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Women, Economics and History

Elizabeth van Dorp and the Women’s Question at the Intersection of Bourgeois Ideals and Liberal Economics

Elizabeth van Dorp et la question des femmes à l’intersection des idéaux bourgeois et du libéralisme économique
Erwin Dekker et Willem Cornax
p. 581-604


Dans cet article, nous mettons en relation le travail sur la question des femmes d’Elizabeth (Lizzy) van Dorp, la première économiste néerlandaise, avec ses positions plus générales sur l’économie et la société. Nous détaillons également les difficultés qu’elle rencontra pour obtenir une position respectable dans la profession économique au cours des premières décennies du vingtième siècle. Van Dorp fut une des premières femmes à obtenir un doctorat aux Pays-Bas, diplôme qu’elle reçut en droit en 1903. À partir de 1920, elle travailla en tant qu’économiste et entretint une correspondance avec les principaux économistes de son époque, comme Carl Menger, Ludwig von Mises, Edwin Cannan, John Maynard Keynes ou encore Frank Knight. Durant les premières décennies de sa carrière, elle fit campagne pour le droit de vote des femmes et publia des travaux sur la question du droit des femmes (mariées) à travailler. Van Dorp était libérale au sens classique, en accord avec l’approche autrichienne alors dominante à l’époque. Néanmoins, en dépit de ses convictions, elle s’opposa au droit des femmes mariées à travailler. Nous analysons cette tension en resituant ses premiers travaux dans le contexte du féminisme de son époque, et notamment ses désaccords avec la féministe plus radicale Aletta Jacobs. Nous montrons qu’en dépit de ses positions d’inspiration autrichienne sur les questions monétaires et commerciales, l’œuvre de Van Dorp fut marquée par ses idéaux chrétiens, plus précisément remontrants, et par le milieu de la haute bourgeoisie dans lequel elle a grandi. Nous soutenons que ses idéaux religieux et sa vision personnelle l’ont conduit à privilégier la liberté personnelle et le développement éthique dans la sphère privée par rapport aux droits politiques et économiques dans la sphère publique.

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1Elizabeth (Lizzy) van Dorp (1872-1945) was a pioneering academic woman; the second Dutch woman to obtain a PhD in law, the first to start her own practice as lawyer, the first to obtain an academic position in economics in the Netherlands, and in the 1920s the first woman to head a political party in parliament. She was also founder of the Dutch League for Women’s Suffrage, founded in 1907. At the time economics was still part of the field of law, but in Leiden she received little formal economics training. She did move among prominent Dutch economists of the age such as Nicolaas G. Pierson, C.A. Verrijn Stuart and Simon Vissering, several of whom were family friends and in 1919 she obtained an academic position as economist.

2Van Dorp came from a wealthy land and property-owning family. Her father, who passed away when Lizzy was just thirteen, had founded the publishing company G.C.Th. van Dorp & Co. in Semarang, in the Dutch-Indies. This company exists to this day and retained a listing on the Dutch stock exchange until the early 2000s. Her family was well connected in the highest circles of Dutch society. When Van Dorp was elected as the first chair of the League for Women’s Suffrage, Aletta Lorentz-Kaiser became vice-chair. Aletta was born in 1858, as the youngest daughter of Johan Willem Kaiser, then president of the Rijksmuseum. She married the physicist Hendrik Antoon Lorentz, Nobel Prize winner in physics in 1902. Also present at the founding meeting of the League was Margarethe Nieuwenhuis Baroness von Uexküll Guldenbrandt, born in Lithuania in 1873 into a German-Baltic Uradel family. She had obtained her doctorate in botany in 1900 and had previously studied with Einstein in Zürich. Like some of her contemporary women economists in Britain such as Mary Paley and Beatrice Webb she was part of the intellectual elite (Gouverneur, 2018).

3Van Dorp was a representative of the Austrian School of Economics in the Netherlands, as was common in the period leading up to WWI. She never abandoned the central tenets of this approach which to her were strongly tied up with a sound economic policy, based on the gold standard, free trade, and balanced budgets. But contrary to what we might expect, she was not in favor of the right of married women to work. We examine this tension in the context of Van Dorp’s feminism and her economic writings and argue that her opposition to paid work for married women resulted from the priority she assigned to personal and religious, sometimes called ethical, liberalism cultivated in the private sphere. She was willing to limit political and economic freedoms when these (potentially) threatened the private domain of the family.

  • 1 Both articles wrongly suggest that Van Dorp converted to Keynesianism after she visited Cambridge f (...)

4Van Dorp’s published work in economics has received some attention by historians (Plasmeijer, 1998; Fase, 2019)1, but these studies have neglected her extensive correspondence with leading economists of her age including Ludwig von Mises, John Maynard Keynes, and Frank Knight, as well as her writings on women’s economic rights. Our article also contributes to an understanding of the heterogeneity of perspectives during the first feminist wave around 1900 which is highlighted in the recent overview by Becchio (2019). Van Dorp encountered several professional challenges as a woman, which we describe in this paper. But our primary focus is on the tension between abstract (liberal) political-economic principles and the practical policy issues around the women’s question at the start of the twentieth century. Van Dorp’s balancing act between liberalism in the private and the public domain provides a distinct perspective on the challenges of early twentieth-century liberalism, which have previously been analyzed in light of the social question (Judson, 1996; Haggard, 2001). Becchio (2018) draws attention to the various female contributors to Austrian economics. Van Dorp was in contact with several of them including the partners of Carl and Karl Menger, Hermine Andermann and Hilda Axamit, and Louise Sommer.

5The first section of this article situates Van Dorp’s early career in the intellectual and academic landscape of the period. In the second section we analyze her work on the women’s question in the first decades of the twentieth century, which we compare and contrast with her broader political-economic writings of the period. We turn to her economic writings and how she connected these to the changing interwar society in the next section. In the fourth section we attempt to reconcile the tension between her views on women’s right to work and her economic liberalism through an examination of her religious convictions and position in society. We argue that Van Dorp gave primacy to improvements of the position of women in the private sphere and so-called ethical development over outward freedoms such as political and economic rights.

