Love in a Mist

Additional content to the expo

14 February till 15 August 2021

Woman's story cannot possibly be told in its entirety. In Love in a Mist - the Architecture of Fertility artists, activists, scientists and designers tell the stories of woman's knowledge, her relationship with nature, her quest to regain the control over her own fertility that was historically wrested from her. On this webpage you can further delve into the subject and learn more about the remarkable women and their stories that feature proudly in Love in a Mist.

Plant specialisation. Women and their relationship with nature.

The name of the exhibition is taken from the traditional herbal knowledge that women shared with each other in order to stay mistress over their fertility and their bodies. From antiquity until the Renaissance, women forged an almost innate relationship with the natural world. Their intimate knowledge of plants, and medicinal herbs in particular, has been passed down to enable successive generations of women to regulate their fertility and thus be independent.

Ten plants that regulate fertility (design: Sandra Kassenaar)

Rebecca Gomperts. One of the world's most influential people.

Doctor and activist Rebecca Gomperts sails her ship to countries where abortion is illegal. In the international waters 20 kilometres from these countries’ shores, they can offer medically safe, professional, legal abortions because Dutch law applies on board. Worldwide, millions of women have used the boat’s services during successful campaigns, including in Ireland (2001), Poland (2003), Portugal (2004), Spain (2008), Morocco (2012), Guatemala and Mexico (2017). Gomperts also trains women online to perform their own abortion with pills according to WHO protocols. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, abortion treatment with online consultation has become standard in countries like the United Kingdom. The medicines are delivered, and the women manage the process. Women on Waves has been doing this since 1999.

Dr. Rebecca Gomperts & Abortion as Healthcare

Aiyana Knauer and Laurel Leckert, 30 May 2019 - published in Got a Girl Crush Blog & Magazine

This interview was originally conducted in the beginning of 2018 and since then Dr. Gomperts has launched Aid Access which supports those who cannot otherwise access an abortion and protects their human rights. On March 8, 2019, she received a letter from the FDA ordering her new (since 2018) organization, Aid Access, to stop providing telemedical abortion services to women who cannot otherwise access safe abortions because of costs, domestic violence, distance, or other reasons, and who they do not have access to other doctors willing or able to prescribe Misoprostol and Mifepristone.

This letter was applauded by Republican members of Congress, of whom 92 percent are male.

Women on Waves is a Dutch non-profit founded by Dr. Rebecca Gomperts in 1999. After completing her training as an abortion doctor, Dr. Gomperts worked as a physician on board Greenpeace's ship, the Rainbow Warrior II. In South America she met many women who greatly suffered both physically and psychologically due to unwanted pregnancies and lack of access to safe, legal abortion services.

Women on Waves travels by boat to countries where abortion is illegal or highly restricted. Once there, they pick up women seeking abortions, travel to international waters (where local laws don’t apply), and perform medical abortions. They've also launched several drone campaigns, using drones to deliver medicine across international borders. Women on Web is their online arm which provides real-time medical and emotional support over email to folks around the world who are doing at-home abortions with pills. Contact them at info@womenonweb.org or womenonweb.org.

Dr. Gomperts is a friendly, articulate, and inspiring activist and doctor, and it was our great honor to interview her for this issue of Got a Girl Crush.

When someone asks you “What do you do for a living?” how do you reply?

I work for an organization that supports women all over the world to get access to a safe abortion.

When watching VESSEL (the documentary about Women on Waves), we were struck by your ability to so clearly and succinctly articulate your position. Make believe that you’re talking to someone who you don’t hate, who you want to or have to continue to have a relationship with, who says to you “How can you be supportive of abortion? It’s murder.”  What do you say to that person?

I respect your belief. In a democratic society we can only live together if we respect each others differences of opinions, religions and needs. Therefore I also ask you to respect me and the women who  need  an abortion.

Can you talk a little bit about your experience as a doctor prior to founding Women on Waves?  Where did you practice/in what contexts (hospital, private clinic, non-profit, in the Netherlands or abroad)?  Or did you immediately join the Greenpeace ship?

I worked in hospitals in surgery and radiology departments and in a private abortion clinic but also with a travel insurance firm. I did some of my medical internships abroad (Surinam and Guinea in Africa).

We work with a decentralized national storytelling project called Shout Your Abortion, and we work to destigmatize, un-silence, and build community through sharing abortion experiences.  Our tagline is “Abortion is normal. Our stories are ours to tell. This is not a debate.”  We noticed that in a 2014 interview with Jezebel, you specifically mention not using the term “normal” in reference to abortions.  While we understand that there is an infinite range of abortion experiences, we feel that because of how statistically common abortion is, the term “normal” is applicable.  Could you share some more insight as to your opinions on using the word “normal,” or about language in general when discussing abortion?

Different language can and should be used for different audiences, moments and places to be effective. It is not about some absolute truth but about context and framing.

As I explained in the interview, for me an abortion is normal but for a woman who cannot access it, it is not normal. Normal is something that is achievable, but an abortion is out of reach for many women.

When I say an abortion is a need, it reflects much more the reality of women. When one speaks publicly about abortion the aim is not to speak the same language as those who already agree with you, but to connect with other people who might not have given the issue much thought. We can only achieve this connection by being nuanced and recognizing other people's realities, doubts and sensitivities without making it a taboo, which is what you mean by saying it is normal, I assume.

People primarily recognize you for the sailing campaigns, but Women on Web slash Women on Waves does a lot of work beyond that. What does the actual bulk of your work consist of? In a given week, for example, what sort of things would you be doing?

It depends totally what moment we are in. When we’re preparing campaigns, it’s focusing on more-or-less the logistics of it and what it takes to organize it and make sure everything works. It’s supervision of the help desk, medical stuff, lots of research things that we’re doing at the moment—it’s supervising research, initiating research—creating new campaigns, strategizing and doing legal research, answering emails. The campaigns are always the much-needed, positive exciting moments where it’s all condensed in one day or five days. Everything is kind of concentrated there, but to work up to it, it takes months and months—sometimes even a year. And things fail, we initiate things that don’t work.

Of course, we’re constantly developing new things: whether it’s new research, new actions or new initiatives. We travel a lot for conferences.

How often do you do a ship campaign?

It’s hard to say. We have existed now since 1999, and the first years we did a campaign every year or every other year. In Ireland, it was 2001, Poland was 2003, Portugal 2004… The next campaign was 2008, so it was four years later. That was also because Women on Web needed attention. Then it was again four years later in 2012, and that was because I needed a break.

