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Jet Bussemaker: ‘Emotions always run high in discussions on female emancipation'

At the Annie Romein-Verschoor Lecture on 8 March, former Minister of Education Jet Bussemaker expressed her surprise at the commotion again raised by the theme of the economic independence of women, within and outside politics.

There is no shortage of examples of strong reactions to measures aimed at promoting women's economic independence. Bussemaker, who is also a former state secretary and a long-time member of parliament for the Dutch Labour Party, commented, 'When Hedy d’Ancona, as Minister for Social Affairs in the eighties, called for childcare to be considered a basic provision, the Christian Democrats accused her of promoting state child-rearing. When the  second Wim Kok government introduced the first Work and Care Act, this was met with sneering reactions about the need for care leave.' 

The right to work more

‘It was difficult,' Bussemaker went on, 'to explain to the House why it was in the interests of women not only to have the right to work less, but also to have the right to work more hours. That would give women the opportunity to move from a small part-time job to a bigger job.' The tax deduction for breadwinners - wittily coined as the "kitchen counter subsidy" - generated a lot of fierce discussion, although nothing more than a few minimal steps towards a phase-out were achieved. 'While radical changes were possible in other fields, such as decentralisation of healthcare, mortgage interest deduction and pensions, amendments that would promote the economic independence of women failed to materialise,' Bussemaker explained.  

ARV 2018 Jet Bussemaker
Bussemaker during the lecture.

Living off their husbands' money

Bussemaker herself was also the subject of some controversy. An interview she gave to Dutch national newspaper Trouw bore the heading: Too many women live off their husbands' money. Bussemaker: ‘I didn't actually say that, but neither would I dispute it. The message behind the words obviously touched a nerve.’ She came under fire from the Christian Democrats in particular, while Fenke Halsema, leader of the GroenLinks party, supported her, referring to her own Annie Romein Verschoor lecture in 2010. It generated a fierce debate. Columnist, economist and lawyer Heleen Mees, a rigorous advocate of full-time working women, pulled no punches; others wondered what politics was getting involved in.  The emotions ran high, as is usual for this subject. Bussemaker commented. 'Within a  couple of hours I was a trending topic.' 

Databank of leading women

Bussemaker also received a lot of criticism when she set up a databank of leading women, together with Hans de Boer, chairman of the employers' federation. De Boer was concerned that a fixed quota of women on boards and councils would be imposed, and hoped that employers would use this databank voluntarily to avoid the necessity of a forced quota. Again this initiative was met with the question of why she was getting involved in this kind of issue: is this really a government task?  'Why are innovation and exports government concerns, and not this?' Bussemaker wanted to know. She also set up the so-called Westerdijk professors scheme, for which she reserved six million euros to fund a hundred additional female professors at Dutch universities. Her own party blamed her for not paying enough attention to women at the lower end of society. 'But at the same time I was putting forward measures to help women at the lowest educational levels. There was the Power on Tour initiative, for example, that is still running today. I didn't want to tell individual women what they should or shouldn't do, but there was without doubt a societal problem. And there still is.' 

ARV 2018
The Great Auditorium was full

Engrained cultural patterns

How is it that the Netherlands was - and still is - so far behind? After the war, Bussemaker explained in the Academy Building, a woman as full-time housewife and mother was the ideal throughout Europe. 'But the Netherlands was the only country where that was a success and that was because of the high breadwinner salaries and the country's economic prosperity.'  Women didn't need to work and their husbands were proud that that was the case. The pillarisation of Dutch society meant that these cultural patterns became engrained and were difficult to break down, and they still are. Women work part time, it's generally mothers who are called by the creche if a child is sick, it's only unnatural mothers who take their children to the creche more than two days a week, etc. Bussemaker: ‘That's why politicians have never dared to opt for provisions that bring work and care into balance. Just look at the swings in childcare and the lack of social insurances for home helps. If those helpers were men, that would never have been allowed.' Currently, around half the women in the Netherlands are not economically independent; among lower-educated women, that figure is 73%.   

The benefits of economic independence

‘What I have learned is that it's important to stress the benefits of economic independence,' Bussemaker said.  'The opportunities it offers, and the control over your own life that it brings you. Women have to help and support one another. Off with the Old Boys' Network and on with a Great Girls' Network.'

ARV 2018 Lamyae Aharouay
Lamyae Aharouay provided more figures for Bussemaker's lecture.

Lamyae Aharouay: a lot of facts and a lot of humour

Journalist Lamyae Aharouay responded to Bussemaker's lecture with a lot of facts and a lot of humour. Both women shared one particular experience: both their mothers went out to work at a later age, encourged by their children. Aharouay's mother even studied to become a social-educational worker; Bussemaker's mother was already a medical analyst. Aharouay told the audience that many women start off straight away in part-time work, even if they have no children. There may be a link in the sectors in which women work, namely care and education. These sectors offer a lot of part-time jobs. 'But it's a chicken-and-egg situation,' Aharouay believes. Because is it a case of work being broken into part-time jobs, because people think women want that, or was the work already part time?

Having children holds women back

Aharouay is a journalist and presenter of a weekly podcast (by national newspaper NRC on issues in The Hague) about politics. She is also a columnist for the NRC; she writes on political and social issues.

Aharouay also commented that among the under 25s women earn more than men, but that within five years men have closed the gap and after that their salaries are much higher.  Some of the difference - about 25% - is due to the effects of childbearing, and that discrepancy is never fully compensated.  Is the answer not to have children, then?.

ARV committee 2018
The Annie Romein-Verschoor Committee at Leiden University has organised the annual lecture for 28 years. The committee currently comprises Frans Willem Korsten, Simone Wolff, Greta Noordenbos and Judi Mesman (chair).

(CH/photos: Monique Shaw)

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