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Women at Work in the 17th-century Dutch Republic

By Rebecca D’Harlingue
March 19, 2024

Picture a seventeenth-century Dutch painting. What do you see? If you’re like me, you see a woman inside a home. She might be cleaning or pouring milk from a pitcher. If she is of a higher class, she might be sitting at a desk writing, reading a letter, or playing an instrument. I don’t though, usually see a woman working outside the home. Yet a surprising number of women were involved in business during the time of the Dutch Republic.

Young Woman with a Water Pitcher (c. 1662) by Johannes Vermeer

A number of seventeenth-century travel journals remark on the presence of Dutch women in commerce, leading to the idea of the “heroic Dutch businesswoman.” While some see this as a skewed view, documents from the time reveal that Dutch women were more actively involved in the economy than women of other countries, although the level of involvement varied from place to place within the Republic.

Although there were “moral” writings about the desirability of caring for home and family as the proper focus of women’s efforts, there was also great admiration for a strong work ethic, and lots of opportunities that flowed from the enormous economic growth. Of course, poor women have always had to work in some capacity, but it is also true that women who were not in dire straits were working in the business world.

The scholar Danielle van den Heuvel looks at three areas: the marketplace, with its stallholders and street vendors, the shop, selling anything from books to household goods, and the merchant’s office, engaging in international trade and finance. While there is no doubt that men were more prominent in all of these categories, and more so as one travels up the monetary ladder, women were active in each.

It was common for a woman to work at a stall selling meat, fish, or vegetables in conjunction with her husband, but there were also women who owned and ran their own stalls. Little to no formal training was needed for this occupation, and sons and daughters both learned the family trade.

Fishwife (1673) by Adriaen van Ostade

At the shopkeeper level, women were active in part due to their fairly high literacy and numeracy rate, fostered in this society of booming trade. Some women, such as Clementia van den Vondel,  became quite successful. The sister of a famous poet, van den Vondel owned a silk shop that provided silk products and clothing accessories for individuals, and was also a cloth wholesaler.

Susanna Veseler was the widow of a bookseller, and for thirty years ran the business and was wildly successful in both domestic and international markets, even though many of her books were Catholic. Though this was officially frowned upon, in the Amsterdam of the day, profitable trade excused a lot.

Interior of a Dutch Shop Selling Gold and Silver (c. 1660) – artist unknown

There were even women to be found at the level of international trade, banking, and finance, though this was mostly during the latter half of the century, and into the next. This was in part due to changes in trade, such that merchants did not have to directly sell their own products themselves, but could sell those of others on commission. This became common for men as well as women, and particularly suited women of a higher class who were thus able to run their transactions primarily from their home.

But why were women so involved in business? One reason was the level of education, and another was the legal system. Unmarried women and widows had very much the same rights as men. A woman who married often took over the family business when she was widowed, especially if she had been involved prior to her husband’s death. If a wife, even during her husband’s lifetime, wished to have a business of her own, she could attain “femme sole” status. For a woman who was married to, for example, a seafaring husband, the court could allow her to carry on the business in her husband’s absence. These women were called “grass widows.” Again, much leeway was given in the name of commerce.

These women were active in the world of business, and they don’t include the many women who wrote, painted, and found success in other areas. As with women’s efforts in the business world, scholars are working to give a more complete picture of women at work in the seventeenth-century Dutch Republic.

Rebecca D’Harlingue

Written by Rebecca D’Harlingue

Award-winning author Rebecca D’Harlingue writes about seventeenth-century women forging a different path. Her debut novel, The Lines Between Us, won an Independent Press Award and a CIBA Chaucer Award. Her second novel, The Map Colorist, won a Literary Titan Award and a Firebird Book Award.

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1 Comment

  1. Anne M Beggs

    Love this so much – sharing on Small Business Saturday


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