The last campaign—we had one year where we did two campaigns. Last year in 2017 we did a campaign in Guatemala and in Mexico. We had planned two campaigns for this year, but we have had a lot of issues with crew and the ship and we didn’t manage to pull it off this time. We are wrapping up our campaigns in Latin America now, and then perhaps in another four years we’ll do another one.

In the meantime, we’ve done the drone campaigns—one in 2015 and one in 2016. Every year we do things, but also, we do a lot of trainings with local women’s organizations, so that requires a lot of preparation; fundraising; and a lot of media—it’s always kind of busy with new media. The drone was also a lot of work to prepare because we’re new. Now we’re looking at a totally new form of campaign again, which we hope to launch this year.

What is it?

I can’t tell you yet. [Laughter]

Well that’s very exciting.

It will be mind-blowing I think.

What did you mean when you said you were having trouble with crew? Are you looking for crew members?

No, we found crew—so, first of all you have to understand that we are actually quite a small-budget organization. It’s not a huge organization like Greenpeace that has people constantly working on it all the time. Our annual budget is about €100,000 euros (ed note: that’s $12,3817.00 USD) and that’s what we [operate on], like the campaigns—everything. That is for Women on Waves. Women on Web is a separate organization, so it has a separate budget.

We do a lot of things for very little money. It also means that we are very dependent on people that…when they say things they will do them and that they’re dedicated. We have had really bad luck the last half-year with crew that committed to doing work and then they suddenly quit. Also, I think we underestimated the effort that it takes. The ship was in Mexico and we wanted to do a campaign in Chile, and actually, we wanted to launch it when the Pope was there. Then there was an earthquake in Mexico and we weren’t sure we could get the ship in the water, and then the crew suddenly quit. We found a new crew really quickly and then there were problems there—and I had no idea why. It never happened before. It was just too much, so we decided this is just not going to happen.

You only see the things that succeed, and you don’t see the things that don’t succeed. A ship campaign is extremely difficult to organize. It’s a really, really difficult thing to organize. Everything has to work. It’s like a very complicated puzzle.

So far, we’ve been very good and most of the things worked. Now, this time it didn’t, and that means you have to move on. We hope that we’ll do a ship campaign in Chile another time, but the two campaigns last year also exhausted the resources and also some of the personal energy in people. So, then you have to recuperate.

That’s where we are now—a little bit recovering; a little bit going to do this really new thing, which is a little bit easier to organize, a little bit less expensive. That’s what activism is right?

But it’s very hard because you’ve worked with people and everybody’s gearing up to doing it and making it happen. It’s so hard when it falls apart because people spend so much energy and resources in it, but then if some people don’t do it then it doesn’t work.

But the campaign in Guatemala was extremely good and Mexico as well. We had really, really good experiences.

So, you mentioned the budget for Women on Waves, and one of the things we were curious about was how both of the organizations are funded. Do you receive grants from organizations? Or are they private donors?

Women on Waves is funded mostly by the women that need the service. How it works is that we ask for solidarity donations from women and about 90% of the women have the funding and the means to do it. 10% of the women don’t, and then they get the service for free. So, the women who are able to afford [the service,] sometimes give more.

But there’s also a lot of people that give solidarity donations because they really support the organization. That’s really all donation-based and it’s self-sustainable. So, Women on Waves is a self-sustainable organization. It’s a non-profit, it doesn’t make any profit, but at least it can cover its expenses.

Women on Waves has always been fundraising and we have individual donors, sometimes we have foundations that fund us. So that varies because usually donors are not there for the long term, so we find new different donors, different forms of income and things like that.

We do have some foundations, like sometimes Mamacash, which is a foundation that gives money and sometimes another foundation, and some American foundations have as well.

Women on Waves is kind of small and it makes it very flexible and we can do the things that we want to do, but we can also do the things that donors wouldn’t usually want to fund because it’s kind of “out there” or it’s experimental, it’s innovative. You have big organizations that do ongoing, on-the-ground constant work. Usually they fundraise because they know there’s money for a certain kind of work or they make programs because they know there’s money available for that type of work. We always do what we want to do, and we try to find the money to cover the cost.

Can you tell us some statistics about the organization? Like how many abortions has Women on Waves provided and has Women on Web assisted with? How many trainings have you done around the world? Stuff like that.

We do abortions on the boat, but they are few. We’re a few days in the country and if we can sail out at least two or three times—in Mexico we did three abortions in the four days that we were there. In Guatemala we were kicked out by the military, so we couldn’t even sail out to the mainland. The same in Portugal, we couldn’t even sail into Portugal because we were stopped by war ships. In Spain we were able to sail out. I think also we did three abortions then, or four. In Poland it was more, 10 or 15 women.

The total amount of abortions that have been done on the ship are relatively few. The way you have to see them is that they’re ready to make the problem visible. There are few, but they are extremely important ones. They are very visible, and they totally change the taboo, the discourse about abortion in these countries.

I think that Women on Waves, what it does, is it’s reframing the abortion issue in a lot of countries where it’s usually not talked about, it’s very hidden, and the ship is bringing it into a human rights framework.

For example, in Guatemala, the fact that the military kicked us out—before we came,  it was really not an issue that was discussed at all in the media or by people. If it was, it was dismissed as a women’s issue. Because the military intervened, it suddenly became clear to a lot of people that it’s actually more about fundamental freedoms than about women. It’s a military dictatorship there more or less and people really don’t like the army, so they suddenly understand that there’s much more at stake when the military intervenes on something that is normally considered just something about women.

That is what we want to do. We want to re-create the framework in which abortion is placed in the public domain. That’s extremely important to create change.

Now Women on Web. I don’t think it’s really relevant how much abortions are being provided. I think for us it’s much more relevant how many women we help. Sometimes I get emails from women in countries where it is legal and it’s accessible and they don’t know where to go, and we direct them to the right places.

That’s actually the next question we had. How many people contacted Women on Web for help last year?

Women on Web is answering, per month, 10,000 emails. We have answered about 120,000/130,000 emails in the past year.  

Wow. And who’s answering all those emails? It’s all volunteers?

It’s a special-trained help desk. We have about 20 people and we have about 17 languages covered and every day there’s somebody from a language who’s answering emails.

