Dirty = dangerous? Commuters cycle underground

It’s autumn on the northern hemisphere. Leaves are falling, schools have started and, despite CoViD, people are riding their bikes to and from work again. They often ride in the dark, and they often have to move through small tunnels, subways, or underpasses.

Railway ruins in the Berlin park Schöneberger Südgelände, photo (2015) by Babewyn, CC BY-SA 4.0

These subways and underpasses have a bad reputation with many commuters and schoolchildren. For various reasons, they are considered dangerous and unpleasant places. Here, I want to share one example that relates this bad reputation specifically with the ‘dirt’ that is supposedly often found in these spaces. I will argue that this assumed relation between dirt and danger may be unjustified.

In my collection of newspaper clippings I found an item about the ‘Tunnel Vision’ that my city in the Netherlands launched a few years back. Citizens had complained that the tunnels in the city were dangerous to cycle through, and, in response, the city promised to keep its tunnels cleaner. That meant regularly removing all graffiti, moss and algae. This is interesting in itself: that graffiti – which is writing and painting – is classified as ‘dirt’; and that the bits of green that nature manages to carry into the city, too, are classified as ‘dirt’ (some of those green bits can be treacherously slippery, but is that the same as being dirty?).

Braehead Tunnels in Glasgow, graffiti of Oor Wullie by Rogue-one, photo (2014) by Daniel Naczk, CC BY-SA 4.0

In the news article, which is headed ‘Creepy tunnels’, cyclists are encouraged to report any underground graffiti they encounter to the city council, who will then make sure those spaces are ‘freshened’ up again. This cleaning regimen is reported to be pretty successful in publicly, locally owned underpasses. Underpasses owned by other organisations than the city, however, are ‘much less clean and therefore much creepier’. The assumption is clear: for the writers of the article, as well as for the city councillors who initiated the anti-graffiti measures, dirt equals danger.

Now I recently published an article about dirt and cleanliness in the Low Countries. One of my findings there is that many of us tend to associate dirty people and dirty environments with immoral behaviour. What’s more, such associations are heavily infused with class prejudice and fear of class insubordination.

Tunnel near Nowa Huta Cultural Centre, Kraków, graffiti by mgr mors, photo (2017) by Jakub Hałun, CC BY-SA 4.0

This results in chains of thought that are completely self-evident to the politicians and voters who have them, but that turn out to be quite convoluted on closer inspection, and based on many unfounded assumptions. Two of these chains of thought:

  1. There are people in this city who want to hurt me > people who want to hurt other people are dirty > therefore, they make the places where they spend time dirty, too > examples of dirt are graffiti and moss > these people who want to hurt other people happen to gather in tunnels > there, they spend their time spraying graffiti and growing mosses, while waiting for me to pass by on my bike > if I see graffiti or moss in a tunnel, therefore, I know that these people who want to hurt me are close by, and that I am in danger.

    The second one is even less likely:

  2. There are people in this city who want to hurt me > these people feel at home in dirty places > graffiti and moss are dirty > therefore, these dangerous people are to be found in tunnels > if we remove graffiti and moss from tunnel walls, tunnels will no longer attract these people, nor will these people be found anywhere else on my way home > removing graffiti and moss from tunnels turns my journey home into a safe one.

Keeping things graffiti- and moss-free thus becomes a moral command (in the Low Countries, at least).

Broadway tunnel reverse graffiti, photo (2008) by Valerie Hinojosa (Washington DC), CC BY-SA 2.0

The fear is real, no doubt about that.

What we (cyclists around the world!) should acknowledge, however, is that what we consider to be clean or unclean is culturally specific. What is dirty in some cultures and social groups is clean in others, and the other way around.*

What we should also acknowledge, is that we are really talking about what we find pleasant to look at: clean = beautiful. We (Europeans?) are quite accustomed to telling people whose graffiti/moss/culture we find ugly, that their graffiti/moss/culture is therefore also morally wrong, or criminal, or uncivilised. This is quite an authoritarian habit. It shows, moreover, little self-understanding. We should know that what we like to see on walls is largely a matter of taste,** and we should honestly acknowledge our own taste in this.

In the council motion that inspired my city’s Tunnel Vision, the initiator says that people feel better when public spaces are regularly maintained. This is undoubtedly true. However, what the other city councillors, those who started the push-back against graffiti (and moss?), failed to realise, is that what counts as good maintenance, what counts as clean, what counts as safe, and what counts as pretty, are very different things to different people.

* I refer to these as different ‘cultures of cleanliness’. I investigate different cultures of cleanliness in nineteenth-century Europe in my academic research on travel, spaces and bodies.

** I am not saying it is a matter of individual taste. Rather, it is a group taste. Of course, it is also a matter of group belonging, struggle over space, street wars, etc., but that is exactly what I mean: those things inform taste, rather than some neutral concept of safety or cleanliness.

My article about Dutch-language cleanliness culture appeared in the 2021 Spring issue of De lage landen under the title ‘Schone taal, schoon volk?’, online and on paper.

Sheffield, railway bridge graffiti near Midland Railway Station, photo (2016) by APHG

Them students

When I teach, I try to decentre my students’ gender. I, like many other teachers, try to make it not matter whether my students are female, male, neither or both – to make it not matter for me, or for other students in the classroom. Because every time we mention that someone is a man, or a woman, we recreate this difference and act as if it matters when considering each others’ ideas. And usually we do so even without asking whether the student cares for these labels that we give them. I want to find ways in the classroom of expressing fewer assumptions about gender, and ways of de-emphasising it altogether.

Of course, our gender does matter in society in many ways, for instance because women’s contributions are often valued less. And the life experiences that this leads to should definitely be brought into classroom conversations. Also, whether I succeed in my aims is a different story. Making gender irrelevant, even if only for a moment, is a difficult thing to do. We have each piled up a lifetime of gender socialisation to the contrary. But precisely for these reasons, I try to level the playing field at least somewhat and direct our attention to what a student says, rather than to their gender.

