mata hari and feminism

While the young Margreet Zelle was learning to walk in Leeuwarden, that other northern girl, Aletta Jacobs from Sappemeer, became the first female physician in the Netherlands. Round about the time that Mata Hari was making her debut as an Oriental dancer in Paris, in London suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst was chaining herself to railings in her struggle for women's rights.

It is Jacobs and Pankhurst who women have to thank for their voting rights. They had a huge influence on the emancipation of women and thus on society. But what about Mata Hari, is a question posed in many books. Did she mean something for feminism? Was she influenced by the first feminist wave?

We discuss this over coffee, my friends and I. Here’s an overview of the feminist credentials of our group: two of us once established a women's home, others gave VOS courses (‘Vrouwen Oriënteren zich op de Samenleving’; in English ‘Women Orientate Themselves to Society’), which men liked to call ‘Vrouwen Oriënteren zich op de Scheiding’, ‘Women Orientate Themselves to Separation’). That was sometime in the 1970s.

No, Mata Hari was not a feminist, we think. But she was an emancipated woman. Independent. Unafraid. Enterprising. After her divorce she immediately tried to support herself, build a great career, and travelled alone through Europe. But yes, she was still dependent on men: the men with whom she consorted and who paid her to do so.

Aletta was extremely active in the Dutch Woman Suffrage Association, and other similar organisations, also internationally. Mata Hari never expressed an opinion about society. Aletta describes herself as a ‘pacifist in heart and soul’. ‘The horrors of the war tormented me day and night,’ wrote Aletta in her memoir of 1924, which was translated into English as Memories: My Life as an International Leader in Health, Suffrage, and Peace (1994). She helped wherever she could. Mata Hari complained that she could not get a job because of the First World War. Her contract in Berlin – for Aletta and all the others the seat of the enemy – was cancelled because of the war.

When I asked author Jan Brokken if he thought Mata Hari was a feminist, he responded: ‘She was very adult about the fact that she could do with her body whatever she wanted. Imagine, as a woman in 1905, saying that you want to enjoy lovemaking just as much as a man does. In that regard, she was absolutely revolutionary.’

I posed the same question to author Céline Linssen, whose book Duet (2007) is about Mata Hari. ‘At our home - with six sisters and one brother – the women decided everything, it was a kind of natural feminism. Mata Hari was a feminist without knowing she was, she was totally convinced of her own abilities. Actually, she looked down on men. Perhaps mataharism is a better word. She did everything for herself and just happened to be a woman.'

Time to consult an expert. I e-mail journalist Cisca Dresselhuys, the mother of emancipation, so to say, or at least for me. She was one of the exponents of the second feminist wave, and editor-in-chief of the feminist magazine Opzij for years. Like Margreet Zelle, she was born in Leeuwarden, not as a merchant's daughter, but of a Dutch Reformed minister. In 17 years, she evaluated the feminist credentials of 180 Dutch men for Opzij.

Could she perhaps subject Mata Hari to the same test? ‘I don’t think so,’ her voice comes down the line from Hilversum, where she lives, ‘I don’t like it when women judge each other.’

Would you call Mata Hari a feminist? 'NO, NO, and once again, NO.' OK, that’s clear. ‘Maybe I'm too strict, but for me, feminism is about fighting for equality, resolving a backlog of issues, exploitation. When Beyonce is photographed with a pregnant belly and it’s declared a feminist statement, then I think, “Why?”’ I have the same reaction when singers reveal themselves in outrageously skimpy outfits and claim it's a feminist gesture.’

‘Of course, Mata Hari was a woman with no regard for what was expected of a woman. But she was also very traditional, precisely because she used her sexuality. The word emancipated goes too far in her case. Unconventional, that's it. She didn’t give a damn about conventions. But unfortunately she didn’t use her brain, just her womanhood.’

‘The first feminist wave was accompanied by violence. In England, women were thrown in prison, went on hunger strikes. She must have known of the suffragettes in London (LINK 5), she must have known about Aletta Jacobs too, and her campaigning for women's rights. In that time there were enough points of convergence. If I’d been alive back then, I would have joined forces with Aletta Jacobs, not Mata Hari.’

She sighs. ‘If only she had taken just one step further.Josephine Baker performed in a banana skirt, but she was also known for her work with very deprived children, she was a true humanitarian. It would have been nice if Mata Hari had held up a banner emblazoned with “I demand voting rights”. Then she would have stolen my heart.’

Josephine Baker received the Légion d'Honneur for her work with the resistance during the Second World War. We all know how Mata Hari was rewarded.