That’s amazing.

So, yea, it’s like a very—and they are paid—but it’s a very basic payment. It’s quite intense work to do. It’s pretty intense if you have to answer 70 emails in Croatian a day, for example. But it’s very rewarding as well, because many of the women are extremely grateful. They cannot sometimes believe that they can actually get help, and I think that is where we are really proud of what we’ve made. I think it’s special, creating this solidarity network where women are co-responsible to making sure that other women can also continue to have care, is very important.

     “This total fundamental change in perception about whether it’s safe to do what we’re doing and to support it has just created this—the scientific research that we’ve done that I’ve published has managed to maintain that, and that was a strategy as well to do that.”

How do people mostly hear about you? Is it all word of mouth? Do you do any sort of advertising?

No, but we have done a lot of research that was widely publicized. Through Google, you can find us through Google; word of mouth; they read about us; many different ways. We ask it in the prologue form, but I haven’t looked at it in a long time, so I don’t know what is the most known. We are also doing research and publishing research as a tool to change policy and to make mainstream this idea that you’re able to do an abortion yourself as a woman. We’ve been extremely successful in doing that as well. When I started Women on Web in 2005, it was extremely controversial. The first research that we published in 2008, there was a headline of the Daily Telegraph that said, “Women risk their health using abortion website.” Then not even seven years later, the same newspaper wrote “Medical abortion: anything you need to know go to Women on Web.”

This total fundamental change in perception about whether it’s safe to do what we’re doing and to support it has just created this—the scientific research that we’ve done that I’ve published has managed to maintain that, and that was a strategy as well to do that.

So, you’re saying that the catalyst for that shift was the research that you have published?

Yea. Yea.

That’s awesome. Speaking of that, your work is incredibly inspiring and certainly people around the world would love to expand the work, let’s say—hypothetically—there was a small collective that was interested in distributing and educating about Misoprostol, what advice would you give them? Can you disclose any of your sources for acquiring the drug in bulk or—

Oh yea, I mean that is not a problem at all. Actually, that was one of the hardest things to set up with Women on Web—to find where to get it in a way that it was legal. So, people who want to do that, first of all, Misoprostol is easier to get than Mifepristone—almost everywhere. There’s places in the world where you can very easily buy it in a pharmacy. We don’t get  it in bulk, either. We work with the pharmacy as well because that is the legal way to do it. Unless you are a pharmacy or you’re a distributor in the country—you have a license to distribute—then you cannot distribute in bulk.

What they could do is they could go to India, and they can easily find it there. There’s many, many pharmacies there that will sell it for very cheap and it’s good quality, if you’re taking kind of the bigger brands. You can get it in Vietnam, you can get it in Bangladesh, in every pharmacy in Nepal. You can buy a lot of it, and the only thing is you won’t always be allowed to travel and take it back in your country.

I would say for the groups that do that, that they would want to—there’s different places to do it, some people say to take it out of the blisters and you put it in a bottle of vitamin pills. I am not such a strong supporter of that because the quality of the medicines deteriorate quite quickly. I also feel that when you have loose pills, I think it’s quite disrespectful to women because they don’t know what they’re swallowing. There’s a lot of abuse of women anyway who are in that condition. I say you have to keep it within the original packaging so that the people that you give it to actually know what they’re taking. I think that’s just a fundamental form of respect.

The risk is bigger when you take it out of the blister. You would have to respect the maximum doses that you can bring along, which is 270 pills when you talk about Misoprostol when you start bringing it from another country.

And how many pills do you need to end a pregnancy?

For Misoprostol alone it’s 12 pills. If you take Mifepristone with you as well—which you can also buy in pharmacy in Nepal, India—it is four Misoprostol and one Mifepristone.

Do you know if pharmacies in Latin America sell either of the drugs? I don’t know if you know that, but I was just curious.

Well the problem is they used to—it depends on the country. So, in Peru, it’s easy. It’s easy to get Misoprostol. In Ecuador it used to be easy and now it’s getting harder. In 2008 you could get Misoprostol in Nicaragua for a few dollars, no problem. Now it’s impossible. It’s getting harder and harder to get from pharmacies there.

And is that because people know that they are using it for abortion.

Yea. Some countries they really don’t care, and so they leave it. Other countries there’s an active campaign in trying to get the pharmacies to make sure that they are not going to prescribe it.

How about the U.S., do you know if it’s accessible over the counter?

It’s really hard to get it over the counter, you would need a doctor’s prescription in the U.S. It’s very easy to buy it in Mexico and it’s very cheap to buy it in Mexico. People from the U.S. who want to go and help women in the U.S., they just go to Mexico City, they buy a lot of these pills and they fly back and they distribute it, and it’s cheap to go to Mexico City.

I would advise you, if you do it,  just make sure you’re not like riding with a truck full of stuff, because the U.S. accepts the amount for personal use. I think it’s worthwhile to travel more often and take a limited amount instead of traveling once and taking more. What we all have to take care of is to try to be safe. Sometimes it means it’s more expensive, but it’s still worth it.

Would you tell us more about yourself? We know that you were working with Greenpeace, at one time you were in art school, you’re a doctor now and obviously you run this incredible organization. What were—was providing abortions a specific goal of yours when you decided to become a doctor?

No. No, no, no. It was something that I just encountered in my life. Not a goal, no.

     “ What I’ve seen now is that there’s not a world where there’s different countries with different laws, or rich countries and poor countries—the only thing that matters is rich people and poor people. That’s everywhere in the world. Whether abortion is legal or not, it doesn’t matter. For the rich people it doesn’t matter when the people with no money come. It matters only for the wealthy.”

How about your art? Do you still have an artistic practice?

No. You know, I don’t see things so separated, so for me life is all one thing. I think art comes into what we do as well. Like Women on Waves, it comes to it as well and I work a lot with artists for the design and the things that we do.

I mean, art you can define in any way that you want [laughs]. It’s everything.  We have been in art shows as well as Women on Waves. Some people consider it an art form. I don’t know, I don’t care too much about all of these definitions to be honest.

I think I want to say something, which I think is very important within the context of the U.S. I think I’m very privileged because in the Netherlands, when you study, it doesn’t cost much. It is about 1,000 euros per year, and you could get a grant or a loan against a very low interest rate. It means that you’re not left with a huge debt when you do medical school—or any field of study—which means you have much more freedom to do the things that you may want to do without having the necessary, you know, burden to pay back your debt.