Photo of Banqiao Senior High School’s day of action against gendered uniform rules. New Taipei City (Taiwan), May 2019. Posted on school Facebook site PCSH.BQSA, maker unknown, accessed via the Straits Times.

In order to help myself and the other students a little, I am trying to teach myself to refer to each student using their name, or else the word ‘they’.

However, always using their name can lead to awkward situations.

I remember a conversation with a colleague about a student, that went something like this:

colleague: ‘How was her essay?’

– ‘Esmeralda’s essay was pretty good. Esmeralda managed to combine theory and case-study in a wonderful manner. Esmeralda introduces the theory very clearly, and then tells us about an experience Esmeralda had Esmeralda-self, that shows how we may have to modify the theory a little if it is to take into account the lives of Esmeralda and students like Esmeralda.’

By the second sentence, my colleague was no longer listening (I doubt that I was, myself) and gestured with a slightly concerned look on their face: ‘What are you doing?’

Thankfully, there is that English pronoun ‘they’.

But I also teach in Dutch. Dutch has the awkward property that there is no separate word for ‘they’. There is no distinct pronoun to refer to the third person in a ungendered manner. All there is, are the plural words ‘ze’ and ‘zij ‘, but these happen to be the same as the singular female pronouns! The only way of making clear you are using the ungendered words is by using them in combination with a plural verb.

And so I stumble on:

colleague: ‘And how did she do in classroom discussions?’

– ‘Oh, they were doing very well.’

In English, that sounds just fine, but in Dutch, it led my colleague to doubt my sanity once again:

‘No, I did not mean the rest of the students. Just Esmeralda herself!’

– ‘As I said: Esmeralda were making an excellent contributions [I totally lost it now]. They did not only say a very interesting things, but they also listened carefully to the others students, as well as to us, the teacher.’

If plurals confuse me now, of course speakers of Dutch will get used to them eventually, like people do in English. The real problem is that the distinction between female ‘zij’ and ungendered ‘zij’ is still not very clear in practice.

Other solutions have been tried by Dutch speakers. Use of the plural object word ‘them’, for instance:

– ‘Them has a few questions to their teacher.’

This word – ‘hen’ in Dutch – was voted pronoun of choice for non-binary people in a poll organised by the Dutch Transgender Network (TNN).

On a side note, this shows how similar innovations are coming from multiple directions at the same time. Trans activism and feminist activism (and the two overlap) diagnose closely related social issues and can fruitfully look for solutions together.

The Network’s news item on the poll suggests that for them, the pronoun ‘hen’ is expressly not meant to be used for (cis or trans) men or women: ‘Just like cisgender men and women, trans men and women prefer binary pronouns (he or she).’ But I do not know whether that reflects the opinion of all who participated in the poll, or all members in the Network. I think that even a ‘binary’ feminist – whether man or woman, cis or trans – might very well opt for a non-binary pronoun. I am therefore very grateful that the Network is coordinating this effort at language change. I believe that the results can be used for a more general feminist cause as well. Our language only starts to change once a critical mass has gathered, and through their communication with the media, the Network may well be creating quite some of this mass.

Back to my daily practice and ‘hen’.

The somewhat conservative language lover in me does lament that ‘hen’ would then be used for both object and subject in a sentence, which I find ugly:

‘Them sees them.’

… and laments that it is also the Dutch word for chicken: ‘hen’.

But I have decided to give it a try.

At first, it feels uncomfortable when I say it. Disrespectful even. As if I am mimicking someone else’s slang. But after a brief while, I already feel that discomfort wear away a little. That matches my general belief that even grown-ups can get used to new words very well, even to new pronouns. I only have to think of my own introduction to singular ‘they’ at the age of eighteen. This came after years of school- and BBC-trained insistence on ‘he’ or ‘she’. Yet within a few years’ time, I was accustomed to ‘they’.

Do read my colleague Marc van Oostendorp’s contrasting opinion in newspaper Trouw. Marc van Oostendorp reminds us that the human linguistic faculty is a conservative one: that it is hard for people to shift their use of function words like ‘she’ or ‘he’. And it is true, of course, that my own mental shift to ‘they’ took place within the English language, a language in which the new word was already considered normal by many other people.

Still, could we not create our own social pockets of normality? In our classrooms, our student essays, our blogs? Like I said, it only works once we gather enough critical mass for a specific solution. But once that’s there, that solution will no longer feel artificial, it will start to feel normal.

Marc themself has offered an alternative, one that is both democratic and linguistically informed: ‘vij/her/zaar’. (You can figure out how Marc got there if you know a little Dutch.) Though they did so jokingly, it sounds pretty good, and I would happily consider it.

As I would happily consider getting used to ‘hen’.

There is another obvious alternative in Dutch: using ‘that’ or ‘that one’ instead of ‘her’ or ‘she’.

‘Esmeralda might leave class early today. That has a vaccination appointment. or: That one has a vaccination appointment.’

As gender linguist Ingrid van Alphen has said before: ‘that’ does sound very demonstrative. And it may lead to confusion, because currently it is often used to refer to the object of a previous sentence, rather than its subject:

‘Esmeralda has a turtle. That one likes to go on walks’

Whereas previously it was clearly the turtle who liked walking, when using the suggested strategy this could just as well refer to Esmeralda. Still, it may be worth a try.

And how about simply leaving out the consonants of ‘hij’ and ‘zij’ and say ‘ij’?

Our own Radboud graduate Féline Visscher explored all the options in their thesis in 2017.

Debates about gender-neutral, ungendered and gender-inclusive pronouns have been going on for many decades, perhaps many centuries already. My aim in this column was not to add any new suggestions or arguments. Instead, I am hoping that we can transform some of all that thinking into practice. The Dutch language authority the Taalunie has created a gender-inclusivity committee that will, in years to come, advise us via their website. But why not start right here, right now, in our classrooms, our offices, our workplaces?

