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. 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.
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.
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.
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.