I realize how important that is. I think all these things, like in the U.S. as well—everything is connected somewhere. In the U.S. as well, we get a lot of emails from women there, and it’s always the poor women. They’re really the most heartbreaking stories that they’re suffering with access to abortion. What I’ve seen now is that there’s not a world where there’s different countries with different laws, or rich countries and poor countries—the only thing that matters is rich people and poor people. That’s everywhere in the world. Whether abortion is legal or not, it doesn’t matter. For the rich people it doesn’t matter when the people with no money come. It matters only for the wealthy.

That reminds me. In an earlier interview that you did with the website Jezebel, you said that you didn’t want to endanger the work that you do by campaigning in the United States. I was wondering what those dangers were, specifically?

I mean what I said is that Women on Web is not providing services in the U.S. because it could potentially close down the organization. I think the reason is because the U.S. has a very long legal arm, and if the anti-abortion groups wanted to do something against it could potentially undermine the work for the U.S. and the world. That’s just something we didn’t want to risk.

That makes sense.

Also, because there’s no rule of law in the U.S., so it’s not that you can rely on a fair justice system. It’s more like, it’s exhausting, and it costs a lot of resources if you get entangled in something. Even if there’s no legal basis for it, the moment that you are being sued for something, you per-definition “lose,” because of the resources that are not available.

Absolutely.

It’s just a system that if—it’s not a system that you can fight. If you want to do other work—or you just fight the U.S., and that’s what you spend your life doing.

It also just felt like there’s so many resources there—it’s the richest country of the world. It’s a scandal that there are so many women that have no access to abortion services there. Then it’s so hopeless as well when people vote for somebody like T***p.

Tell us about it. That’s of course only if you believe in the voting system, that the person who won is actually the person who got voted in.

Well it’s the same problem as with the justice system, right? The U.S., in that sense, is a—it’s so unjust in all the ways that you can think of.

 It feels hopeless, but here we are stuck in—

It’s so hard to fight it. I mean there are so many examples of people that have done things that are challenging that end up spending time in jail because they are not able to fight the legal system; because they don’t have to resources to pay for a good lawyer, because there are juries that are corrupt and judges that are corrupt—or not even corrupt, that are just too conservative and have no vision of any justice system. It just doesn’t work.

On a personal level, how do you manage the stresses that accompany the work that you do? How do you make time for yourself and your family, and what do you do to take care of yourself?

[chuckles] Such a funny question. I don’t know, I think that…

Or is there any compartmentalization that you do? I mean, maybe you don’t…

No, I don’t. There’s no compartmentalization.

To be honest, I think that there’s a lot of other work that is so much more stressful that people have to do. I can have stress, sure, and be under pressure, but there’s so many people that have to do work that they don’t love, and they don’t like, and they have to do it because they have to make an earning. They’re being treated like shit and they’re worn out and they do very heavy physical work…I mean, yea—self-care is in place there.

I think I’m in an extremely privileged situation where I can do what I love and help other people with it. What else can I ask for?

Do you have any hobbies or what do you do in your free time? Or do you have free time?

[laughs] No.

[Laughter]

I started doing a lot of yoga, and it’s really good for me [chuckles].

I have two children, and they demand a lot of time and attention and it’s really fun—they are the best people to hang out with. That is also keeping my feet on the ground and—you know, having to let go of all the other things. When I didn’t do that, I used to run.

I try to have friends that are not connected to the work, so I have a lot of friends that are architects or artists or lawyers—people who have nothing to do with the type of work that I do and are living a different life. I think that’s very important as well, because sometimes we think what we live is the only reality that is there and there are many, many, many other realities out there and it’s very important to keep that perspective. I think people should try to do that in general. To have friends and hanging out in scenes that they don’t work in, that is in their own fields. It’s very refreshing and it’s very inspiring as well because you find things that you can use in your other work as well.

I think that’s it. Is there anything else you’d like to be sure to highlight for the interview in the magazine?

Oh, yea, yea you were asking about the local women’s organizations that we train. We train many all over the world. We started that and now everybody’s kind of doing it on their own, which is great. We’re not here to keep doing what we’ve been doing before. For example, in Latin America, there’s many—when we started the first training in 2008 in Ecuador, most women’s groups didn’t know about Misoprostol, and the same in Africa, and now everybody is training everybody, and everybody knows about it. Also, in the U.S., I read an article where you have all these underground training networks about Misoprostol abortion providers for women. I think that’s very exciting because it was something that wasn’t there. That is also because doctors tend to keep the knowledge for themselves. I think it’s also extremely interesting what happened with the Internet, that it has democratized this knowledge in an amazing way, and we were just lucky to be one of the first ones that were around to do that.

When we started Women on Waves it was 1999. The Internet was already there, but it wasn’t used then as widely as it is used now, and I think we’ve been able to be part of that revolution and to form it, actually, to create it. It’s cool.

IPBES: Nature's decline is faster than ever.

On 6 May 2019, the United Nations published a high-profile report from the Intergovernmental Platform for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). Worldwide, the natural world is declining at an unprecedented pace and scale. Species extinction is increasing and having a drastic effect on people around the world. The report’s recommendations emphasise the need to improve and reinforce how people care for the natural environment. It recognises the positive contributions that women and indigenous communities make to guaranteeing sustainability and ensuring a healthy relationship between humankind and nature.

Via Belgica. Limburg's Roman past brought to life.

In Love in a Mist - the Architecture of Fertility we tell the story of the enigmatic Lady of Simpelveld. Her richly decorated sarcophagus is an exceptional archaeological find from the Roman era and gives us a lot of clues about her life. The sarcophagus is so evocative, in fact, that a mobile game has been made about it! But the beauty from Simpelveld wasn't the only Roman woman of her stature in Limburg. Let's not forget about the Lady of Voerendaal - who in 2020 has been spectacularly brought back to life by artists Tei van Neerven and Moniek Bongers.

Bocholtz Romanum. A mobile game about the Simpelveld Sarcophagus

The Lady of Voerendaal. Brought back to life.

Elisabeth Strouven. A short life story.

