Selective feminism is the freedom to choose poverty

Those who do not want to encourage women to go out and work are out and out cynics, according to Margriet van der Linden.


Last Saturday, ‘a day before Mothering Sunday’ Christian democrat Euro MP Esther de Lange spluttered indignantly, and two days before the start of the woman’s magazine Libelle’s Summer Week, education minister Jet Bussemaker put the cat among the pigeons: Dutch women should be financially self-sufficient and not depend on their husband’s income.

At last the emancipation of women is back on the political agenda, with women’s economic independence as one of the spearheads. Predictably the social media and newspaper comment sections nearly burst their bounds, from the ‘hear hears’ of ‘white, intellectual bitches’ (dixit) to protests from people who ‘really know what emancipation is all about: freedom of choice’.


This freedom of choice – given that 48% of women are not economically independent –  is exactly what I talked about with many women in the past few months of this year, which happens to be Opzij’s fortieth. After forty years it makes sense to look back and take stock of what has been achieved and what there is still left to do. The abiding question was whether the change demanded by society since the 1970s – a balance between paid and unpaid work – had become a reality.

After four decades of women’s lib in the Netherlands the answer is: no, it hasn’t. Dutch women have stormed the labour market but most are working part-time. As many as three million women are potentially unable to fend for themselves. In case of divorce or job loss by the main breadwinner, things would become decidedly tricky. The statistics tell a clear story: 1 in 3 marriages end in divorce and job loss is an unfortunate reality for a growing number of families.

These are the figures, the familiar mantras surrounding a reality that is as familiar as it is worrying, and yet they are having as much effect as a health warning on a packet of cigarettes. Freedom of choice is hailed as the greatest good but is bandied about so easily as to block any attempt at social change.

Selective feminism

Ego-emancipation – a type of selective feminism adhered to by (mainly) women who say that how they run their lives is up to them, even if it means being a stay-at-home mum – is nothing less than a superficial and egocentric view on an issue that doesn’t only affect individuals but society as a whole. In the Netherlands, a predominant mother culture is also added to the mix. This has made it much more difficult to shed the traditional roles for women, i.e. that of housewife and mother and, at some stage, a carer for ailing parents.

In countries such as Great Britain and the United States women entered the labour market much earlier. The men enlisted during the world wars and the women took their place in the factories. In some countries it took time for prosperity to return and women stayed in the workplace.

Not so in the Netherlands. Relatively few men fought in the war and the build-up to economic prosperity after the war was swift and successful which meant there was no financial need for women to go out to work. Before Dutch women could even have a peek at Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique – the personal stories of housewives which started the second feminist wave in the States – the Netherlands adapted itself to the so-called ‘breadwinner model’. By law women who worked in education, care or as a civil servant had to give up their jobs on marriage. It was the Social Democrats’ way of protecting male employment and a society based on christian family life.

The Netherlands continued on the traditional route until far into the 1970s. Shortages on the labour market didn’t translate into encouraging women to work, as happened in Sweden, but into getting labour from abroad. The man worked, the woman looked after the home and the children. Not surprisingly it took much longer for child care, maternity leave and other facilities to materialise. The effects of the bread winner model can be felt to this day.


In this mother culture care is a woman’s business. Women feel it’s their choice to comply. But by doing so they are failing to contribute to a number of equal rights issues: financial-economic independence facilitating greater choice, a greater influx of women into top jobs and an end to differences in pay between men and women. This cabinet has announced important healthcare cutbacks. People will have to organise their own care. Guess who will be doing the bulk of the caring?

In her emancipation paper minister Bussemaker rightly considers the position of both men and women in the Netherlands. The crisis is teaching us, and the proposed cabinet measures affirm this, that the government will not automatically foot the bill when life takes a turn for the worse.

The minister’s comment a day before Mothering Sunday wasn’t meant as a tongue lashing for women. She was addressing the men as well. This is a wake-up call: it’s time for a social balance. People, politicians included, who can’t deal with that and feel that it’s nobody’s business but your own are really saying you are entitled to choose poverty. Strictly speaking this is true. But it is using freedom of choice to mask an entirely cynical point of view.

Margriet van der Linden is editor of feminist magazine Opzij.

This article appeared earlier in the Volkskrant.

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