‘Now I’ve got to be careful or I’ll lose my job,‘ Neelie Kroes remembered thinking after getting married in 1965. Her employer allowed her to continue working for him, but told her that getting pregnant would get her sacked: totally legal at the time. Kroes’ story is one of the personal stories featured in the exhibition ‘An ode to the women then, for the women now’ in Museum Rotterdam. The show is all about hard work done by Dutch women from the 1950s through today. A beautiful ode to strong personalities whose touching stories tell of expanding emancipation and courageous life choices.
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The unpaid toil of homemaking takes place behind closed doors. And as outsiders don’t witness the hard work done, that work isn’t really considered work at all. What’s more, homemaking doesn’t buy you a Maserati. It is no high-status career. In short, at a time when society confined women to the art of homemaking, their life work remained unseen and under-appreciated. But no longer: curator Sjouk Hoitsma of Museum Rotterdam puts Rotterdam women in the spotlight, their daily heroism exposed!
Food stamps for bling
In Museum Rotterdam it begins with the story of a peachy dress that a Dutch woman donated to the museum. It was sewn by her mother for the celebrations of freedom from German occupation in 1945. Mom tried to dye the dress orange, the national color of the Netherlands, but the poor textile coloring turned out salmon-ish. And she adorned the dress with the closest thing to bling at hand: food stamps. This imperfection of the dress symbolizes the way women contributed to daily life and society in the harshest of situations.
The exhibition is not only about clothes making, cleaning and caring for children. It shows the life stories of real women from the 1940s through today. Alongside the texts, items, and tablets with audio and photos, authentic costumes from the time make each of the stories tangible. Some of the interviewees even donated clothes to the show. Together, these stories walk us through time and make us awfully aware of the limits women faced. And the various ways those heroes dealt with it.
Slow emancipation is no reason to complain
Until 1956, female limits were clear: law forbade them to work out of the house after getting married. It denied them the right of owning their own money: banks would not open bank accounts for women. And it prevented them from traveling without the permission of their husbands. Officially, the law stated that married women weren’t able to handle things independently. Yet as marriage didn’t take arms, legs, or brains, it is safe to assume that society mostly just wished for their female half to be safely home, polishing the floors and the pristine faces of their offspring.
Even after the government dropped the law in 1956, emancipation came slowly and wouldn’t prevent employers from firing pregnant women. And we all know the million ways in which emancipation was hindered in all decades since. Nevertheless, slow emancipation is no reason to complain. If there is one thing the exhibition shows, it is that women come the longest way by making the best of live, whatever their limits may be. We always have a choice, even if having to make that choice is unfair.
Women shaping life in an unfair world
If getting married means being sacked, some ladies until the 1950s considered staying unmarried. Like the KLM stewardess who doubted giving up her horizon-broadening work for love and family. In the exhibition, an authentic navy-blue KLM constume sides her story. But marriage was both socially and financially the easiest way, and most women gave up their jobs.
However, some built a career inside their marriages. Like the textile designer and entrepreneur who registered her company on her husband’s name, as society in her time wouldn’t allow her an income and a bank account.
These women made strong choices and followed their ambitions. That bravery deserves the spotlight it receives in Museum Rotterdam.
Moreover, the spotlight is also on the women who chose family life over their careers. In the end, success is really about making our own decisions and creating our own truths within the world we live in. And it is about working hard and making the best out of imperfection. This is shown subtly and beautifully by curator Sjouk Hoitsma. The exhibition in Museum Rotterdam is a worthy ode to working women, whatever kind of work that may be!
Visit the exhibition
Visit the exhibition ‘An ode to the women of then, for the women of now’ before October 1st 2017. You find Museum Rotterdam at Rodezand 16, right behind the fancy shopping street Meent in the center of town. Entree is € 7,50 from 10 am to 17 pm daily (Sundays from 11 in the morning).