Elisabeth Strouven (1600–61), a shoemaker’s daughter, was one of only four Dutch women who wrote an autobiography in the 17th century. She grew up in Spanish Maastricht, received a good education, learnt French in Liège and became proficient in sewing and lacemaking. When she started living independently, other women soon moved in with her. The women earned their own money and started a boarding school in the Kommel. They also nursed sick women and victims of the plague there. They called their community Calvary (Maastrichts: Klevarie). A pious woman, Strouven did not join existing orders because they would not allow her to do charity work. Calvary was never recognised as a convent community till just before Strouven’s death in 1661. She died before she could take her vow. 

The Life of the Reverend Mother Elisabeth Strouven

Founder and First Mother of the Convent of Calvariënberg in Maastricht, as described by herself at the suggestion of her confessor.

First Chapter

Of her birth and childhood years.

Second Chapter

She is placed in another School and makes Friends with like-minded People.

Third Chapter

Of the tasks her stepmother set her.

Fourth Chapter

She moves into the house called In den gulden Baert [The Golden Beard] as a nanny.

Fifth Chapter

Her sadness about the death of the child she cared for moves her to go and live on her own.

Sixth Chapter

She moves into the house called Heijligen Geest [Holy Spirit] together with an old widow.

Seventh Chapter

She moves into another house on her own.

Eighth Chapter

She moves into a larger house and decides to let children live with her.

Ninth Chapter

How the number of children grows and how she is spiritually moved to leave them be.

Tenth Capter

The task she set herself to improve her patience and to vanquish sleep.

Elevent Chapter

Of the great sorrow she experiences in changing to another confessor.

Twelfth Chapter

How she met a Religious Daughter who had been a Clariss.

Thirteenth Chapter

The spiritual admonitions to leave the children continue. The children are then taken from her by the Plague.

Fourteenth Chapter

How the Rev. father Farzijn came to this town and about the Sickness and Death of the Religious Daughter who had been a Clariss.

Fifteenth Chapter

She is tempted against the 3rd Commandment and of several other ordeals she and her Sister had.

Sixteenth Chapter

She is greatly moved to ask the Rev. father Farzijn to be her confessor.

Seventeenth Chapter

How she goes on her first confession trip to the Rev. father Farzijn.

Eighteenth Chapter

How Sister Catharina of Lichtenberg moved in with her and how she treated a young maiden who was sick with the plague.

Nineteenth Chapter

Her continuing disquiet at the children and how they fell gravely ill.

Twentieth Chapter

How she is tested by a fallen woman.

Twenty-first Chapter

Of several tests that the Lord sent over her.

Twenty-second Chapter

Of a few alms she gave to the poor in the Almshouse as well as to others.

Twenty-third Chapter

She helps a maiden who suffers from mental afflictions.

Twenty-fourth Chapter

She is spiritually moved to found a Convent.

Twenty-fifth Chapter

How Sister Elisabeth Dries moved in with her. They then went together to look for a suitable place to found a Convent.

Twenty-sixth Chapter

How we moved into the house of father Dries on Kommel hill.

Twenty-seventh Chapter

She is moved to take in three sick people and to treat them in honour of the Holy Trinity.

Twenty-eighth Chapter

How Sister Elisabeth Dries goes to her father and renounces her inheritance.

Twenty-ninth Chapter

How we, after the death of father Dries, bought more properties around our yard.

Thirtieth Chapter

How Master De la Montagne moved in with us after the death of his housewife.

Thirty-first Chapter

How Master Merten Gilis moved in with us.

Thirty-second Chapter

About several inheritances from master Meerten.

Thirty-third Chapter

Of the great sorrow she felt about the great abasement suffered by the two Priests and about the fervour of the first Sisters.

Thirty-fourth Chapter

Of the great fervour of the first Sisters in serving the Infected and in doing other works of Charity.

Thirty-fifth Chap:

Of the siege of this town and how she and Sister Elisabeth Dries are spiritually moved to help Master De la Montagne out of his predicament.

Thirty-sixth Chapter

Of several zealous soulds who lived and died in this place.

Thirty-seventh Chapter

Of several spiritual torments suffered by Sister Elisabeth Dries and how she died.

Thirty-eighth Chapter

She falls grievously ill, and about the sickness and death of Master Meerten and the two Brothers who lived with him.

Thirty-ninth Chapter

How the plague raged around this town and how she received a letter from the Seigneurs of Maiestraet, in Hoesselt.

Fortieth Chapter

Of many secret alms and her fear of being cheaten, and how she is strengthened in her resolve by three gifts, spiritually promised to her.

Forty-first Chapter

She prays to God and bids him to find her a good Shepherd. About her struggle in asking a young priest to be this for her.

Forty-second Chapter

She is spiritually moved to warn and teach several persons. About several ordeals she suffered out of Love for the people close to her, etc.

Forty-third Chapter

She and her fellow Sisters treat 700 captive Spanish soldiers, 200 of which were injured.

Forty-fourth Chapter

Of the tasks set to her by the Lord, with two Daughters who seemed to be strongly attracted by the Lord to this place.

Forty-fifth Chapter

Of the lapses suffered by some after the death of a few zealous souls, and of the many ordeals that the Lord sent over her.

Forty-sixth Chapter

Her manifold doubts and tribulations and the struggle she had in continuing the foundation of this Convent and to send it for approval to Rome, which she finally succeeds in doing.

Forty-seventh Chapter

How she was comforted a few months before her death by the assurance and success of the work set to her by God, and how the Rev. Mother Cappouns takes up her burden by becoming the new mother superior.

Working for De Sphinx. Working conditions at the beginning of the 20th century.

Many women had to work at De Sphinx pottery and glassware factories to provide for their families. They worked all day, were underpaid and faced sexual blackmail. The kiln workshops, in particular, were known in Catholic circles as ‘places of perdition’. The factory bosses from the Regout family also had a hand in lowering wages without prior notice. On 20 September 1895, 80 women working at the dangerous glaze furnaces went on strike for better working conditions. The risks were considerable. If they were dismissed, they were unlikely to be hired elsewhere.

The workers usually lived in specific communities around the workplace. De Sphinx even specially constructed such neighbourhoods as the Quartier Amélie and in the Boschstraatkwartier the Cité Ouvrière or St Anthony Block. This tenement building became the symbol of the deplorable living conditions of the Maastricht factory workers in the beginning of the 20th century. Public hygiene was nigh non-existent and cholera was a frequent visitor.