Are you a student on a Dutch-spoken course? Try out some innovative pronouns yourself, whether any of the above or others. And tell your teachers – tell me – which you would suggest for our everyday practice here in the classroom. Or for when us teachers praise your essays.

This column was originally written for the Women on the Timeline project, organised by students of the Radboud University Nijmegen, which can be found in Raffia Magazine, on Instagram: @w_o_t_t, and on Facebook: @WomenOnTheTimeline.


1921: the first explicit depiction of rape from a survivor perspective in Dutch?

A post about Neel Doff and her novel Keetje Errand Girl (Keetje trottin).

In 1921, exactly one century ago, a novel was published which ends in a remarkable scene. The novel narrates the childhood of Keetje Oldema, growing up in a destitute household in Amsterdam in the second half of the nineteenth century. The novel sees her, her parents and siblings struggling for a living through a series of jobs. Although the novel also contains many more cheerful moments, there is an ominous undertone throughout. From the very start, the novel is larded with scenes of pain, violence, and Keetje’s fear of growing up a woman, and scenes about the power that those with more money have over her. These scenes culminate in the book’s final chapter.

It is New Year’s Day, afternoon, and Keetje is alone – she thinks – in the house of her employers, apart from a sick lodger to whom she has to serve tea. Everyone else has gone out to pay New Year’s visits. Keetje is fourteen years old and she has been feeling increasingly alienated from her family, from childhood friends who have entered circles with more money, and from her own body. Her belly feels heavy, she is shivering. When she lies down for a moment, she discovers she has started her first period. Suddenly, she hears her boss enter the room. He throws herself on top of her, naked. “I could not cry out: he had glued his mouth over mine.”

The narrator goes on to describe a rape scene in explicit detail, naming what Keetje’s boss does to her, the sounds and movements he makes, how she tries to prevent him, and how her body feels, during and after the rape.

This was an exceptional scene to write in 1921, and it raises many questions: who wrote this novel, and what was their own connection to this literary material? What exactly made their work stand out from other work before them? And why was it important that they wrote it?

Neel Doff as a writer. Photo taken in a professional Brussels studio (scan from local Studiegroep Leudal)

Writer Neel Doff (1858–1942) lived in a similar economic position as her protagonist Keetje for much of her life. She was born in Limburg in 1858. Her parents – mother from Limburg, father from Groningen – moved to Holland when Doff was a child, in their search for employment. As the family grew, and as her parents wandered from job to job and the family from cellar room to attic and back, Doff soon assumed responsibility for part of the family income. Many of her jobs took her onto the streets of Amsterdam, where she sold pots and pans, delivered medicines and hats, and acted as a domestic servant. She only visited school intermittently, yet she tried to read whenever she could. She found books in her employers’ homes and no doubt also made use of the commercial lending libraries that existed across town, often as part of a shop.

Nevertheless, the family remained poor. Some biographers mention that Doff took up sex work when aged fifteen for this reason; others that Doff has always denied this – though we have to take into account the tremendous social pressures for an aspiring writer to deny any personal association with sex work. The Doffs, still looking for work, then moved to Belgium. Here, we do know for certain that one of Doff’s new jobs was to model for painters and sculptors. Through these artistic circles and the money she earned there, she was able to befriend wealthier and more educated people, and to catch up on her own education. She moved out of her parents’ and hired her own private apartment. Like a Great Gatsby avant la lettre – though not in it for love but for a home of her own – she worked on her self-presentation and on her own professional artistic skills.

She trained for a career on the stage for a while but soon moved into writing. She began by publishing translations and short stories, for instance in her partner’s political art magazine La Société Nouvelle. In 1911, she presented Keetje Oldema to her audience: an alter ego that was to feature in three of her novels. The final volume in this trilogy was Keetje trottin, ‘Keetje Errand Girl’, published in 1921 and containing the scene with which this article opened. The trilogy met with considerable critical acclaim in France.

Meanwhile, she married, was widowed, and married again. She seems to have been very fond of both her husbands. Still, for much of her life, Doff continued to live on her own. She acquired a house with a garden, and with it, the calm and independence she had always dreamed of, in a small town in Belgian Limburg, and became increasingly engrossed in the countryside and the natural world. This is were she died, in the thick of the nazi occupation of Belgium, aged 84. In the final decade of her life, her work had received new attention, in Belgium itself this time, although it never entered either the Francophone or Dutch literary canon.

First edition

As mentioned, the Keetje trilogy is partly autobiographical. That does not mean it is a “true story” from A to Z – if such a thing exists at all. In fact, Doff herself has said in an interview about one of the other volumes that it was 25% fiction. But whether the scene took place exactly as described is perhaps of less relevance to most readers. Of greater interest is Doff’s relation to the theme of sexual violence in her own life and how that compares to her protagonist’s relation to sexual violence.

Rape has always been an important literary theme in the Netherlands, Belgium and France as in the rest of the world. Yet the way Doff addresses it is strikingly new.

Depictions of rape in European writing have usually been less open that Doff’s and the same goes for the visual arts, and, I suspect, also for oral traditions. They speak of a before and an after, for example, but not of a “during”. Or they speak of rape in metaphors. Frequently, narrators also transport the theme to faraway places and times. They depict the Roman Lucretia, for instance, or retell one of the countless rape stories in the Bible. Add to this these famous stories’ sense of inevitability, their often euphemistic translations, and the respect given to many of their violent characters (they made up the male elite’s Classical heritage and religious identity, after all), this worked to obscure the actual mechanics and experiences of rape in them. (If you read Dutch, you might want to take a look at Mieke Bal’s study Verkrachting verbeeld.)

Often, rape in such stories also functions as a metaphor. In early-modern war propaganda, for instance, the defended country (the Dutch Republic, for example) is portrayed as being raped by the enemy (the Spanish emperor). (See Amanda Pipkin, Rape in the Republic.)

