Aletta Jacobs, the eighth of twelve children, was born in the Netherlands in 1854. Her father was a doctor and she decided at an early age she wanted to be a member of the same profession. At this time boys and girls received different forms of secondary education. Whereas girls studied languages, art, music and handicrafts to prepare them for life as a wife and mother, a boy's education included mathematics, history, Greek, and Latin. Aletta's father managed to persuade the local boys' high school to allow his daughter to attend these classes.
After leaving high school, Jacobs went to live with one of her brothers who worked as a pharmacist. He taught her the trade and she eventually passed the relevant pharmacist exam. In 1872 she received special permission from the government to enter the University of Gröningen.
Jacobs passed her university exams in Mathematics and Physics and in 1876 entered the medical school in Amsterdam. Jacobs later wrote that during her studies she "encountered professors who openly opposed the idea of women doctors". However, she also received the strong support from other teachers and she successfully obtained her medical degree on April 2, 1878.
During the summer of 1878 Jacobs visited London where she met other feminists. This included Elizabeth Garrett Anderson who had qualified as a doctor in 1865. On her return to the Netherlands she became involved in several campaigns to improve the conditions of working class women.
Jacobs also became involved in providing women with birth-control. In her autobiography Jacobs wrote: "For social, moral, and medical reasons, women from different social classes had often asked me for some form of contraception. I had always had to fend off these requests without providing adequate explanation or advice. Eventually I sent letters to a number of women whose need was greatest. I told them that I believed I had found a means to help them, but before I could fully recommend it, they would have to agree to regular examinations during the first months of its use. Some of these women eventually agreed to the experiment, and the results were such that, some months later, I was able to announce that I could provide a safe and effective contraceptive."
Despite opposition from religious and political leaders, Jacobs started a national campaign to make contraception widely available in the Netherlands. Her birth-control clinic in Amsterdam open over 30 years before those in the United States and Britain. Her success inspired the activities of other birth-control advocates and Margaret Sanger and Marie Stopes both traveled to the Netherlands to find out more about the work of Jacobs.
Jacobs was also inspired by the work of feminists in other countries. For example, she took a keen interest in the activities of Josephine Butler who had campaigned against the Contagious Diseases Act in Britain. These acts had been introduced in the 1860s in an attempt to reduce venereal disease in the armed forces. Butler objected in principal to laws that only applied to women. Under the terms of these acts, the police could arrest women they believed were prostitutes and could then insist that they had a medical examination. Butler had considerable sympathy for the plight of prostitutes who she believed had been forced into this work by low earnings and unemployment. Jacobs shared Butler's concerned and campaigned against organized prostitution (white slave traffic).
In 1883 Jacobs attempted unsuccessfully to register to vote. This was the beginning of her campaign for universal suffrage. This generated a great deal of support after the Dutch Parliament, added the word "male" to the list of voting qualifications in 1887.
In 1893 Jacobs helped establish the Vereeniging voor Vrouwenkiesrecht (Woman Suffrage Alliance). Jacobs became head of the Amsterdam section and in 1903 she was elected president of the organization. Jacobs worked closely with other organizations such as the National Woman Suffrage Association and the National Union of Suffrage Societies and in 1904 was a founder member of the International Woman Suffrage Alliance (IWSA). This included feminists from the United States, Britain, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Australia, and Germany.
Jacobs became one of the most important international figures in the fight for universal suffrage. In 1911 she joined Carrie Chapman Catt in a world fact-finding tour. This included visits to South Africa, Syria, Egypt, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), India, Burma, Singapore, the Dutch East Indies, the Philippines, China, and Japan.
On the outbreak of the First World War a group of women pacifists in the United States began talking about the need to form an organization to help bring it to an end. On the 10th January, 1915, over 3,000 women attended a meeting in the ballroom of the New Willard Hotel in Washington and formed the Woman's Peace Party. Jane Addams was elected president and other women involved in the organization included Mary McDowell, Florence Kelley, Alice Hamilton, Anna Howard Shaw, Belle La Follette, Fanny Garrison Villard, Mary Heaton Vorse, Emily Balch, Jeanette Rankin, Lillian Wald, Edith Abbott, Grace Abbott, Crystal Eastman, Carrie Chapman Catt, Emily Bach, and Sophonisba Breckinridge.
In April 1915, Jacobs invited members of the Woman's Peace Party to an International Congress of Women in the Hague. Jane Addams was asked to chair the meeting and Mary Heaton Vorse, Alice Hamilton, Grace Abbott, Julia Lathrop, Leonora O'Reilly, Sophonisba Breckinridge and Emily Bach went as delegates from the United States. Others who went to the Hague included Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, Emily Hobhouse, (England); Chrystal Macmillan (Scotland) and Rosika Schwimmer (Hungary). Afterwards, Jacobs, Addams, Macmillan, Schwimmer and Balch went to London, Berlin, Vienna, Budapest, Rome, Berne and Paris to speak with members of the various governments in Europe.
Throughout this period Jacobs continued to campaign for universal suffrage. The vote was granted to women in Finland (1906), Norway (1907), Denmark (1915), Russia (1917), Germany (1918), Britain (1918), Poland (1918), Austria (1918), Czechoslovakia (1918) and Hungary (1918). Like the women of Luxemburg, Belgium and Sweden, the Netherlands had to wait until 1919 before obtaining the vote.
Aletta Jacobs died in 1929.