she shouldn’t baulk at having to do some real work.

Theodoor felt this applied specifically to Jacobs, ‘the pioneer, an example to all, who is expected to better than everyone else’.

Theodoor mockingly wondered how many more times Jacobs would use her exceptional position to her advantage. Besides, he added: ‘Something that’s always surprised me about emancipation is that I’ve seen that nearly all women who wanted it weren’t pretty, while all those who are against it are.’

Artist’s duo VAAF, which created the mural, claims that Theodoor meant that ‘the only reason that Jacobs wanted to attend university was because she was ugly’. But VAAF has it wrong. Theodoor didn’t feel beautiful women belonged at the university, either. He didn’t think there should be any exceptions.

It’s not that he meant that women can’t be smart and beautiful at the same time, as UKrant claims. Theodoor’s statement was meant to mock, to insult all women who dared to aspire to an academic career. Is it really necessary to repeat these insults? Is this how we want to remember Aletta Jacobs?

Shouldn’t we have a statement worthy of the role model Jacobs is for so many women and girls?

Fortunately, many people defended Aletta Jacobs in 1871, including Nobel Prize winner Heike Kamerlingh Onnes, who’d done his PhD in Groningen. He explained that Jacobs had asked for an extension on the admissions exam because unlike her male counterparts, she hadn’t been able to prepare for it. A few weeks after Theodoor’s piece, Kamerlingh Onnes published his own in the Studenten Weekblad:

‘Ms. Jacobs has decided to give us her trust and we thank her for that. She’s shown that she’s not worried that any of us will be like Theodoor. That trust hasn’t been broken, and Groningen students can be proud of this.’ (From Heike Kamerlingh Onnes. Een biografie, By Dirk van Delft, 2005)

If we do want to remember Aletta Jacobs through the male gaze, wouldn’t it have been better to repeat Kamerling Onnes’ statement ‘Ms. Jacobs has decided to give us her trust and we thank her for that’?

This statement leads to numerous questions, too, because why would Jacobs need to ‘trust’ people? Why did Kamerlingh Onnes feel he needed to defend her? Has today’s university done enough to earn its diverse student population’s trust? Or even better, why not use an actual quote by Aletta Jacobs herself, a statement befitting the role model she is to so many women and girls?

All these alternatives would be a better match for a university that champions solid historical research. Any student who treated historical sources as carelessly as VAAF would surely fail. ‘Studying is for ugly girls’ also gets a failing grade; it does not befit our university.

Rina Knoef is Aletta Jacobs professor of Health & Humanities and coordinator at the Aletta Jacobs School of Public Health


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