Finally, when they do actually speak about rape in explicit and real-life terms, which seems to have happened more often from the end of the nineteenth century onwards, most narratives focus on the experiences of men, not as raped persons themselves, but as bystanders (hurt in their honour, failing to protect their wives) or as rapists. At other times, the perspective of the rapee is taken – the rapee almost invariably being a woman in nineteenth-century literature. Yet in those cases, the story was usually created by a male artist who imagined, and often in fact fantasised, how a female character might experience her rape. (See Mary Kemperink, Het verloren paradijs.)

In Keetje trottin, rape is none of these: not implied or distanced, not depicted from the perspective of anyone who is not its victim, and certainly not used as metaphor only. Instead, it is explicit, literal and felt through the body of the raped person. What is more, the author herself shared her social and economic position as a child with her protagonist. Both were poor working-class girls employed by a series of wealthier men, likely also employed in sex work, and definitely in occupations that were at that time closely linked to sex work: modelling and stage performance. As a result, Doff will inevitably have had many encounters with sexual aggression and sexual claims across her childhood and youth. When I write that Doff was possibly the first Dutch author to explicitly depict a rape scene from a survivor perspective, I therefore mean both that the passage describes the experiences of the victim, and that Doff herself knew about that perspective. (Do you know of similar, earlier depictions by Dutch, Belgian or French authors? Please let me know.)

Now my argument is not that in order to write a good book about a working-class girl, one has to have been one oneself. This is an identity-based form of art politics that I do not subscribe to. Instead, my argument is that when writing about a certain experience, the resulting text will most likely be richer and more insightful if one has had similar experiences oneself, or has closely investigated that experience. Doff, in her decades-long financial dependence on those around her, and living in an age when the sexual availability of women and of the working classes was taken for granted by most, will have had many similar experiences to Keetje’s in this key scene, experiences which she must almost inevitably have drawn upon. It is this that makes her books truly remarkable.

Access to such scenes, written explicitly and by an author intimately acquainted with some of its meanings, has a lot to offer. It offers us historical insights. It offers an insight into literary history: what enabled, perhaps even encouraged twentieth-century authors to write about rape in this manner? Yet above all, it contributes at least two forms of non-academic knowledge.

In a novel such as Doff’s, some readers may find recognition and comfort.

Others may broaden their worldview. In an article in journal Vooys (“Hoe lezers lijden lezen”), Emy Koopman explains that explicit descriptions of rape are experienced differently by readers from implicit descriptions. In particular, in an explicit text that uses a lot of stylistic, literary means, readers empathise with the victim more than in an implicit text, but without being scared away from reading the story, as they might in a more businesslike explicit account. To broaden readers’ worldview by encouraging empathy with experiences outside their own life: that is what a literary text can do; and that is one of the things that Doff’s Keetje books can do for us.

Keetje trottin is worth a read for many reasons. I discuss its intersectional characteristics in my recent article for Lover Magazine of which an English translation is available on my blog; I write about Keetje’s flânerie in an upcoming article for the academic journal Signs; and I reflect on various thematic, poetic and reception aspects in my afterword to the Dutch translation Keetje op straat, which is now available from IJzer Press. The original French text is available on Gutenberg.org.

This post was originally written for Women on the Timeline, a project run by Anouk Wolkotte, Charlotte Hermanns and other students at the Radboud University (Netherlands) that aims to rebuild the canon.


Hats and whores: A nineteenth-century childhood

As promised, I have translated and edited my article that outlines some of the key forms of intersectionality in Neel Doff’s novel ‘Keetje Errand Girl’, about an Amsterdam working girl in the 1860s and 70s: here it is. A shorter version of this article appeared in Lover Magazine (in Dutch).

I have just published my Dutch translation of Neel Doff’s French novel Keetje trottin (Dutch title: Keetje op straat). This novel illustrates the complex idea of intersectionality in many ways, showing how feminism needs more than the dual concepts of man and woman in order to be effective. In this article, I explore four different meanings of the word ‘intersectional’, using examples from the book.

But first: a brief introduction of the novel. Keetje trottin is one of three autobiographical novels published by Neel Doff (1858–1942) between 1911 and 1921. They centre on her alter ego, Keetje Oldema. The book Keetje trottin is set in the slums of Amsterdam, where Keetje grows up, as well as in the homes of the (petits) bourgeois, the hatters and pharmacists for whom she runs errands. ‘Keetje Errand Girl’, in other words, or ‘Keetje trottin’ in French. French was the language Doff wrote her stories in, after she had herself become a member of the (haute) bourgeoisie, was no longer required to work for a living, and had settled down in Belgium in her own house with a garden. It made quite a difference from how she grew up.

Doll for rich children (or rich grown-ups), such as the ones Keetje encounters at her employers’. 1860/1890, owned by Museum Rotterdam, no. 33275-1.A-B. CC-BY-SA-3.0.

It is those socioeconomic and cultural differences that the book is all about. This results in some marvellous insights into the life of a working-class girl in the second half of the nineteenth century: a group who had little opportunity to make themselves heard except indirectly, in a book like this, written years later. Keetje’s work experiences, her hunger, her responsibilities as an elder daughter in a big family; but equally her aesthetic pleasures, her love of hats and her creativity; her explorations of her physical relations to both men and women; her experiences as a reader, a flâneur, painter’s model, sex worker, mistress and protester… they are all there in the books, and most likely, they all somehow relate to Doff’s own experiences.

Parts of the trilogy have been translated into various languages. In 1930, an English translation appeared of the volume Keetje, for instance. A few years ago, the same volume was translated into Vietnamese. And this year, I published a Dutch translation of Keetje trottin: fitting, since this book is set in the Netherlands. Yet despite this interest, very little has as yet been written about the book, and for many it remains a hidden gem.