1. Van Dorp’s Early Career

6Aletta Jacobs was the first female student in the Netherlands to graduate from university in 1878. She was granted personal permission to study medicine by Joh. Rudolph Thorbecke, the Dutch liberal prime minister, and architect of the 1848 constitution. Afterward the universities of the Netherlands slowly and somewhat grudgingly opened their doors for female students, one city and one subject at a time. Around 1900 there were about 130 female students enrolled in university programs (Kirejczyk, 1993). The two first female students to benefit from this development in the field of law were Van Dorp and Adolphine Kok, who both studied in Leiden. Van Dorp started out in classical languages (Greek and Latin) and then switched to (Dutch) linguistics (Van Steen, 2008a). After completing her kandidaats (the diploma awarded after two years), she opted for law in 1897.

7During her student years Van Dorp was already involved in the women’s movement of the period. She was the first president of the newly founded Leiden Female Student Club (Vereeniging voor Vrouwelijke Studenten in Leiden) in 1900. Her mother was also active in the women’s movement of the time and served as president of the National Women’s Council (Nationale Vrouwenraad) of the Netherlands from 1903 to 1908. Both mother and daughter were active in the Society for Women’s Suffrage (Vereeniging voor Vrouwenkiesrecht). In 1903 Van Dorp graduated with a dissertation about the compensation for the loss of property due to actions by the public authorities (Van Dorp, 1903).

  • 2 In Dutch: “De beperking, voorzover de belangen van haar gezin dat eischen, van de vrijheid der gehu (...)

8The dissertation illustrated both her classical liberal perspective on politics and law as well as her unique position within the feminist movement. In the Dutch system a dissertation was always accompanied by theses which the student defended before the committee, these could be wider in scope than the dissertation. Van Dorp’s thesis number XIX was: “I approve of the restriction, insofar as the interests of her family require that, of the freedom to work in service of third parties. Such a restriction should be accompanied with the introduction of the law, which entitles her to a share of her husband’s income for her domestic labor, over which she should have property and control” (Van Dorp, 1903, 271).2 The proposal is remarkable for the condition she attached to the introduction of laws which would prevent married women from working. It illustrates well that one of her primary goals was to improve the position of women within the family.

  • 3 See the reports in the Algemeen Handelsblad of 10 and 17 October 1903, available at, (...)
  • 4 Through the organization Pro Juventute, she was involved in the defense of criminal youth as well a (...)

9Shortly after completing her dissertation, she set up her own law practice in The Hague (Van der Velden, 2002). She was the first woman to defend a client at the Supreme Court (Hoge Raad), which caused a small sensation, because the attorney general opened his plea by doubting whether the defendant was well served by legal representation by a woman. Van Dorp was praised in the newspapers for demonstrating the self-control to not respond to the insinuations and they praised her calm and straightforward defense.3 She specialized in the representation of women and children.4

10For many of the early female academics in the Netherlands feminism was a major part of their activities. For Jacobs it soon overshadowed her medical practice. The main rallying point during this first wave of feminism was the right to vote, for which both Jacobs and Van Dorp campaigned through the organization The Society for Women’s Suffrage. But it would become clear that Jacobs and Van Dorp did not see eye to eye on many aspects of the feminist movement of the time. In 1900 Jacobs had translated the book Women and Economics: A Study of the Economic Relation between Men and Women as a Factor in Social Evolution (Gilman, 1898; 1900) by Charlotte Perkins Stetson (later Gilman) (Bosch, 2002). The book developed a progressive Darwinist thesis about the social evolution that had taken place in the role of women in society and the economy. Historically women had been dependent on men for survival, but Stetson argued that this was no longer necessary in contemporary society. Her book advocated that (middle- and upper-class) women should find jobs outside the home. The tasks within the home could be done more efficiently by cooks and maids, so that other women could take up jobs outside the home. Stetson’s main economic thesis was that society could benefit from a more fine-grained division of labor with professionals taking care of household work.

  • 5 The title is a Dutch proverb with a meaning similar to “Putting the cat among the pigeons”.

11Van Dorp only marginally supported the idea that women should work. She was convinced that the family was a sacred institution. If possible, married women should not have a job outside of the home. In 1907 matters came to a head between her and the more progressive wing of the feminists in the Netherlands, including Jacobs and Anna Polak, with the publication of Een Knuppel in ‘t Hoenderhok (Van Dorp and Francken-Dyserinck, 1907).5 The brochure pleaded for a moderate form of feminism aimed at suffrage and equality for the law which distanced itself from the idea that married women should work as well as the sexual liberation campaign that was part of the feminist movement of the period.

12The underlying conflict, with the brochure as catalyst, led to a split within the feminist movement in the Netherlands (Mossink, 1985). Jacobs and Polak remained the most important voices in the Society for Women’s Suffrage which moved closer to the left-liberal party, the Free-thinking Democratic League, while Van Dorp and Francken-Dyserinck founded the League for Women’s Suffrage (Nederlandsche Bond voor Vrouwenkiesrecht). The latter also admitted men as members and sought to narrowly focus on the right to vote for women. In her first speech as president of the League Van Dorp reflected on the split, which she portrayed as the maturation of the women’s movement. Just like there were several liberal parties and many different religious movements, so the women’s movement would benefit from a multitude of voices. Although women were under more scrutiny and quickly criticized when they disagreed with each other, Van Dorp argued that the competition between different feminist groups would, over time, have positive effects (Van Dorp, 1911b).

