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Why I researched the lives of my Forgotten Foremothers

Updated: Aug 29, 2023

Written history’s main focus lies on the most spectacular events. Because women had very little opportunities to play a big role in wars, travels, political intrigues, artistic and scientific inventions, their stories get little attention. Those who did participate in these great events, often had to make great personal sacrifices, or never got the appreciation they rightfully deserved. However, half of our existence on earth is thanks to women.

moments of joy or sadness

The lives of most people weren’t filled with adventure, but with small moments of joy or sadness, like the lives of most of us now. This doesn’t make their lives less interesting. The lives of women revolved around child-bearing and the raising of children. Women often died during pregnancy or labor. We are the result of those lives. Who were these women of the past? How do their lives compare to ours? Were they satisfied with motherhood alone? What can we, as their descendants learn from their lives?

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Portraits about women's history in the Netherlands by Evelien de Bruijn

A great mystery

Not much is recorded about common women in the past centuries. Daily lives are forgotten, as they are so normal, so common, so unimportant. But what we find normal changes constantly and if we don’t pay attention to it, don’t record it, it will get lost in time. For each of us our lives are of utmost importance, as boring as they might seem in the context of big events. So very little is left of the thoughts and feelings of common women in the past, that we are still surprised by women’s feelings in the present. Women’s behavior is often still described, albeit jokingly, as ‘a great mystery’. Through my portraits and the snippets of information I could find about my forgotten foremothers, I try to reconstruct and record their lives. Even if it is only one interpretation.

Mums and dads

In many historical documents in the Netherlands, woman’s professions after their marriage are written down as ‘housewife’. Because the average women in Brabant could not write (but could often read a little), we don’t know if they were happy in that role. What we do know, is that women in these rural villages played an active part in the running of the farms. Dutch widows had great independence. This independent behavior is often named as a cause for which-hunts, like the one in Lierop en Mierlo. The image that most women were happy and content as housewives for centuries becomes less and less strong, the more research is done into the lives of common women. When our foremothers weren't all as happy as we thought, then it is not that strange that women nowadays aren't all that happy being traditional mothers. For instance, recent Dutch research has shown, that many women do want to have children, but would like to have more of a father-role within the family. Still, a lot of women feel guilty and bad when they don’t enjoy cleaning or other caretaking duties withing the family, because this image of the happy housewife has persisted for centuries.

Men will find it interesting too

I wish to understand this forgotten history of women, because to me it feels like a big step towards the understanding of the struggles and choices women are confronted with today. First I imagined this project being mostly of interest to women. However, it is of equal importance to men and people who identify as non-binary to know what half their genes went through. After all, I as a woman, am interested in the history of my forefathers as well. I see it as an enrichment of our identity as a human being. When we can place our matrilineal history next to our patrilineal history, we have a more complete image of who we are.

(the story continues below the picture)

Portraits about women's history in the Netherlands by Evelien de Bruijn

Interesting points of view from my family

The past years I have approached different women in my family to pose for our common foremothers in this series of portraits. They gave me their surprising and interesting points of view. I am very grateful for their cooperation. The portraits are a result of these conversations, my research into local history and my personal interpretation.

In my brain, I have opened a barrel of curiosity about women’s history. I would like to know how others interpret the lives of their foremothers. What can I learn from them in the bigger context of women’s and gender history? For me it feels that I have only just started…

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