Back to intersectionality. For those new to the word: you experience intersectionality if you are at the crossroads – the ‘intersection’ – of multiple social categories. For example, if you are both a migrant and deaf. What counts as a ‘category’ is of course contested, but there’s plenty of room for such contestation with an intersectional lens. Evidently, too, everyone has an intersectional identity: your identity always consists of multiple layers, multiple components. The word intersectionality is often used, however, to highlight how several of these components can each put you in a disadvantaged position: many societies treat both migrants and deaf people with less care than they do others. What the intersectional lens does next, is look at these components in combination: because they do not act on the individual separately, but always in interaction with each other. What that entails is what I want to explore here.

In doing so, I build on the work of those feminist thinkers who articulated and developed such intersectional approaches in the 1970s and 80s: in the first place African-American lesbians and other women, such as Audre Lorde, Barbara Smith and Akasha Hull.

1) Double disadvantage

Keetje is both a woman and a worker. In the Netherlands of around 1870, this means she is doubly disadvantaged. In each capacity, she gets less chance of going to school, she earns less money, and has less power than other people. Their subordinate status moreover puts her and her colleagues at risk of forced sex. Keetje sees with her own eyes how the live-in cook threatens to lose her job if she does not condone the comings-on of their boss, the hatter. This is only a foreshadowing of the violence Keetje herself is to suffer at his hands.

2) No real home

Bernice Johnson Reagon, among others, has shown how people on an intersection are also judged by members of the very same oppressed groups that they form part of. Reagon herself recounts, for instance, the racism she met at a feminist conference (see her ‘Coalition Politics’ in Home Girls).

Keetje, in turn, not only has to deal with her bourgeois employers but also with people of her own economic milieu. You might suppose there to be some form of class solidarity, but this is far from always the case in Doff’s books.

For instance, some of Keetje’s colleagues live with their bosses, while Keetje returns home to her parents in the evenings. Keetje is ‘not part of the house’. Her colleagues take it for granted that therefore she receives less food during the breaks. While the others eat bread and cheese, Keetje gets ‘bread and naught’. And no coffee, either.

Keetje is also something of a nerd. This fact is not generally appreciated. Especially her elder sister, her parents and some of her colleagues complain that she is always stuck with her heads in the books or doing some interior decoration or other, or fashion design, in her spare time. Instead, she should focus on those things that befit her class and her role as a growing woman:

If I were your mother, I would teach you some different ideas: […] if I saw you touch even one book, I would make sure you’d soon regret it.

Similarly, when Keetje asks her parents to explain the meaning of a word she picked up, she has her ears boxed. Expressing their lack of interest, but possibly also their feelings of inferiority, her family and colleagues call her a ‘childish creature’. In short, it isn’t all solidarity that she can expect from her own class and sex.

Yet Keetje, in turn, also belongs to a group of poor Christians who harbour stark prejudices against poor Jews, which is yet another example of this lack of solidarity. Still, over the course of the novel, she starts to question her own anti-Semitism, for instance when she finds employment with a Jewish family.

Cardboard hatbox, like the one chafing Keetje’s hip when doing her rounds. 1870/1900, owned by Museum Rotterdam, no. 20586-B-C. CC-BY-SA-3.0.

3) Hidden trouble

As said, Keetje is only a child in this book. That does not just mean that she has even less power, education and money than most people around her. It also illustrates yet another consequence of intersectionality. The term ‘intersectionality’ itself has been in use ever since lawyer and philosopher Kimberlé Crenshaw invented it in 1989 (see ‘Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex’ in the University of Chicago Legal Forum). She emphasised that many of the problems of people at an intersection are simply not seen by others. This is connected to the fact that intersectionally disadvantaged people themselves are often not seen by others.

Take for instance nineteenth-century working girls. Children may not get much of a voice, but at least they can play. And older female servants, though they always have to work hard, at least are the mistresses (simply put) of their own domain, the kitchen and other servants’ quarters. We tend to forget that there is a large group of people who are both child and servant. Keetje starts work from age eight, at the latest. This group has neither time nor a place for themselves. How does this pan out for Keetje?

Keetje likes to watch bourgeois women, and models her aspirations after their lives. In their position, at least, she would have a home of her own. Here follows a brief excerpt from Keetje trottin. Keetje has just been reading the novel Woutertje Pieterse by Multatuli – a novel much like Doff’s own, in many ways. Keetje fantasises what it would be like if Wouter were her friend:

Why would two very young people like we, Wouter, not be able to marry? I know quite well how to boil potatoes, cut sandwiches, clean the room and make the beds. God, how wonderful that would be! I would come and pick you up from the office at the Kopperliths and we would go for a walk along the canals. On Saturday nights we would bathe in the tub using warm water and on Sundays we would dress nicely… For I would be the wife of a gentleman who works ‘at the office’…


We would go out by the Gate of Muiden, to the Roomtuintjes, or by the Gate of Weesp, to drink tea in one of those gardens. And when the water in the tea stove next to us boils, I make the tea and we eat buttered biscuits, sprinkled with sugar. That is how I see the respectable people do it on Sundays, as I look on from the path, when they drink tea in the gardens and eat biscuits from a ‘presentation tin’. That’s right, isn’t it? Oh! My God! What pleasure! We won’t tell we are married… the people would laugh at us… And when we get back home, I make us hot sage milk and we crack nuts…

But Wouter is not actually her boyfriend, Keetje does not have the money and, most people around her argue, it wouldn’t suit her anyhow as a worker to long for this lifestyle.

On the other hand, she loves horsing around in the fields just as well, and physical contact with boys:

on those Sundays when the sun does not shine, we do not dress nicely. Instead, we go to the meadows, to leap over ditches – I leap, you know – and chase each other: you have to be fast to catch me… Yes… But first we have to get married: or we could not live together…

Then again, she cannot go around being chased by boys. After all, she is female and it would damage her reputation. The dangers of sex and the vulnerability of her honour are instilled in Keetje from a very young age, which leads to some serious clashes with her desire for physical contact. Keetje is six years old here:

I was playing in the street on my own when Tom, the neighbours’ dog, came walking towards me […].