13She also attempted to trace the two tendencies within the women’s movement to two different intellectual lineages: a rationalist feminism with roots in the French Revolution and the idea of human rights and a more idealistic and humanistic feminism rooted in the increased self-awareness that grew among (middle-class) women during the nineteenth-century. In her speech she referred to the recent work by Gertrud Bäumer, most likely Die Frau und das geistige Leben (1911), as an example of the feminism she wished to pursue. It was rooted in a recognition of the biological differences between men and women and the different social roles which resulted from these differences. Van Dorp argued for a re-appreciation of the home and the care-activities that many women performed in their social circles and jobs. As Allen wrote about this strand of moderate German feminism: “Female suffrage, they asserted, must follow on the development of female citizenship … they urged women to create a distinctive role for themselves as ‘mothers of the community’” (Allen, 1991, 207). Interestingly Van Dorp argued that intellectual work, of the type that she was engaged in, was overvalued compared to domestic labor which could turn the home into a “refuge of quiet and peace” (Van Dorp, 1911b, 6-7).

14Van Dorp, like Stetson and Jacobs, explicitly appealed to the division of labor, but reached rather different conclusions. Stetson and Jacobs had suggested that the increasing division of labor should include domestic work, so that more and more women could work outside the home. Van Dorp argued that the division of labor had organically grown and could only change gradually, through the changes of custom, instead of the rationalistic proclamation of the need for equal wages or equal ability of men and women. That many women still worked inside the house proved to her that there were limits to the division of labor. Van Dorp admitted that men and women were equally able to work in certain sectors, such as education, but believed that this was an exception rather than the norm. This very norm could explain, to her, why in education women were unjustly paid less, despite equal capabilities (Van Dorp, 1912). But in other sectors of the economy equal pay could only be the outcome of a long process of development.

15Her economic views meant that Van Dorp had to sharply distinguish the economic sphere from the political sphere, to justify her support for female suffrage. She did so by arguing that the logic of the political sphere rested on the principle of the representation of interests and perspectives, rather than the division of labor, and precisely because of their different abilities and perspectives women should enjoy full political rights. Van Dorp’s works in the years leading up to WWI, reflected the fact that the women’s movement was indeed becoming more heterogenous. Van Dorp carved out her own distinct feminist position, which relied on Bäumer in socio-economic matters. But while Bäumer increasingly tended in a nationalistic direction, Van Dorp remained committed to internationalism and pacifism, like the more socialist-leaning feminists such as Jacobs.

  • 6 Atria, Archief Elisabeth Carolina van Dorp 1858-1948, no. 403-405.

16Van Dorp and the League sought to continue the bourgeois institution of the family, while seeking to improve the position of women within it. The cautiously progressive feminism of Van Dorp was at odds with the extraordinary career she was carving out for herself, as well as with her social life. Van Dorp fell in love with the married Gerard Vissering, a Dutch banker, the son of Simon Vissering, a renowned liberal economist and politician who had published widely. It led to a dramatic affair which continued several years during which Van Dorp hoped that Vissering would leave his wife and children to marry her. Her private correspondence demonstrates that many friends attempted to resolve the growing tensions between the two lovers.6 Initially they sought to come to some type of mutual agreement between Van Dorp and Vissering. But later they primarily attempted to bring Van Dorp, who had threatened Vissering with a gun after he had announced he would leave for Indonesia, to her senses.

17Van Dorp had written the pamphlet which led to the split in the Dutch women’s movement with Francken-Dyserinck. The latter came from a family which would in 1911 be admitted to the Dutch patriciate. She had married the philosopher Cornelis Francken in 1897, who was thirteen years her senior, and travelled with him to various European university towns such as Jena, Zürich, Paris, and Berlin. Just like Van Dorp, Francken-Dyserinck did not live a life in line with the social mores of the time. During her marriage she published widely on feminist issues, contrary to the wishes of her husband. Francken had also forced her to lay down her position as chair of the Dutch Society for Women’s Suffrage, right after she had been elected in 1902 (Van Steen, 2008b, 187). After she divorced from her husband in 1916, she launched her own professional career and like Van Dorp attempted to obtain a seat in parliament for the classical liberal party in the 1920s. The marriage did, however, not end on bad terms; the former couple remained good friends.

2. The Women’s Question

18In the Netherlands the society of economists, the “Vereeniging voor Staathuishoudkunde”, has a long tradition of publishing a yearly report on a question at the intersection of public policy and economics. In 1910 Van Dorp and Polak, the ally of Jacobs, alongside one male economist, were asked to provide their perspective on the question of the “social position and the work of married women and the appropriate stance of public policy in this respect” (Polak, De Vooys, and Van Dorp, 1910), a question that was also internationally widely debated (Chassonnery-Zaïgouche, 2018). Polak argued that the social and economic significance of paid work by (married) women could be easily observed by simply looking at the work they already did. The recognition that women were already working and chose to do so in increasing numbers should be the starting point, she suggested. The choice whether to work or not, should not be a matter of public policy but a matter of individual choice. Polak described potential restrictions on the right of married women to work in the so-called “free professions” (self-employment), as a form of tyranny. She argued against a frequently used analogy, which compared restrictions on married women’s right to work, to restrictions on child labor.

19Van Dorp framed the problem the other way around. The physically demanding and poor working conditions of women in the factories were her starting point, not the abilities and desire to work as doctor or lawyer of some women, as she herself had done. The few talented women, who also in the past had devoted themselves to science or the arts, were the exceptions she argued. She referenced the work of Stetson, in which paid labor was the first and essential step in the liberation of women, to demonstrate what she opposed. The question underlying the debate, was whether the cultural (geistliche) development of women should (first) take place within the family, or whether it required (the possibility of) paid work. Van Dorp was convinced that women could best develop their individuality and potential within the family, which in some cases might lead to paid work. Stetson, Polak and the more socialist oriented feminists, on the other hand, were convinced that paid work and material independence were the crucial first step in the emancipation process (Allen, 2009).