These workers’ communes were united for better or worse, and their isolation could cause resistance or radicalisation. The striking women’s dissatisfaction was expressed in political movements that resolutely represented the neighbourhoods’ sentiments. The Boschstraatkwartier in Maastricht became an SDAP (Social Democratic Workers Party) stronghold. The SDAP in Maastricht was 40% women (unprecedentedly high for the Netherlands), of which 76% worked at De Sphinx.

On 17 May 1920, Wynandts-Louis, who grew up in the Sphinx milieu and represented the SDAP, became the first female councillor in the Netherlands. The Boschstraatkwartier voted red en masse. Her tenure lasted 29 years until 5 September 1949. In this time, her portfolio included health and sanitation, the holding of markets, and poverty alleviation. She was also devoted to the improvement of the status of married working women.

Photo selection. Working at Sphinx (RHCL image database, Sphinx Beelddocumenten)

The Midwifery School. Birthplace of 80,000 Limburgish babies.

A large family was typical in catholic Limburg. However, drudgery, poor living conditions and widespread poverty led to high infant mortality. Teaching schools were built to remedy this situation, the best known of which was in Heerlen. Monseigneur Savelberg, co-founder of the St. Jozef Hospital, and the municipality of Heerlen funded a midwifery school for the most modern procedures. The training lasted three years, and the first students started in 1913. Demand meant the building was soon too small. The well-known architect Jan Stuyt (1868–1934) was commissioned to design a large complex on the Heerlerbaan, surrounded by nature and the open-air necessary for physical and mental wellbeing. The complex had student halls of residence, a director’s villa, amenity buildings and a chapel. The elongated building is in neoclassical style, with a pavilion-shaped gatehouse. On top of the bell tower stood a life-size gilded stork. More than 80,000 babies were born at Limburg’s well-known Midwifery School until it became part of the Midwifery Academy in Maastricht.

Photo selection. The Midwifery School (SHCL image database, EAN_0957)

Fertility in South Limburg. The fight against infant mortality.

At the end of the 19th century, the Netherlands was the only Western European country where the birth rate wasn’t in decline. This exception is mainly because of the population’s Catholic community. Within this community, the church establishes the rules and norms for family formation, and birth control is entirely out of the question. Up until 1960, the women of Limburg and Noord-Brabant bore the most children in the Netherlands. However, hard labour, poor living conditions and widespread poverty led to high infant mortality. Therefore, several midwifery schools were built in Limburg, the best known of which was in Heerlen.

Other initiatives were started, such as Pro Infantibus and the Limburg Green Cross, who launched a network of consultation offices to take care of pregnant women, women who had just delivered a child, as well as for recently born babies. These initiatives went hand in hand with the improvement of public hygiene and the availability of good information about how to take care of oneself, as well as with the provision of healthy food and drink, such as sanitised milk.

Wilhelmina van de Geijn. Curator of the Natural History Museum.

In 1937, Wilhelmina van de Geijn (1910–2009) was 27 when she became one of the first Dutch women to receive a doctorate in Natural Sciences. Her achievement was also a rarity because she did paleontological research into the famed ‘Elsloo shark teeth’. Two years later, miss Van de Geijn succeeded rector Jos. Cremers as the Natural History Museum’s curator. Cremers, who founded the Natural History Society and was the museum’s first curator, argued for her selection but did not persuade the municipal executive. The job interviews and lobbying were fierce and Van de Geijn visited all city council members in person to plead her case. The minute chronicler of her life that she was, she wrote down her findings in her dead-honest journal.

The fall out over Van de Geijn’s appointment in 1939 led to a break between the municipality and the Natural History Society. Her appointment was, however, a wise choice. In her nine years at the helm, she completely modernised the museum, built a new library and, together with landscape architect Mien Ruys, transformed the gardens into a landscape from the Cretaceous period. During the Second World War, she hid people in the museum, beneath the noses of the Nazis who stole part of her collections. An American officer taking the collection back to her was cause for great joy, as can be seen in the photos that were left after this special occasion.

In 1948, she had to resign because she married. Her husband was Toine Minis, who later became the town clerk. She continued her commitment to natural history as a board member of the Natural History Society and editor-in-chief of the Natuurhistorisch Maandblad (Nature-Historical Monthly). As curator, she moved into the museum’s official lodgings, known as Huis op de Jeker. She lived here, with a view onto her museum and gardens, until she was 99.

Lobbying trip to Maastricht

10-6-1939 [Saturday]

 

Arrival. Rector [ed. Jos Cremers, former museum curator] is awaiting me at the station. Together on to Hotel l'Empereur. There forged a battle plan with a stiff drink.

[ed., the Hôtel de l'Empereur is opposite the station]

Rector's new viewpoint is that the "Bucking Order" is alphabetical! Accords are made about the taxi company with which I'll be doing my driving around these days.

[ed., Bucking Order: Proposal by the municipal executive to the municipal council for most suitable candidates. The Roman-Catholic priest Bijlmer, of the Jesuit Order, from Amsterdam leads the shortlist. He is also the preferred candidate of mayor baron Michiels van Kessenich]

With Rector by taxi to the museum. Then on for the first visit to mister Hagdorn.

[ed., in the above photograph you can see the municipal council in 1935]

 

HAGDORN

[ed., sitting, 4th person left]

After waiting 15 minutes in the antechamber, a suite decorated in red plush in the front, green in the back, a stout, old gentleman came in introducing himself as Hagdorn.

After explaining to him the reason of my visit, he sat down most learnedly behind his pocket diary, took out a butt of pencil and started inquisitioning me and taking notes.

"Madam Dr Van de Geijn, what level of education did you take? Are you academically trained?" After assuring him that I indeed am academically trained, he asked whether I be married. Upon which my answer was that surely there are other life pursuits for women. I talked the green off a leaf about the advantages of having women in this profession. I made one faux pas by asking if in the South people are against posting 'girls' in serious positions, to which H. promptly retorted: "We aren't as backward as all that".

I shall be more careful with this topic when visiting the other gentlemen and flatter them with honied remarks such as: surely, people aren't as backward as all that around here (maybe 'conservative' is better, though not as well understood) to not allow women a position like this.

Anon, he scribbled diligently: three years as an assistant in Leiden, two in Delft, published about South Limburg. I showed him my publications, which he browsed through most learnedly. I markedly drove off his fears for such learned affairs by admitting I had the little piece in English translated at the Royal Academy. That evidently made him feel much better. He replied that he wondered oh so often how these people were able to do all that. No, now he understood, finally. It was an immense relief to him! So as not to indulge him too much in his sense of superiority, I added that "of course, the German and French translations are by my own hand". Luckily, he had expected no different. After which he asked if I shouldn't find such a museum position an imposition on a girl such as me. To which I replied: 5 years of experience with the managerial tasks of museum and library work, as exemplified by situations in the adult world.

