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Thursday, 17 October 2013

Can We Label Kenau Hasselaer Feminist?

I’m not sure when feminism became a dirty word. Who actually made it dirty? And as much as I’d like to blame it all on men, I think (us) women have a lot to answer for. 

My own mother, by no means an imbecile, labelled me the ‘practical one’, and my sister ‘the glamorous one’, thereby confusing the hell out of both us by her defective judgment. With great enthusiasm I launched myself into a hellishly practical career as a chef, just before my sister spent her formative years temporarily blinding well to-do ladies by spraying them with posh scent in London department stores. Not that I regret my culinary past at all,  but I might have been so much more fulfilled as a writer, or an historian, as I am now, than pulling the guts out of dead game birds and chopping stuff. It’s no incidental fact that my brothers were simply known as ‘The Boys’. ‘The Boys’ were so much freer to make their own choices on where their lives would take them. 

So, that’s what labels can do for you. 

Try this. Think of that seminal (sic) heroine early on in your reading career? What label did you give her? Then, and what would you label her now? Personally, I’m thinking of Cathy in Wuthering Heights, a gal I labelled as such an idiot she made my toes curl up the wrong way. She casually threw away her every chance of proper love, and married Mr Wrong to elevate herself socially. I’d automatically labelled Cathy an idiot. But should I have? And more importantly, would I have, if I’d not learned how to label women so early in my life (she was a simple soul, that Cathy, trapped in a beautiful shell of faux complexity). And I most definitely I mean women, because we’re a judgemental lot as a rule, and quietly carping at our gentlest. We can be so cruel to each other, much crueller than we are to men. With no hesitation we can go straight for the jugular as a first point of contact. We know we can do it, and do it so well, because we were taught by our mothers, who were taught by their mothers, ya-di-ya-di-ya. 

So, back to my fabulous protagonist Kenau (Hasselaar / Hasselaer, take your pick), the most fascinating woman I’ve had the privilege to ‘get to know’ through my years of research. Ask a Dutchman if Kenau was a feminist and he’d probably say yes, of course she was, don’t be ridiculous, she killed men didn’t she? Ask any Dutchwoman, and sadly, she might say ‘Kenau, ah, now let me think…, no, sorry, Kenau who?’   

Seeing a pattern?  

My research showed that Kenau was a shipbuilder, or at least a timber merchant. Tick #1 for feminism. However, my research also showed that if a woman was widowed, and she was a woman of means / substance, it was likely that she would have taken over her husband’s business automatically. They just quietly got on with it. Tick #1 for the non-feminists.
Kenau was a mother, hardly a prerequisite for an early-modern feminist, so no ticks there. However, she must have had all her wits about her, she was of noble stock, well educated, and she would have known what special atrocities the Spanish soldiers reserved for their female captives. Kenau had numerous daughters and sisters, so she vowed to fight to her dying breath, which ticks about five #5 feminist boxes in my (scientifically precise) survey. 

And here’s another thing: The one indisputable fact of Kenau’s life were her multiple appearances before the magistrates of Haarlem on debt collecting missions. she was up at that Cityhouse more times than any other woman in Haarlem, in her day, and had a fearsome reputation as the woman not to be messed with. I have a personal theory it was this, together with the killing Spaniards thing, which made her name synonymous with the word Bitch

Over the years Kenau has been depicted in many images, and until recently, in none of them was she waiflike. Incidentally, there’s a bit of a hoo-ha going on about the new Kenau Hasselaer statue that was recently erected (sorry, I keep sic-ing up all over the place), in Haarlem. 

Just how far have we come? Compare and contrast. 

 Before (Feminism)


A famous painting of Kenau that stands in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, probably painted late 16th century, depicts Kenau as a warrior, clearly proud, of medium-attractive appearance, and heavily tooled-up. This was an influentual for me when writing the book. I was always intrigued by her lack of armour.



1973, A Bronze by Theo Mulder, which stands by the Amsterdamse Poort in Haarlem. I always liked this bronze; it looks heroic, windblown and mystical. Feminism-wise, it’s neither here nor there.



The new statue of Kenau by the artist Graziella Curreli, which went on display at the Haarlem train station last year, courting much controversy. 

Interesting, isn’t it?

So, which box do we tick now?  My money’s firmly on the non-feminist, let’s-all-slide-inconspicuously-backwards box, it’s an international disease and it’s catching. Great statue, and as a work of art I won’t comment further. However, art or no, it’s not doing anyone any favours by portraying this strong, noble and passionate heroine in a short skirt, with a handbag, no muscles or meat on her bones, and touching up her hair! I invite, no, I implore anyone who has read An Army of Judiths to comment on my depiction of Kenau. In short, this remarkable woman was, if we must have labels, and it seems we must, an early-modern feminist icon of the highest order. 

How many boxes did that tick?

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