20Van Dorp did not entirely neglect the material side of the question. Without much specification, she suggested, as she had done in her dissertation, that married women should gain control over a significant portion of the income of her husband to run the household and manage her own expenses. But she placed most emphasis on the non-material sides of the matter. It was therefore Van Dorp, the Austrian economist, who ended up with a cultural and moral critique of nineteenth century industrialization which was reminiscent of Marx’s work on alienation according to which factory work estranged women from their true selves. In 1922 she took the parliamentary seat of Sam van Houten, who had announced his retirement during the campaign. Van Houten had been responsible for what is still regarded as the symbolic start of social legislation in the Netherlands, a bill which restricted child labor. The typical liberal reading of that law was that children were unable to make a sufficiently autonomous decision, and that it should not be up to the parents to decide whether their children should work. In Van Dorp’s reading Van Houten’s law protected the development of children within the family. Along the same lines she argued for legal protection of women from industrial labor.

21Her gradualist and idealistic liberalism was clearly rooted in the German ideal of “Bildungsbürgertum”. Along these lines she also argued for more financial state support to the poor, to prevent proletarian women from feeling forced to take up factory work. Van Dorp concluded her advice by stating that in the higher social classes the question of whether women should work was an ethical choice that every individual had to make for themselves. But she believed that the state should restrict work for the lower classes, an argument she reinforced with pastoral images which suggest her unfamiliarity with the living conditions of most workers: “The work of the woman at home is like a great square, which provides light and air, as well as sun and joy in the working-class neighborhoods with narrow streets and somber homes, full of slogging, overworked people” (Polak, De Vooys and Van Dorp, 1910, 181).

22Her feminism was consequently paternalistic, or should we say maternalistic, to women from working class families whom she believed were better off at home. She believed that most women first had to develop self-awareness and psychological or “geistliche” independence. The possibility of doing so was not much improved, she believed, when women would take up a job in industry, first and foremost because that was not where their natural talents lay. She suggested that men were more suited to physical labor and to the life of business and politics, while women typically excelled as caretakers and as creators of the home: “Men have shaped the state, and society, that is their great gift to culture. … Women have made the home, but they have not made it alone, they had men beside them.” She concluded that this cooperation between the sexes had made the family perfect, and to further perfect the state and society men would have to accept women as their helpers (Van Dorp, 1911a).

23This cautious gradualist attitude was not uncommon at the time for those from the higher social classes (Akkerman, 1998). In her examination of Beatrice Webb’s position regarding the women’s question, Barbara Caine describes how Webb believed that her own experiences were not representative of the larger women’s question. Although Webb struggled to find time and opportunity to pursue the intellectual activities she loved, she believed that this was mostly a personal affair. The social question was about women’s development and the improvement of living and working conditions for the poor. Consequently, Webb was not convinced that women working in factories would contribute much: “If women are to compete with men, to struggle to become wealth producers and energetic citizens, to vie with men in the acquisition of riches, power or learning—then I believe they will harden and narrow themselves.” (Webb quoted in Caine, 1982, 38). That line of reasoning had much in common with the view of Van Dorp, who argued that the relevant social phenomenon was that of poor working women, not that of talented women like her from the higher bourgeoisie.

3. Economics and Politics

24In 1932 the national women’s council organized a redux of the 1910 debate with new contributions from Van Dorp and Polak, but a different male economist in the middle (Polak, Kortenhorst and Van Dorp, 1932). Legislation limiting the rights of married women to work was already on the horizon in 1910 and had been implemented locally but became national law in 1924. As a result, the opportunities of married women to work, especially in government jobs, were severely limited. Polak still objected strongly to these restrictions on freedom and repeated her older arguments, which she reinforced by emphasizing the negative moral and psychological effects that such measures would have on women and children who were deprived of additional income to improve their own lives. Van Dorp was equally unshaken in her beliefs, although she demonstrated a more acute awareness that her arguments might be abused by those who opposed any type of emancipation of women. For instance, she warned that the “protection” of the position of women on the labor market would effectively lead to their exclusion from paid work (for the U.S. debate on protection see Woloch, 2015). By artificially raising their wages or extending their leave periods, women would be “protected”, but it would also make it less attractive to hire them. This addition, however, did not lead to a change in her view that married women should not work in the first place. But it was particularly the opening of her restatement that was remarkable. Van Dorp bracketed the notion of freedom: although it was the fundamental principle underlying modern law it was never absolute. Such a statement on its own was not in the least remarkable. It could be heard in many circles during the reformist 1930s. But Van Dorp, who greatly admired Ludwig von Mises, was a principled classical liberal in economic fields such as international trade, monetary policy, as well as social policy.

25In 1916 she had proactively offered her services to the Dutch academic economic journal De Economist. In the first years she handled the “Kroniek”, the section which contained an overview and brief discussion of new foreign publications. It marked the end of her work in law and the start of her career as a professional economist. After WWI she started looking for an academic position, which she found in 1919 when she became lecturer (the Dutch equivalent to the Germanic Privatdozent) at the university of Utrecht. In her inaugural address Van Dorp aligned herself with the Austrian School and examined the compatibility of the marginal value theory with the quantity theory of money (Van Dorp, 1919a). She presented the body of economic knowledge as a logical and exact system with great practical value in informing sound economic policy. But that body of knowledge was constantly threatened by charlatans, dilettantes and politicians who sought to deny the universal truths of economics. This inaugural lecture was conventional in its character, since the Austrian approach dominated in the Netherlands between 1880 and 1925, spearheaded by thinkers such as Pierson and C.A. Verrijn Stuart (Zuidema, 1987).

  • 7 J.C. Kielstra to Van Dorp, 30 May 1921.
  • 8 J.C. Kielstra to Van Dorp, 15 December 1921.