As a final counter argument he addressed the matter of the work being physically too demanding for a girl. I attempted to satisfy him by saying that surely, I should have called it quits long ago if such work were indeed too hard and tiresome.

He shall take all into consideration and then decide not to vote for me.

 

Ms DOPPLER, not at home.

 [ed., sitting, 4th person right]

 

KERSTEN

 [ed., first standing row, 3rd person right]

Freshly assuaged by the Rector and roped in entirely. Also, looked at beautiful jewelry craftsmanship.

 

Had lunch at Jet de Jong's. A taxi driver of Spronck's picked me up there, complete with list of addresses.

 

CEULEN

 [ed., first standing row, 7th person right]

The former mayor of St Pieter [formerly a small village just to the South of the city; now a city neighbourhood]. I admired two beautiful spatangids [ed., fossilised sea urchins]. He asks if I'm a friend of the Rector's, in which case I shouldn't have too much trouble. He isn't unwilling, but not enthusiastic either. Lives on a farm, sells milk to Pro Infantibus.

[ed., Pro Infantibus: initiative by the Maastricht citizenry to help young mothers with their pregnancies and after they gave birth by establishing a network of consultation offices. The fight against infant mortality was of the utmost importance in Limburg in the early 20th century and was achieved, amongst other things, by providing sanitised milk]

 

PIETERSE (SDAP), not at home.

[ed., first standing row, 3rd person left]

 

CREMERS, not at home.

 

HOEX

An amicable old gentleman in a nice house. Promises to support me all the way. Has already heard rumors about 'the baron's friend' etc. and doesn't want to have anything to do with it.

[ed., 'the baron's friend' is a reference to the jesuit priest Bijlmer, the preferred candidate of mayor Michiels for the curator's position]

He will also work on Cremers. All in all, a most pleasant visit.

 

Mrs WIJNANDS, not at home.

[ed., sitting, 3rd person left. Anna Wynandts-Louis was the first female council member elected in the Netherlands. She took part in the first elections in which women could vote, on 17 May 1920. She represented the Social Democratic Workers Party (SDAP)]

Her husband requests us to return on the morrow.

 

KEULEN (SDAP), not at home.

[ed., first standing row, 5th person right]

 

SOETERS (SDAP)

[ed., second standing row, 1st person left]

A nippy socialist. Tells to be disappointed by the Rector because of his "faxist" remarks. Says only to look at capacity, but did not harbour great affection for me. Made a few bitter remarks and hints that the SDAP would have never voted for the Rector again, should he indeed have chosen to step down in December 1938.

 

NIJSTEN, party leader of the Catholic Democrats Maastricht (KDM).

[ed., first standing row, 8th person left]

I meet him in his garden, is on his way to customers with a big bag of coals hanging from his bicycle.

I introduce myself and shake his hand and tell him the reason for my visit.

"Come with me, miss, my wife is not at home, so please don't mind the mess", and with all that, suddenly I found myself in a cozy living kitchen.

There he informs me: "Listen, miss. Coming Monday there is a party meeting and there the Rector will tell us one thing and another (about the letter of the Baron, of course!). We have already heard so many good things about you, don't you worry about a thing".

Right after that, he steps away from the museum chapter and takes a big portrait from the wall, telling me intimate histories about all his relatives, especially those who have made it in the world, e.g.: a cousin who is now a legal secretary at the postal services in The Hague, a cousin-in-law became a nurse. Doesn't have children of his own. Regrets now that he married too late in life.

 

SCHOONBROOD, not at home, tomorrow between half one and two.

 [ed., sitting, 6th person right]

 

DUYSENS, back in ten minutes.

[ed., sitting, 2nd person left]

 

Had a cup of coffee in the meantime at Jet de Jong-ten Doeschate's.

 

DUYSENS

A bunch of kids jumping around. We can sit down in the drawing room. An old gentleman appears. Acts curt, rigid, unpleasant. Don't like him. Remarried recently to a young woman, apparently. Has to be warmed up first. No conversation.

 

VERNAUS

Not at home at first. Talked to his wife when he arrove in his butcher's keel. I explain one thing and another to him. He pulls me aside and assures me that KDM is on my side.

[ed., KDM: Katholieke Democraten Maastricht]

 

LINSSEN

[ed., first standing row, 6th person right]

Ancient, suited, poker face. Wisely only talks about the matter at hand.

 

PAULISSEN

[ed., sitting, 1st person left]

Friendly, member of SDAP [ed., Socialist Democratic Workers Party]. Very passionate about the museum, though disillusioned about the Rector (whom he heard about from the concierge). When I tell him that finally I met a man who knows what he is talking about, he now feels prompted to prod his whole party. Acts mighty enthusiastic for me.

 

CREMERS

Driver tells me he just saw Cremers lying in his car. Back to Cremers it is, then. Opens the door himself, waddles to a room, heavy sighs, hangs over a chair, while in the meantime I give him my calling card and tell him the usual story. He'll see about it, he mumbles. Back in the car, the driver shares with me that he [ed., Cremers] likes to hit the bottle! It would seem he had visited the fairground that afternoon too.

 

v.d. ZWAAN

Not at home. His wife states they're going to V. en D. [ed., V&D was a Dutch chain of department stores] to have a cup of coffee. Asks me to come back at 7.

 

Dr HOLLMAN

Unavailable, will be back at 10 in the morning.

 

v.d. ZWAAN

Very nice. Promised complete cooperation.

 

PIETERSE

[ed., first standing row, 3rd person left]

Warns me that the Cath. Party wouldn't want to have a girl for the job. As far as they are concerned though, no objection. Will consult with his party.

 

KEULEN

[ed., first standing row, 5th person right]

SDAP. Will speak to his cronies. Doesn't seem unsuited.

 

v.d. VELDE

[ed., first standing row, 6th person left]

Is on his honeymoon and won't be back before the council meeting.

 

MICHON

[ed., first standing row, 4th person left]

Old gentlemen, provided all cooperation. Would look at the documents. Can be assuaged.