‘Tom, you love me, don’t you,’ I said, ‘you take me in your paws, Tom… I love you too, because you are always nice to me.’ I lay down on the step in front of our door. Tom came to me again and this time embraced me completely. I had put my arms around his big head and pressed him against my chest. Suddenly, he got up, yowling: my father had lashed at him with the whip. To the woman who had chased Tom away, he said: The little one is always playing with our bitch, who is on heat; naturally, the rascal can smell it…’ And they burst out laughing. […]

Now I ask you! Father does not want Tom to take me in his arms again and lick me! He does not want him to snuggle up against me! And why not? He and mother have no time to hug me. Never do they take me into their arms.

And so, Keetje is not just triply disadvantaged, but cannot even enjoy the (limited) advantages, such as romping about, that come with belonging to any of the individual groups she belongs to.

Fashionable ladies’ hat, of the kind that Keetje makes and delivers. 1870-1880, owned by the Amsterdam Museum, no. KA 1238. Public domain.

4) Never ‘just’ a child

One final way to approach intersectionality in the Keetje trilogy is by observing that we can only really understand one component of someone’s identity once we see it in the light of those other components. In other words: a social position, such as that of woman, only gets its meaning in its interplay with other social parameters.

As mentioned before, Keetje is bullied a lot in her capacity of a child. And yet, her gender and class at the same time deny her the possibility of really being a child. Although she does like to play with dolls, for example, her environment expects her to deliver the work of a grown-up, and to take part in a society in which sexual work is often a woman’s only means to an income: as a whore, but, as described above, also as a servant or as a wife, which in many ways was also a form of sex work, as eighteenth-century feminist critics already argued.

Keetje is perceived as a child, therefore, but at the same time also as a woman and a worker, which influences what it means for her to be a child. It goes to show that often, our own conceptions, too, may be limited: what we consider to be typical child’s behaviour, may in fact only be the lifestyle of children with affluent parents.

To be a child means something different in every economic milieu, in every place in the world and for every gender. Do read one of the Keetje books, and find out what being a child means for Keetje. Or, better: what it means for her to be a child, worker and woman at the same time, in nineteenth-century Amsterdam.

The English quotes in this article are my own, rough and ready, translations.

You can read a short interview about my Dutch translation on Radboud Recharge.


Hoeden en hoeren – Hats and whores

This article outlines some of the key forms of intersectionality in Neel Doff’s novel ‘Keetje Errand Girl’, about an Amsterdam working girl in the 1860s and 70s. I translated this novel to Dutch. A shorter version of this article about intersectionality appeared with Lover Magazine. I may also publish an English translation [> this has now appeared here]. You can read a more general English-language interview about my translation on Radboud Recharge.

Zojuist is Keetje op straat uitgekomen, mijn vertaling van Neel Doffs roman Keetje trottin. Het is een intersectionele roman van heb ik jou daar. In dit artikel laat ik aan de hand van vier voorbeelden uit de roman zien wat intersectionaliteit allemaal kan betekenen.

Maar eerst wat achtergrond. Keetje trottin is een van de drie autobiografische romans die Neel Doff (1858–1942) tussen 1911 en 1921 publiceerde. Hoofdpersoon is haar alter ego Keetje Oldema. Keetje trottin speelt zich af in de sloppen van Amsterdam, waar Keetje opgroeit, én in de huizen van de middenstand en opklimmende burgerij (hoedenmakers, apothekers) waar ze werkt als loopmeisje. Keetje het loopmeisje dus: ‘Keetje trottin’ in het Frans. Doff schreef de romans namelijk in het Frans, toen ze op latere leeftijd zelf opgeklommen was tot de gezeten burgerij, niet meer hoefde te werken, en in België was neergestreken in een villa met tuin. Een dramatischer contrast met haar vroegere leven was nauwelijks denkbaar.

Pop voor rijke kinderen (of volwassenen, natuurlijk), zoals Keetje tegenkomt bij haar werkgevers (1860/1890) uit de collecties van Museum Rotterdam, nr. 33275-1.A-B. CC-BY-SA-3.0.

Over die contrasten gaan de boeken dan ook. Dat levert een prachtige reeks inzichten op in het leven van een arbeidersmeisje in de tweede helft van de negentiende eeuw: een bevolkingsgroep die weinig kans kreeg om haar stem te laten horen. Keetjes ervaringen als werkneemster, als hongerlijdster, als verantwoordelijke oudere dochter in een arm gezin; maar ook als estheet, als liefhebber en maker van hoeden; als iemand die haar lichamelijke relaties met mannen en vrouwen onderzoekt; als lezer, stadswandelaar, schildersmodel, sekswerker, minnares en demonstrant… ze passeren allemaal de revue, en ze zullen allemaal ten dele voortbouwen op de ervaringen die Doff zelf heeft gehad. Dit maakt de romans historisch interessant. Maar ze zijn ook literair interessant: Keetje trottin is bijvoorbeeld een van de eerste romans die de wereld écht proberen te zien door de ogen van een kind. Multatuli (Woutertje Pieterse, 1862-1877) en Frederik van Eeden (De kleine Johannes, 1887) waren Doff in Nederland voorgegaan; Carry van Bruggen (Het huisje aan de sloot, 1921), Theo Thijssen (Kees de jongen, 1923) en vele anderen volgden haar. En dan is de hoofdpersoon dus ook nog eens geen jongen of het kind van onderwijzers of schrijvers, maar een arbeidersmeisje.

Een serie interessante boeken kortom. Ze zijn ook in allerlei talen vertaald – een paar jaar geleden het tweede deel, Keetje, nog in het Vietnamees – maar tot nu toe is noch Keetje, noch Keetje trottin helemaal in het Nederlands verschenen. In de Digitale Bibliotheek voor de Nederlandse Letteren kan je wel een vertaling vinden van deel één, Dagen van honger en ellende door Anna van Gogh-Kaulbach, en een compilatie van deel twee en drie gemaakt door Wim Zaal, maar niet de hele Keetje of Keetje trottin. Dat was reden om in ieder geval die laatste roman te vertalen. (Dan hier meteen een oproep: wie vertaalt het overgebleven deel, Keetje?)

