The Heroic Housewives of the Dutch Republic

During her lecture at BYU Education Week, art history professor Martha Moffitt Peacock discussed the respect and importance given to women and motherhood in seventeenth-century Dutch society and in Mormon culture and doctrine.

PROVO, Utah (Aug. 22, 2017) — In the seventeenth century, women became a common subject of Dutch art. On small canvases, often in muted colors, housewives were shown dressed in plain clothes as they engaged in a variety of housekeeping tasks such as cooking, sewing and cleaning. Some scholars view these paintings as evidence of Dutch women’s second-class status, relegated to the hearth by patriarchy’s heavy hand. But where some see repression, Martha Peacock sees respect. During her lecture for BYU Education Week, it was clear that Peacock, an art history professor at BYU, is passionate about her research. Her voice rose with excitement as she explained that seventeenth-century Dutch society placed great value on the importance of women – both heroines and housewives .

Up until the seventeenth century, the only women who appeared in art were religious or mythological figures. “To depict contemporary, ordinary, nonwealthy, nonfamous women,” Peacock explained, “was something new.” She also noticed the emergence of Dutch heroines in seventeenth-century art and literature. Of these women, Peacock says admiringly, “these are . . . women who were strong, who were faithful, who believed and who kept hope alive in spite of really difficult circumstances. These . . . women led me in graduate school to want to study about women, about their lives, about their histories. And luckily, I found that in the art of the Dutch Republic.”

It was during the Spanish siege of Haarlem that one of the Netherlands’ most famous heroine was formed. Keneau Simonsdochter Hasselaer, a widow who had been married to a shipbuilder, used his timber to help construct fortified walls around the city. She and other Haarlem housewives threw rocks, tar, and pitch over thee walls at the Spanish armies. She soon appeared in prints, sword and spear in hand, with inscriptions lauding her for her bravery in defense of her religion and fatherland. Her fame grew until she was pictured second, after Prince William of Orange, in a book about Dutch heroes. Stories of brave women were also told in Utrecht, Alkmaar and Amsterdam. These stories prove that far from being insignificant, Peacock said emphatically, “[Dutch women] played an essential role in the establishment of a new society that they believed God was directing them to. In this society, the women’s contributions were seen as in many ways comparable to [those] of the men, [and] they had characteristics that we laud in men—bravery, strength, power.”

This new Protestant society the Dutch created for themselves placed high value on womanhood and the work done at home. Seen by many as the first modern democracy, the Dutch understood the value of an educated citizenry. Mothers had the essential responsibility to raise and educate their children in civil and religious matters. 

Like the Dutch Republic, “We as a church have a rather different view of the role of housewives than most of the world,” commented Peacock. “We don’t see it as a subjugated position. We see it as a matter of choice, that we have chosen to do this because we see the eternal significance of that role.” She praised the hardworking housewives in her family line, lauding their dedication to hard work and service.

Dr. Johan van Beverwijck similarly praised Dutch housewives in his text called On the Excellence of Women. Peacock exclaimed, “This text is incredible! It . . . talks about housewives [and] how important they are for the structuring of this new Dutch society. 

He says it’s as crucial as anything else to the state that we have the solid home foundation for raising children.” Beverwijck dedicated his book to one of the most internationally famous Dutch women at the time: the brilliant Anna Maria van Schurman. Instead of swords, van Schurmanappears holding books in prints. Proficient in at least 12 languages, she was visited by European royalty as well as philosophers like Descartes. Peacock explained that van Schurman was allowed to attend the University at Utrecht, even though at the time women were technically not allowed. Peacock continued, “She wrote her dissertation making an argument for the education of the Christian woman.”

 In addition to her brilliance, van Schurman was admired for her talents in art, music, and poetry.

“So,” Peacock summarized, “women could be celebrated for their accomplishments in [many] ways, whether that was military heroism . . . or scholarship or art.” She pointed out that women could own their own businesses, appear in legal courts without a male family member, inherit property, and receive an education from a young age. They helped their husbands run their businesses, took over orphanages, and even ran a women’s prison where they taught incarcerated women skills to make an honest living upon their release.

“In conclusion,” Peacock said, “I was so attracted to the art of this culture because it was a culture I felt I had grown up with, where women . . . were seen as equals in the sight of God. Dutch art has helped me see that the most fruitful societies, the most productive societies, are those that treat us all, male and female . . . as if we are equal to one another and capable of all great things.”


Olivia Madsen (French language, ’18)

Olivia covers events for the Department of French and Italian in the College of Humanities. She is a senior pursuing a degree in French language with a minor in international development.


Pictures: The Milkmaid, Vermeer (1658). Kenau Simonsdr Hasselaer, Anonymous (1573-1600).  A Woman Peeling Apples, Pieter de Hooch (1663). Portrait of Anna Maria van Schurman (1607–1678), Jan Adam Kruseman (1846).