 

The next day

11-6-1939 [Sunday]

 

UBAGHS

[ed., sitting row, 3rd person right]

Is somewhat perplexed, but will speak with the Rector. Suited.

 

DOLMANS

[ed., first standing row, 5th person left]

Has already spoken with the Rector.

 

Mrs WIJNANDS

[ed., sitting, 3rd person left]

Fourth attempt, again not at home.

 

JANSSEN LL.M.

[ed., second standing row, 2nd person left]

Gives me a reasonable chance, confesses that the nominations are alphabetical.

 

DEUSSEN

Went out at 6 in the morning already.

 

BOOSTEN

[ed., second standing row, 4th left]

Unavailable.

 

DEFECHE

Acts curt, wrote to the Rector about his cooperation.

 

FREENS

KDM promises all cooperation.

 

Barber LOONTJENS

[ed., second standing row, 3rd person right]

Will be told things from his wife.

 

VEENHOF

[ed., second standing row, 1st person right]

Sickly, but acts suitedly and will put in a good word for me.

 

Dr HOLLMAN

Will emphasise my fascination for South Limburg.

 

SCHAEPKENS

[ed., sitting, 5th person left]

Received a shark's tooth from him. I acted much pleased. Claimed that in this case he would vote for a girl.

 

Ms DOPPLER

[ed., sitting, 4th person right]

Acted very suitably. Will point out the household parts of the job, but promises no further.

 

Mrs SCHÖPPING

Has a daughter who also studies. Will do her best for me to her husband.

 

Appointed by 24 out of 28 votes.

 

Bibliography of the exhibition

Archival Material

Centre Céramique. Limburger Koerier 1860/1940; 1902/1920; 1937/1944. | Centre Céramique. Volkstribuun 10-1891/9-1893; 10-1894/9-1897. | ReclameArsenaal. BG E17. Collectie 150 jaar Nederlandse reclame. | Regionaal Historisch Centrum Limburg. 14.B002H Broederschap der kapelanen van Sint Servaas te Maastricht, 1139-1797. 84 Akte waarbij Andries Bouwens en Ghertruyt Happart, echtgenoten, voor Elisabeth Strouven c.s. en de door haar verzorgde armen en zieken twee wekelijkse missen stichten, 1635 november 30. | Regionaal Historisch Centrum Limburg. 18.A - nr 378: Autobiografie. / Elisabeth Strouven, 1600-1700. | Regionaal Historisch Centrum Limburg. 21.031 Vereniging sinds 1979 Stichting Pro Infantibus Maastricht, 1908-1999. | Regionaal Historisch Centrum Limburg. 22.001A - nr 507: Autobiografie / Strouven Elisabeth. | Regionaal Historisch Centrum Limburg. 22.078 Fotocollectie GAM (via beeldbank.rhcl.nl). | Regionaal Historisch Centrum Limburg. Kwartierstaat van Maximiliana van Salm-Reifferscheidt uit 1774. | Sociaal Historisch Centrum Limburg. EAN_0957 Academie Verloskunde Maastricht, Vroedvrouwenschool sinds 1913, RK Stichting Moederschapzorg te Heerlen, later Kerkrade, voorheen RK Vereeniging Moederschapzorg (Vroedvrouwenschool), 1907-2002. | Sociaal Historisch Centrum Limburg. EAN_1129 Beeldcollectie Sphinx (via beeldbank.rhcl.nl).

 

Articles

Berkeljon, S. (2020, 30-10). 'Abortus staat symbool voor hoe ongelijk mannen en vrouwen in Nederland behandeld worden'. De Volkskrant. | Bolwijn, M. (2020, 5-9). 'Abortus is hun recht en wij maken het mogelijk'. De Volkskrant. | Ebron, P. & Tsing, A.L. (2017). 'Feminism and the Anthropocene. Assessing the Field through Recent Books'. In: Feminist Studies 43(3): 658-683. | Lippke, A.C. (2019, 30-10). 'Love in a Mist - or Devil in a bush? How the politics of fertility relate to the subjugation of the natural world'. Harvard University Graduate School of Design.

 

Books

Brondizio, E.S., Díaz, S., Ngo, J. & Settele, J. (2019). Global Assessment Report on Biodiveristy and Ecosystem Services. Bonn: IPBES Secretariat. | Evers, I.M.H. (red.) (1986). Bonne et Servante. Uit de geschiedenis van de Maastrichtse vrouw. Maastricht: Uitgeverij Eygelshoven. | Haraway, D. (2016). Stayin with the trouble. Making Kin in the Cthulhucene. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. | Iterson, A. van (2020). De moeder van de Kommel. De autobiografie van Elisabeth Strouven (1600-1661). Amsterdam: Uitgeverij Panchaud. | Jamar, J. (red.) (2009). Vroedvrouwenschool. 100 jaar Moederschapszorg in Limburg. Hilversum: Uitgeverij Verloren. | Knotter, A. (red.) (2016). Keramiekstad. Maastricht en de aardewerkindustrie in de negentiende en twintigste eeuw. Zwolle: Uitgeverij WBooks. | Riddle, J.M. (1997). Eve's Herbs. A History of Contraception and Abortion in the West. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. | Vught, Th. van (2015). Een arbeidersbuurt onder de rook van 'De Sphinx'. Een sociaal-ruimtelijke geschiedenis van het Boschstraatkwartier-Oost te Maastricht, 1829-1904. Hilversum: Uitgeverij Verloren. | Welten, J. (2019). De vergeten prinsessen van Thorn (1700-1794). Gorredijk: Sterck & De Vreese.

 

Film

Qapirangajuq: Inuit Knowledge and Climate Change. Kunuk, Z. (reg.) & Mauro, I. (research). Igloolik Isuma Productions (2010) (60 min.) | Van wondermiddel tot nachtmerrie. Het DES-hormoon. Koren, Y. (reg.) & Berg, E. van den (research). NTR/Andere Tijden (2012, 18-3) (30 min.). |  Vessel. Whitten, D. (reg.). Sovereignty Productions (2014) (90 min.).

 

Websites

ateliervanlieshout.com | avlmundo.org | desaction.org | desireedolron.com | dianalylewhitten.com | ipbes.net | nextnature.net | nvga.net | plannedparenthood.org | seamlessterritory.org | tabitarezaire.com | vesselthefilm.com | wakkerdier.nl | womenonwaves.org | womenonweb.org | yaelbartana.com