Terug naar intersectionaliteit. Wat was dat ook alweer? Intersectionaliteit ondervind je als je op het kruispunt van meerdere sociale categorieën staat. Als je bijvoorbeeld migrant bent en doof. (Wat als een ‘categorie’ geldt, hangt natuurlijk af van wie je het vraagt.) Niet voor niets wordt het ook wel ‘kruispuntdenken’ genoemd. In zekere zin heeft iedereen een intersectionele identiteit: je identiteit bestaat altijd uit een hele serie verschillende componenten. Vaak worden deze componenten echter los van elkaar bekeken. Een intersectioneel perspectief heeft oog voor het samenspel tussen die componenten. Het woord wordt bovendien vooral gebruikt als elk van die componenten je in een maatschappelijk benadeelde positie brengt. Feministisch gedachtegoed met aandacht voor intersectionaliteit is vooral bekend gemaakt door het werk van Afrikaans-Amerikaanse lesbiënnes en andere vrouwen in de jaren zeventig en tachtig: mensen zoals Audre Lorde, Barbara Smith en Akasha Hull. Ook Keetjes leven is op allerlei manieren intersectioneel. Ik zal er hier vier noemen.

1) Dubbel nadeel

Keetje is vrouw én arbeider. In het Nederland van rond 1870 is ze daardoor dubbel benadeeld. In allebei de hoedanigheden heeft ze minder macht dan anderen, krijgt ze minder kans om naar school te gaan, en verdient ze minder geld. Haar ondergeschikte status maakt haar en haar collega’s bovendien kwetsbaar voor gedwongen seks. Keetje ziet hoe de inwonende kok dreigt haar baan te verliezen als ze niet ingaat op de avances van hun baas, de hoedenmaker. Dat is nog maar de opmaat tot het geweld dat Keetje zelf van hem te verduren krijgt.

2) Nergens helemaal thuis

In het werk van bijvoorbeeld Bernice Johnson Reagon wordt aangetoond hoe intersectionele groepen ook last hebben van de oordelen van groepen die zelf ook vaak veroordeeld worden (zie bijvoorbeeld haar ‘Coalition Politics’ in Home Girls). Bevind je je bijvoorbeeld, zoals Reagon, op een feministische conferentie, dan zul je net zien dat je daar last krijgt met racisme.

Keetje heeft niet alleen te maken met middenstanders zoals de hoedenmaker, maar natuurlijk ook met mensen van haar eigen economische milieu. Nu zou je kunnen denken dat daar solidariteit heerst, maar dat is dus lang niet altijd het geval. Sommige van Keetjes collega’s wonen in bij hun bazen, terwijl Keetje ‘s avonds weer naar haar ouders gaat. Keetje is ‘niet van het huis’. Haar collega’s vinden het heel gewoon dat ze daarom minder te eten krijgt: terwijl de anderen brood met kaas eten, krijgt Keetje ‘brood met niks’. En geen koffie. Keetje is ook nog eens een beetje een nerd. Dat wordt lang niet door iedereen gewaardeerd. Vooral haar oudere zus, haar ouders en sommige collega’s beklagen zich dat ze altijd met haar neus in de boeken zit of iets moois probeert te knutselen, in plaats van zich bezig te houden met zaken die passen bij haar stand en haar rol als opgroeiende vrouw:

Als ik je moeder was, zou ik je wel andere ideeën bijbrengen: […] als ik je ook maar één boek zag aanraken, zou ik zorgen dat je de lust snel verging.

En als Keetje haar ouders de betekenis van een nieuw woord vraagt dat ze heeft opgepikt, krijgt ze een draai om haar oren. Om uitdrukking te geven aan hun onbegrip, en wellicht ook aan gevoelens van minderwaardigheid, noemen haar familie en collega’s haar een ‘kinderachtig schepsel’. Van haar eigen klasse en sekse kan Keetje dus niet altijd solidariteit verwachten.

Omgekeerd behoort Keetje zelf ook tot een groep arme christenen die harde vooroordelen koestert jegens arme Joden. In de loop van het verhaal begint ze echter vraagtekens te zetten bij die antisemitische ideeën, bijvoorbeeld doordat ze zelf werknemer wordt bij een Joods gezin.

Kartonnen hoedendoos, zoals die tegen Keetjes heupen schuurt op haar bezorgrondes (1870/1900), uit de collecties van Museum Rotterdam, nr. 20586-B-C. CC-BY-SA-3.0.

3) Verborgen problemen

Zoals gezegd is Keetje in dit boek nog maar een kind. Dat betekent niet alleen dat ze nóg minder macht, onderwijs en geld heeft dan de meeste mensen om haar heen. Het illustreert ook een ander gevolg van intersectionaliteit. De term ‘intersectionaliteit’ zelf is in gebruik sinds jurist Kimberlé Crenshaw die in 1989 bedacht (zie ‘Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex’ in het University of Chicago Legal Forum). Zij benadrukte dat de problemen die mensen op een ‘kruispunt’ hebben, vaak niet gezien worden door anderen. Dit hangt ermee samen dat intersectioneel benadeelde groepen zelf überhaupt vaak niet gezien worden.

Negentiende-eeuwse arbeidersmeisjes bijvoorbeeld. Kinderen hebben misschien niet veel te zeggen, maar ze kunnen wel spelen. En vrouwelijke dienstbodes moeten dan wel altijd werken, maar ze zijn – kort door de bocht – tenminste baas over hun eigen domein, de keuken. Dat er een grote groep mensen bestaat die zowel kind als dienstbode is, wordt dan vergeten. Deze groep heeft noch tijd, een plek voor zichzelf.

