Origins of Rutgers

Rutgers is the Netherlands on Sexuality. Our history traces back to the late 19th century. Today's Rutgers resulted from a number of mergers, between Rutgers Nisso Groep, WPF (World Population Foundation) and the most recently with Dance4Life.  

Johannes Rutgers

Johannes Rutgers (1850-1924) studied medicine and became a doctor. He was married, but his wife died after giving birth four times. This tragic event affected his life’s work. He remarried Mietje Hoitsema. Both were driven by feminism and socialism and opened a free reading room (mainly for socialists and anarchists) in their home in Rotterdam and provided shelter to people in need.

Emancipation and equality

Johannes Rutgers believed that the availability of contraception for every woman was the first step towards women’s emancipation and gender equality. And it would allow people to enjoy sex without unwanted consequences. Although he did not approve of abortion, mainly for health reasons, later in life he strived to legalise abortion.

He felt everyone should have the right to be able to choose how many children they have. And he thought it would be positive development if people made the choice not to have more children than they could care for. According to him, the basis of sexual freedom was: ‘love when they want love, children when they want children’. Access to contraception would give people more agency. And besides, he believed not having too many children was healthier for the mother.

Contraception for all

Johannes Rutgers worked in the poorest neighbourhoods of Rotterdam and saw the distressing situations that arose because poor women in particular had no access to contraception. Therefore, from 1892, he gave free consultations on contraception in his practice.

He focused on the fight for free access to contraception and became an active member of the New Malthusian Union in 1898.

Malthusianism was an international movement based on the ideas of English pastor and economist Thomas Malthus. Malthus wrote ‘An essay on the principles of Population’ in 1798, in which he said that population growth and food production would remain unbalanced, resulting in poverty and hunger. Sexual (total) abstinence was the only way to counter this, according to Malthus. In the Netherlands, these ideas led to the New Malthusian Union (NMB, founded in 1881). But unlike its English counterpart, the Dutch Malthusians believed that contraception was also a way to limit population growth, hence the ‘new’ in the name New Malthusian Union.

The start of the Rutgers Foundation

Johannes Rutgers died in 1924, leaving numerous publications and a large network of expert collaborators in the field of contraception. As early as the 1930s, the NMB opened consultancies ‘on marriage and sex life’ in Amsterdam and Rotterdam. In 1946, the union continued under the name Nederlandse Vereniging voor Seksuele Hervorming (NVSH).

The huge demand for the consultancies meant that this branch of the organisation was created a separate foundation in 1969: the Rutgers Foundation (the predecesor of today’s Rutgers). Named after doctor Johannes Rutgers. People that needed help with sexuality could attend these consultancies at so called Rutgers houses. In 2002, these Rutgers houses became part of the municipal health authorities. The foundation itself continues – to this day – to work for people’s sexual and reproductive health and rights.

Rutgers and ‘racial improvement’

Johannes Rutgers is often mentioned together with early ‘eugenics’, people who argued that races could be improved by sterilising poor or mentally disabled people. A theory that was popular in the Netherlands from around 1900 until well into the 1950s. At the time, Johannes Rutgers also put forward the idea that it would be better for some people, such as those living in poverty, not to have children.

In 1905, he wrote his book ‘Race Improvement’, saying that conscious contraception would improve the quality of the human race. For example, by convincing certain people that fewer children could be better and would give these children space to develop. After all, fewer children meant more time for education, more money for healthcare, more living space.

The word ‘racial improvement’ now has a racist conotation to us. It is linked to Nazi ideology and gives the idea that a race can become superior and that not all races are equal. This is definitely not the view Rutgers held at the time. He also rejected the idea of a ‘pure race’.

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