26In 1920 she published her first international journal article “Abnormal Deviations in International Exchanges”, a response to recent work by Gustav Cassel, in The Economic Journal. Her star seemed to be rising and in 1921 a position as professor of economics opened at the Agricultural School of Wageningen (Landbouwhoogeschool). Van Dorp was asked by fellow party member of the liberal party Johannes C. Kielstra whether she would be interested in applying for the chair, although he immediately made clear that there would be serious obstacles because she was a woman.7 Kielstra attempted to convince his colleagues that Van Dorp would be the ideal candidate. Within the hiring committee there were two in agreement with Kielstra. Two other members hesitated on the grounds that they were not sure whether a woman could handle such a responsible position and that it was unclear whether women’s intellectual capabilities would diminish with age. Kielstra was able to convince his colleagues to go through with Van Dorp’s candidacy, although one of the committee members claimed to have heard that the Protestant minister of agriculture Hendrik A. van IJselsteyn, would not accept her candidacy. It was decided that if this were the case, then the minister himself would have to explicitly make that decision.8

  • 9 For the obstacles women economists in the U.S. faced around this time see Dzuback (2018).

27IJselsteyn, indeed refused to have a “combative lady” as a professor. Various committee members including Kielstra made clear in their letters to Van Dorp after the rejection that there was no doubt in their mind that the real reason for IJselsteyn’s refusal to accept her candidacy was that she was a woman. Although Kielstra also referred to the turbulent period in Leiden including her affair with Vissering.9 It was a major disappointment for Van Dorp, and one which did not come alone. In 1921 several smaller liberal parties merged into the Vrijheidsbond, among them the Liberale Unie, to which both Kielstra and Van Dorp belonged. The Liberale Unie had been a major political force and around 1900 it was headed by the leading Dutch economist of the age, Nicolaas Pierson. The overwhelming majority of economics professors in 1921 were members of this party. The new merger-party Vrijheidsbond adopted a more progressive social-economic agenda than Van Dorp favored. Consequently, “the combative lady” broke away from the party and joined Sam van Houten in the (Old) Liberal Party. This more conservative liberal party won only a single seat in the elections of 1922, during the campaign Van Houten had announced his retirement, and his seat would go to the party’s candidate with the most votes. This was Van Dorp, who became the first female party leader in the country.

28She praised her political mentor for his integrity, his steadfast character, and his uncompromising, even rigid attitude (Van Dorp, 1927). For the campaign of 1922 Van Dorp wrote an election brochure in which she took aim at “contemporary social policies” and blamed these for the persistent high unemployment: “all these government interventions do not create one piece of bread; goods are produced by the labor of the people” (Van Dorp, 1922, 52). To end unemployment the entrepreneur should be given full freedom, wages should be cut, and the state bureaucracy reduced, Van Dorp argued. In her conclusion she argued that a culture of individualism and responsibility had given way to a herd mentality: “freedom is easily lost, and hard to regain … We must return from the masses to the human individual” (Van Dorp, 1922, 56).

  • 10 Van Dorp to Kielstra, 1 September 1922.

29The rift among the economists within the liberal parties also led to Van Dorp’s resignation from the editorial board of De Economist. In her letters to Kielstra she criticized the unprincipled stance of her fellow economists and complained about the patronizing tone that others adopted towards her. During one of the meetings a former friend had critiqued her as “conservative and reactionary”, another board member had redacted a critical article from Van Dorp to remove the “most denigrating” passages.10 She would later return to economics, but now that she was in parliament, she felt that her opportunity in economics had passed.

  • 11 Handelingen Tweede Kamer 1923-1924 14 februari 1924, p. 734. Consulted 22 February 2022, https://zo (...)

30In parliament she returned to the women’s question. Van Dorp defended a royal decree which barred married women from working as civil servant and repeated her distinction between the two types of feminism. She cautioned against the desire to make all women work in an office. She cited Gertrud Bäumer in her speech to parliament to reinforce her case that women could be of much more value in the home than they could be as paid workers.11 The decree was not overturned by parliament and between 1924 and 1958 women could be dismissed from their job as civil servant, and in some cities also as teachers, for getting married.

  • 12 Atria, Archief Elisabeth Carolina van Dorp 1858-1948, no. 1197, “Oude en Nieuwe Economie” February (...)

31Van Dorp’s position marks a curious tension in her socio-economic views. She was vehemently opposed to any form of intervention in the economy. When the liberal party in the Netherlands took a somewhat more progressive direction, she left it for the old liberal party, which claimed to defend the legacy of Thorbecke, the liberal political leader, who had drafted the 1848 constitution. Neither did she hesitate to make fun of Christian politicians who criticized economics for its a-moral point of view.12 But when it came to the protection of the family Van Dorp was willing to allow for serious interventions by the state. It is this tension which we will seek to make intelligible in the next section.

4. Family, Morality, and the Economy

32Religion was of great importance to Van Dorp. She grew up in a Remonstrant milieu. The Remonstrants were a relatively small liberal Protestant community inspired by the work of Desiderius Erasmus, which believed that its members should provide moral leadership and serve as exemplars in society. Remonstrants considered Christian ideals primarily as personal convictions. Van Dorp reflected on the role of the church in contemporary society in an article which bore the same title, “The Church as Social Conscience”, as a well-known book by the most important Dutch Remonstrant theologian of the period Gerrit Jan Heering. For her the core of a religion was embodied in the ideals of a Christian way of life, rather than in the institutionalized social or political power of the church (Van Dorp, 1933a, 2). This was significant in the Netherlands, known for its pillarization in which civil society and politics were organized along religious lines (Lijphart, 1968). Van Dorp did not seek to belong to the Protestant pillar, but instead argued that the Christian ideals should remain above the parties. Remonstrants should live Christian ideals in the way they believed to be best. This would, almost by necessity, lead to different perspectives on the right public policies. That did not mean a purely personalist and passive stance: “Where a people, a government does not live up to its own ideals, there the church can perform its constructive role” (Van Dorp, 1933a, 3). This perspective was also visible in her feminism which she conceived more as a set of ideals than a concrete political program: feminists would differ in how they believed these ideals should be realized.