Keetje kijkt graag naar vrouwen uit de burgerij als haar voorbeeld. In hun positie zou ze tenminste een eigen huis hebben. Hier volgt een kort fragment uit Keetje trottin. Keetje is net Woutertje Pieterse van Multatuli aan het lezen. Ze fantaseert dat Wouter haar vriend is:

Waarom zouden twee hele jonge mensen zoals wij, Wouter, niet kunnen trouwen? Ik weet heel goed hoe je aardappelen moet koken, boterhammen snijden, de kamer schoonmaken en de bedden opmaken. God, wat zou dat heerlijk zijn! Ik zou je komen opzoeken op je kantoor bij de Kopperliths en we zouden een ommetje maken over de grachten. ’s Zaterdagsavonds zouden we ons in de tobbe wassen met warm water en op zondag zouden we ons goeie goed aandoen… Want ik zou de vrouw zijn van een meneer die ‘op kantoor’ werkt…


Dan gaan we de Muiderpoort uit, naar de Roomtuintjes, of de Weesperpoort uit, theedrinken in zo’n tuin. En wanneer het water naast ons dan kookt in de theestoof, zet ik de thee en eten we beboterde beschuitjes, met suiker bestrooid. Zo zie ik het vanaf het pad de nette mensen doen op zondag, wanneer ze in de tuinen theedrinken en beschuitjes eten uit een ‘presenteertrommeltje’. Dat klopt toch, hè? Oh! Mijn God! Wat een genot! We zeggen niet dat we getrouwd zijn… de mensen zouden ons uitlachen… En als we dan thuiskomen dan maak ik warme saliemelk en we kraken noten…

Maar Wouter is niet echt haar vriendje, Keetje heeft het geld niet en, zo vinden de meeste mensen in haar omgeving, het past haar ook niet als arbeider om naar zo’n levensstijl te verlangen.

Ook ravotten vind ze echter heerlijk, en fysiek contact met jongens:

Maar op de zondagen dat de zon niet schijnt, kleden we ons niet netjes aan. Dan gaan we de velden in, slootje springen – ik spring, moet je weten – en achter elkaar aanrennen: je moet hard rennen om me te kunnen pakken… Ja… Maar eerst moeten we trouwen: anders kunnen we niet samenwonen…

Maar pakkertje spelen mag dan weer niet omdat ze een vrouw is. Of ze daar nu zelf voor kiest of niet, als meisje zou ze in haar eer worden aangetast. Dit gevaar wordt Keetje van jongs af aan ingeprent, zelfs voordat ze enig idee heeft waar mensen zo’n heisa om maken. Het limiteert haar wens tot fysiek contact behoorlijk. Keetje is zes jaar oud hier:

Ik was in mijn eentje op straat aan het spelen toen Tom, de hond van de buren, op me afkwam […].
‘Tom, jíj houdt van me hè,’ zei ik, ‘jíj neemt me in je poten, Tom… Ik hou ook van jou, want jij bent altijd aardig tegen me.’
En ik drukte mijn gezicht tegen het zijne. Hij likte me en klemde zich hoe langer hoe dichter tegen me aan. Een vrouw gaf Tom een trap en hij liet me los… Waarom doet ze nou zoiets? Tom houdt van me. Tom is altijd blij als hij me ziet, en ik ook…
Ik ging liggen op ons stoepje. Tom kwam opnieuw naar me toe en sloeg zijn poten nu helemaal om me heen. Ik had mijn armen om zijn grote kop geslagen en hield hem tegen mijn borst geklemd. Plotseling ging hij er jankend vandoor: mijn vader had hem een klap met de zweep gegeven. Tegen de vrouw die Tom had weggejaagd zei hij:
‘De kleine speelt altijd met onze teef die loops is; dat ruikt de schavuit natuurlijk…’
En ze barstten in lachen uit. Mijn vader liet me vóór hem naar boven gaan.
Nou ja zeg! Vader wil niet meer dat Tom me in zijn armen neemt en me likt! Hij wil niet meer dat hij zich tegen mij aan vlijt! En waarom dan níet? Hij en moeder hebben geen tijd om me te omhelzen. Nooit nemen ze me in hun armen. Dus niemand mag van me houden? Niemand mag me knuffelen? Ik zou zo graag de hele dag op schoot bij vader of moeder zitten, maar moeder heeft altijd de baby in haar armen, en vader valt in slaap zodra hij thuiskomt, en nooit omhelst iemand mij…

Keetje is dus niet alleen driedubbel benadeeld door haar intersectionele positie, maar kan niet eens genieten van de (beperkte) specifieke mogelijkheden die andere benadeelden dan nog hebben.

Modieuze dameshoed, zoals Keetje ze maakt en rondbrengt (1870-1880), uit de collecties van het Amsterdam Museum, nr. KA 1238. Publiek domein.

4) Nooit alleen maar kind

Nog één laatste manier waarop we intersectionaliteit in de Keetjeboeken kunnen benaderen: door te constateren dat we één component van iemands identiteit pas echt snappen als we die zien in de context van de andere componenten. Oftewel: dat een sociale positie, bijvoorbeeld die van vrouw, pas inhoud krijgt in samenspel met andere sociale parameters. Als kind wordt Keetje zoals gezegd veel op haar kop gezeten. Tegelijkertijd kan ze door haar sekse en klasse eigenlijk ook weer geen kind zijn. Ze speelt graag met poppen, maar haar omgeving verwacht dat ze volwassen werk aflevert, en deelneemt in een samenleving waarin seksueel werk voor vrouwen vaak de enige manier is om aan geld te komen: als hoer, maar zoals hierboven beschreven ook als dienstbode, of als huisvrouw en echtgenote (ook een vorm van sekswerk, werd door sommigen al in de achttiende eeuw betoogd).

Keetje wordt dus wel als kind gezien, maar tegelijk ook als vrouw en arbeider, wat de betekenis van haar kindzijn sterk beïnvloedt. Een kind te zijn is in elk economisch milieu, op elke plek in de wereld en voor elk gender weer iets anders. Lees de rest van de Keetjeboeken, en kom erachter wat kindzijn betekent voor Keetje!