  • 13 Atria, Archief Elisabeth Carolina van Dorp 1858-1948, no. 1197, “Oude en Nieuwe Economie” February (...)
  • 14 Ibidem.

33This was also the way in which Van Dorp conceived of the relationship between Christian ideals and economics. She scoffed at those who found her “old” economics un-ethical, there was nothing unethical about following the science to find out how certain ideals could best be realized.13 The ideals were independent from the logical analysis of the virtues of different economic systems. For that reason, she had much sympathy for the Belgian socialist revisionist Hendrik (Henri) De Man, who wanted to reorient socialism toward ideals rather than to a specific political-economic program. A fascination that was shared by her compatriot and fellow Remonstrant Jan Tinbergen, whose mechanical views and mathematical approach she frequently ridiculed (Dekker, 2021).14 De Man impressed her even more, because he sought to reconnect socialist thought to the Christian tradition (De Man, 1927).

34Her focus on overarching shared ideals, was reinforced by growing concerns over political developments. She had hoped that a scientific consensus could provide the foundation for sound economic policy, but now that the scientific consensus of the world before WWI was gradually disappearing and political differences deepened, she started exploring whether shared ideals could perhaps prevent violent domestic social conflicts and international war. Her writings increasingly drew attention to the way in which the rule of law allowed differences of opinions and competing political parties to co-exist; the domination by one party of the other parties could and never should be the goal of political factions. These sentiments were most clearly expressed in a set of articles she wrote around the 1937 elections in which the Dutch fascist party NSB gained a few seats.

  • 15 The article “Koningin en Volk” (Queen and People) first appeared in De Nieuwe Courant on 30 August (...)

35In this pamphlet Van Dorp attempted to identify the parties that were willing to support the underlying framework of a liberal society (Van Dorp, 1937). She argued that in this broad sense both the social-democratic party and the confessional parties were liberal minded, in contrast to the communists and the fascists. This underlying consensus, about the legal and moral framework, was embodied by historical figures such as the constitutionalist Thorbecke. Van Dorp suggested that the Queen could embody them in the present and in doing so take up a more active role and prevent the corruption of the rule of law. The royal head of state might even have to step in and appoint the new members of the cabinet, with an eye to their respect for the rule of law. It was a substantial change of heart, because in her days as an activist for women’s right to vote Van Dorp had chastised Queen Wilhelmina for her indifference to the women’s question.15 Although Van Dorp was still critical of the social-democratic SDAP, whose Plan of Labor she despised, she attempted to reach out to them to the best of her abilities. The always polemical Van Dorp now tried to unite liberals of all stripes, on “common ground” (Van Dorp, 1933b).

36The political strategies she had promoted had always been peaceful. In 1913 she had condemned the “suffragettes” tactics of militant feminism and argued that not just the type of politics would be different when women would obtain the right to vote, but that they would also have to demonstrate the “female spirit” in their political tactics (Van Dorp, 1913a). This entailed an attitude of cooperation and harmony, beautifully depicted in a drawing which grazed the pages of the magazine of the League for Women’s Suffrage, under Van Dorp’s editorship. It depicted a man and a woman sailing toward the (Christian) light in unison, the woman placing her hand on the helm, next to that of the man (Figure 1). But it also reflected the search for dignity of bourgeois women who did not want to be associated with the suffragettes, or “wild women”, who protested and frequently got arrested (Hause and Kenney, 1981). Van Dorp had a hard time hiding her disgust for the more activist feminists, who did not know “when to speak and when to remain silent” (Van Dorp, 1915).

Figure 1: Drawing by A. Leusink from De Ploeger (June 1914)

Figure 1: Drawing by A. Leusink from De Ploeger (June 1914)
  • 16 Atria, Archief Elisabeth Carolina van Dorp 1858-1948, no. 591, Van Dorp to Knight, November 1938.
  • 17 Ibidem.

37This despite the fact, that she, as a woman, encountered all kinds of obstacles in her professional career in economics and politics. In a letter to fellow economist Frank Knight, written in the late 1930s, she reflected on her position as a woman economist, the rejection in Wageningen, which had been “in one way my best luck. Not having to provide for a family, and having enough fortune [wealth] to live, I had all my time for study. … Now however, I feel the disadvantage of not having a commanding position and not having pupils … moreover having the bad luck to be a woman. Many people think the Lord ought not to give brains to a woman.”16 She felt that: “nothing I do is mine, but that the Lord gave me a mission and that I ought to fulfill it.”17 Occasionally she was more confrontational about the discrimination she faced, a CV from 1932 listed as one of her accomplishments: “Once invited to join a posh Belgian Society, of which various ‘great’ Dutchmen are members, but when they found out I was a woman, they did not let me in.”

38As her friend and fellow liberal party member Anton van Gijn wrote about her: “Women, who successfully practice economics, are scarce; the few who do almost all pursue so-called social subjects. Van Dorp is not in the least insensitive to social needs … but she realized that a failure to properly understand the laws governing of the distribution of income, might lead to disaster” (Van Gijn, 1926, 57). He described her as someone who recognized the differences between the sexes, but who did not want to merely provide a woman’s perspective on matters. But there was a growing tension between the cautious progressive feminism and her concerns about the decline of the liberal world-order. In her pamphlet from 1937 she wrote with nostalgia of the days of Pierson, the Dutch stateman and economist, in which there still was a sense of authority for economists: “Undoubtedly it is democracy that is the cause of the change and the hostility of the public against economics.” It might sound curious that an activist for universal suffrage blamed democracy for the ills of her time. But a closer look at the suffrage that she pursued makes clear that this tension was present from the very start.

39The League that she founded in 1908 published its own journal De Ploeger (The Plowman). The contributors to the magazine demonstrated a remarkable ambiguity about universal suffrage. In fact, in its pages one frequently encountered the argument, especially from the more conservative side of the League to which Van Dorp belonged, that universal male suffrage had been a mistake, and that the women’s movement should be cautious in its demands for full female suffrage. In what is frequently referred to as the “ethical view” of Van Dorp citizenship was something that one earned as one developed one’s individuality and sense of responsibility (Dozy, 1933). Only once certain groups of women had achieved the right moral level of personal development they would also have “earned” their full citizenship. By this standard the fact that all men had been given the right to vote in 1887 in the Netherlands, had certainly been too soon.

40In the 1910s she was convinced that the gradual extension of the right to vote for women was the most pressing issue. But even before that was achieved in 1919, she suggested that afterwards the women’s movement would need to dissolve and integrate into existing parties (Van Dorp, 1913b). An even smaller group of women could also work, but this had to be a fully voluntary choice, not a decision that was based on material motives. For Van Dorp liberalism was also a personal conviction and project in which individual development mainly took place within the family: it was the role of parents and foremost of the mother to make family life flourish and to raise autonomous children.

  • 18 Handelingen Tweede Kamer 1924-1925 17 februari 1925, p. 1531. Consulted on February 22 at https://z (...)

41This ethical perspective also marked her perspective on the Dutch colonies, in particular Indonesia. She was born there and in parliament sided with the policies Van Heutsz had initiated in the Dutch Indies at the start of the twentieth century and which were collectively known as the “ethical program” (“ethische politiek”).18 These included the opening of primary schools, which however were underfunded and masked the more repressive aspects of the colonial policies of Van Heutsz. Along the same lines, a 1920 report had argued for the decentralization of governance in the Indies, to give local communities more political influence and to eventually prepare them for full self-governance and independence. Van Dorp supported this gradual progressivism, in which moral development was believed to be a slow but steady process.

42The state could only play a minimal role in this project of personal development and liberation. In an essay on the “Personal responsibility of the liberal” she argued that freedom started from one’s own conscience. Thinkers such as the Dutch Protestant intellectual and entrepreneur Abraham Kuyper and his intellectual friend Groen van Prinsterer of the Anti-Revolutionary Party had made the fatal mistake of thinking that the decline of religious convictions in the personal domain could be countered at the political level. But if the most basic moral freedom, the freedom of conscience was taken away, it would not be long before other freedoms would also be infringed upon, Van Dorp argued. It demonstrates that personal, or ethical, liberalism was, to her, more fundamental than political liberalism. The liberal spirit had to be nourished and develop organically within each individual and could not be enforced from above (Van Dorp, 1935).

  • 19 Atria, Archief Elisabeth Carolina van Dorp 1858-1948, no. 1181, “De persoonlijke taak van de libera (...)

43It was for this reason that she praised Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, the German dramatist and humanist, as the most noble and liberal mind of the Enlightenment. She argued that Lessing had realized that the process of spiritual (geistliche) liberation would sow the seeds for social liberation and emancipation. Lessing, like his contemporary Kant, believed that inner freedom, personal autonomy and the ability to control one’s desires, was more significant than outer freedom, the absence of external constraints (Maliks, 2014, 38). It was precisely in line with her feminism; Van Dorp believed that individual liberation and emancipation preceded political rights and duties. As she concluded, with some exaggeration: “Universal suffrage could be achieved politically with a single stroke of the pen. But we are only at the beginning of spiritual (geistliche) emancipation of our people, a process that will take centuries.”19 The idea of centuries reminds of the infamous claims that it would take centuries before the Indonesian people would be fit to govern themselves. This was a popular idea among those in favor of the continued colonization in the East by the Netherlands, and thus clearly signaled Van Dorp’s conservative leanings.

44Even the economic crises and political antagonisms of the interwar period had to be resolved (partly) at the ethical level. Van Dorp found an example of the ethical entrepreneur in the British Ernest Benn who wrote the bestseller The Confessions of a Capitalist (1925) which went through twelve printings. In 1934 Van Dorp edited and translated the book into Dutch. In her foreword she suggested that Benn had provided the personal and ethical counterpart to the scientific analysis of capitalism by Mises. She praised his simplicity, candor and ethical outlook which could help repel: “the immeasurable dangers looming ahead” (Benn, 1934, 9). Ethical capitalists such as Benn could help shape and guide the economy and workers in the right direction: away from conflict, and toward cooperation. Praise and belief in this kind of moral leadership was characteristic for Remonstrant circles, and also marks the otherwise far more progressive and interventionistic economics of Jan Tinbergen (Dekker, 2021, chapter 19).

5. Conclusion

  • 20 Atria, Archief Elisabeth Carolina van Dorp 1858-1948, no. 408, “Een poppententoonstelling-indrukje” (...)

45The work of Van Dorp was marked by a tension between a political-economic liberalism inspired by the Austrian School and her own personal moral and religious views rooted in the Bildungsbürgertum of the nineteenth century. In a short article in which she reminisced about her childhood she spoke of the “paradise” in which she grew up, playing with the dolls, but wondered: “The dolls are the life, the love, of the playing children. Can that still be as good as in the past, now that every toy is one out of thousand, without distinction, individuality or peculiarity?”20 It is not hard to imagine that this was the same way she felt about the developments in society more broadly. The tension of the emancipation of the lower classes and other disadvantaged groups around the turn of the 20th century posed a range of new challenges to liberalism.

46Van Dorp felt ambiguous about these developments. She welcomed the new opportunities it brought for women, to study, to contribute to politics and science and to realize themselves more fully. At the same time, she worried that the women’s movement as well the rise of social-democratic parties threatened to undermine the very society she sought to perfect. The League for Women’s Suffrage, which she founded, embodied these tensions: it sought to advance women’s political rights, but without harming the integrity of the bourgeois family. The family life that her parents could afford to provide for her was something that she wished for everyone, without fully realizing how much of a luxury it had been.

47This ambiguity was perhaps nowhere more visible than in the fact that Van Dorp refused to take her own life and experiences as measure for the women’s question. Her own ambitions reached far, she worked most of her life, she never married, and kept setting herself new professional goals. At the same time, she believed that the family should be protected by restricting the opportunities for women to work outside the home. To herself, religious ideals were of great importance, and she blamed the absence of religious awareness for various social ills, but she was fiercely opposed to all attempts to turn religion into a public matter, or worse a subject of political interference.

48Her liberalism placed personal freedom, moral development and the family in the private sphere, above political and economic rights in the public sphere. In that sense her perspective reflected precisely the experience that women in from her social position had had, in which most of the practical progress could made in the personal domain, not in public life. Her early work as a lawyer had been aimed at improving the position of women within the family, to make them less dependent on men and to allow them to develop their own, distinct, role and individuality. That vision remained consistent, in both her feminist and her economic writings. This has interesting implications for how we think of the gendered nature of liberalism around 1900, although as we demonstrated other Dutch feminists of the age such as Aletta Jacobs did combine a belief in free markets, with full economic rights for women.

49Legal rules were not altogether unimportant for Van Dorp, in her legal practice she sought to protect the rights of children and women. The right to vote for women was equally important because their perspective could now be heard. But the order went from legal rules governing marriage and the rights of children, to political rights and finally to economic rights. Van Dorp worried that legal changes were merely outward victories; the real progress had to happen at the individual level, and within personal relationships. She did not use modern phrases like self-worth or self-esteem, but the (now outdated) notion of spiritual (geistliche) development, to describe this process. She believed that women could make the most progress by realizing their own value and contributions to the family and to society. This idea was wonderfully captured in the title of the seminal overview of the women’s movement in the Netherlands by Willemijn van der Goot’s, “From Mother to Daughter: The Contribution of Women in a Changing World” (1948), which drew on a family metaphor to illustrate the progress that women had made.

  • 21 Ibidem.

50Van Dorp’s own pioneering work as a woman in economics proved that she was in practice already making further steps down the road to full emancipation. That she was aware of the broader social effects of the emancipation of women inside the family is illustrated well in that same reflection on her childhood: “Shouldn’t we return to the way it was? Or does everything have its time, and what is gone is gone—for good. Did our mothers attend too many meetings and concerts, our aunts too many lectures and speeches to embroider these sheets and to sew these clothes?”.21 And yet, she argued that married women in the working class, should do precisely that.

The authors would like to thank the two anonymous referees, the participants of the Women, Economics and History Workshop organized by Astrid Agenjo Calderón, Magdalena Małecka and Manuela Mosca, as well as the participants of the History of Dutch Economic Thought session at the 2022 HES meetings for their suggestions and encouragement.

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1 Both articles wrongly suggest that Van Dorp converted to Keynesianism after she visited Cambridge for some time in 1934 and 1935. While she did develop a critique of the Austrian theory of income distribution, she grew more critical of Keynes after her visit, she believed that his new economics was misguided as she wrote to Kenneth Boulding, 25th of September 1937, archive no. 1269. And she attempted to publish a critique of Kaldor’s theory of unemployment in The Economic Journal, which Keynes rejected. In 1930 she had already written to Edwin Cannan that Keynes: “is not very kind to women-economists.” Van Dorp to Cannan, 4th of December 1930, archive no. 559. The archive numbers, here and below, refer to the item numbers in the online archive of Elizabeth van Dorp (1858-1945) at the Atria Institute, consulted 22 February 2022,

2 In Dutch: “De beperking, voorzover de belangen van haar gezin dat eischen, van de vrijheid der gehuwde vrouw tot arbeiden in dienst van derden, verdient goedkeuring. Zulk eene beperking moet gepaard gaan met het vaststellen van den rechtsregel, dat een deel van haar mans verdienste aan de vrouw als loon voor haar huiselijk werk toekomt, en haar in eigendom en beheer moet worden uitgekeerd.”

3 See the reports in the Algemeen Handelsblad of 10 and 17 October 1903, available at, accessed September 7, 2021.

4 Through the organization Pro Juventute, she was involved in the defense of criminal youth as well as in the reform of penitentiary institutions.

5 The title is a Dutch proverb with a meaning similar to “Putting the cat among the pigeons”.

6 Atria, Archief Elisabeth Carolina van Dorp 1858-1948, no. 403-405.

7 J.C. Kielstra to Van Dorp, 30 May 1921.

8 J.C. Kielstra to Van Dorp, 15 December 1921.

9 For the obstacles women economists in the U.S. faced around this time see Dzuback (2018).

10 Van Dorp to Kielstra, 1 September 1922.

11 Handelingen Tweede Kamer 1923-1924 14 februari 1924, p. 734. Consulted 22 February 2022,

12 Atria, Archief Elisabeth Carolina van Dorp 1858-1948, no. 1197, “Oude en Nieuwe Economie” February 1940.

13 Atria, Archief Elisabeth Carolina van Dorp 1858-1948, no. 1197, “Oude en Nieuwe Economie” February 1940.

14 Ibidem.

15 The article “Koningin en Volk” (Queen and People) first appeared in De Nieuwe Courant on 30 August 1911 and was reprinted in De Ploeger (September 1911) the magazine of the League.

16 Atria, Archief Elisabeth Carolina van Dorp 1858-1948, no. 591, Van Dorp to Knight, November 1938.

17 Ibidem.

18 Handelingen Tweede Kamer 1924-1925 17 februari 1925, p. 1531. Consulted on February 22 at

19 Atria, Archief Elisabeth Carolina van Dorp 1858-1948, no. 1181, “De persoonlijke taak van de liberaal”, 1935.

20 Atria, Archief Elisabeth Carolina van Dorp 1858-1948, no. 408, “Een poppententoonstelling-indrukje”, De Amsterdammer, 1915.

21 Ibidem.

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Erwin Dekker

Mercatus Center at George Mason University,

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Willem Cornax

Mises Institute Netherlands,

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