When the working-class Rotterdam woman Aletta van den Heerik stabbed her husband to death in 1910 after he returned home drunk, the newspapers expressed sympathy for the woman: she was portrayed as acting in the defence of her children. Yet only 30 years earlier, another working-class woman in The Hague who had killed her drunkard husband was lambasted in the press. The contrasting media responses cannot be explained entirely by differences in the facts of the cases. Rather, they reflect a sea change in newspapers’ attitudes to women who committed domestic violence.

/ Clare Wilkinson / 

In the late nineteenth century, dominant notions of femininity presented women as weak, fragile but also inherently more moral than men. Their natural calling was in the domestic sphere, as wives and mothers. Physically attacking your partner would seem to be a gross violation of this norm, yet women who committed domestic violence were often treated leniently by the courts and the press. Some historians, mainly working on Anglo-Saxon countries and France, have tried to explain this paradox. They point out that contemporaries weighed up both partners’ behaviour prior to the event. Women could therefore sometimes benefit from the more demanding notions of masculinity in this period: men were expected to practice self-discipline, be industrious and show devotion to the family. If a man failed to live up to these ideals, the woman could command sympathy. For example, when Kitty Byron killed her lover in London in 1902, he was depicted in the media as a drunken brute who had deserted his wife and child. In the press reports, Byron was presented as the victim of his ill-treatment rather than vice versa.[1]

One limitation of these analyses of media representations is that they treat the newspaper discourse as a given, without considering who journalists were writing for and how this affected the sympathy they expressed for certain female offenders. As a result, historians have failed to engage with the changes over time in newspaper practices and markets. This is a lacuna given the rise of the mass media in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which was aimed not just at all social classes but also specifically at female readers. The focus on women readers was in response to pressure from advertisers. With the rise of mass consumer products, it became important for advertisers to reach as many buyers as possible. These buyers were primarily women, the main managers of the household budget. Newspapers therefore increasingly needed to appeal to female readers in order to attract advertising income.[2]

The present article considers the impact of the changing readership on how journalists portrayed women who were accused of using intimate partner violence. It deals specifically with the Netherlands in the period 1880 to 1910, and looks at why some female perpetrators were treated sympathetically and others not. To this end, it uses the concept of the ‘imagined community’, introduced by Benedict Anderson. An imagined community is one in which most members will never meet one another “yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion”. Anderson’s concept is interesting because of the important role he assigns to newspapers in creating and sustaining this imagined community. Anderson talks of the daily ritual of “the almost precisely simultaneous consumption” of the same news.[3] Moreover, crime news helps delineate the boundaries of the community. Studies of modern media show how criminals are presented as outsiders as a way of underlining the shared moral values of the imagined community.[4]

The changing readership in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries can therefore be construed as a changing imagined community, expanding over time from a small group of middle-class male readers to encompass male and female readers in a broad range of social classes. As these boundaries shifted, the groups that were considered outsiders changed too. These changes affected journalists’ portrayal of women who used violence, with increasing sympathy first for middle-class women and later for respectable working-class women.

This evolution is illustrated with four cases, one in 1880, one in 1895 and two in 1910. The four cases had different outcomes. In three, the partner was killed. Two of these cases went to trial; one woman was sentenced to ten years in prison, the other was acquitted. No charge was brought against the woman in the third homicide. In the case in which the husband did not die, his wife was accused of poisoning him and arrested, but the case never went to trial. The newspapers’ treatment of the cases also varied but the papers were not always in step with the legal assessment, nor were they influenced by the judicial outcome as journalists often decided on their approach to the protagonists from the outset and kept to this stance regardless of the legal developments. Rather journalists approached these women with their readers in mind: female perpetrators were treated sympathetically if readers might be expected to identify with them.

The findings are based on four newspapers that together span the range of local, national, populist and upmarket segments. They are the Rotterdamsch Nieuwsblad (a local populist paper based in Rotterdam), the Leeuwarder Courant (a local upmarket daily in Leeuwarden), the Algemeen Handelsblad (an upmarket national newspaper) and De Telegraaf (a populist national paper). As De Telegraaf was only founded in 1893, Het Nieuws van de Dag was used as the fourth paper in 1880. This was also a populist national paper, which was eventually taken over by De Telegraaf’s owner.[5]

1880: The Hague Petroleuse

The first case concerns A.S. v.d. M. (only her initials were reported in the papers), a 47-year-old working class woman in The Hague who was married to a bricklayer. Her husband was a drunkard whose drinking habit had left his family in penury. On 13 July 1880, he came home drunk and after quarrelling with his wife, fell asleep on the floor. Some time later, his wife poured paraffin oil over him and set it alight. She later claimed this was to give him a shock and teach him a lesson. When he called out in agony, she quenched the flames. The man was taken to hospital but died from his wounds ten days later. At her trial, V.d. M. said she had not meant to kill her husband. The court disagreed, and she was sentenced to ten years in prison for wilful manslaughter.[6]

The case attracted considerable attention in the press. The reports express horror at the method used. The fact that the man was asleep at the time only made it worse — the Rotterdamsch Nieuwsblad speaks of the “defenceless man”.[7] Most reports omitted to mention the woman’s attempts to put out the fire, adding to the impression of a premeditated act. The journalists called her “The Hague Petroleuse”, an unflattering reference to the petroleuses of the Paris Commune a decade earlier, lower-class women who were rumoured to have used paraffin to burn down Parisian buildings. It might be thought that the husband’s alcoholism would work in the woman’s favour, particularly as the problem of drinking among the lower classes was very much in the news in 1880. But this was not the case. The Algemeen Handelsblad, for instance, played down the impact of the man’s drinking, saying he provided for his family and if it had not been for the occasional drinking bouts there would be nothing to complain about.[8]

The journalists’ antipathy to this working-class woman must be understood in the light of the newspaper market in 1880. Newspaper circulations were still small – around 9,000 in the case of the Algemeen Handelsblad and 5,000 for the Rotterdamsch Nieuwsblad, for example – and, with the exception of Het Nieuws van den Dag, the papers were aimed firmly at middle-class men.[9] Economic and political news dominated the content. The working classes only featured in stories of public disorder and crime, which formed a constant narrative of the dangerous classes. That is evident in the connection made by the newspapers between the domestic violence of V.d. M. and the political violence of the Paris Commune petroleuses. There was a huge gap between the life of V.d. M. and the lives of the papers’ readers; she was outside the newspapers’ imagined community.

1895: the editor of De Hollandsche Lelie

By 1895, the Dutch newspaper market was changing significantly. As the population grew and incomes rose, the demand for newspapers grew. Circulations increased and new titles were founded, including De Telegraaf in 1893. The Rotterdamsch Nieuwsblad reinvented itself in around 1890 as a local paper catering to the lower-middle and working classes of Rotterdam.[10] To serve these new readers, newspapers also adopted elements of the New Journalism, which originated in the US and UK. This new approach coupled a more accessible writing style with a broader definition of what qualified as news. There were more human-interest stories and more items dealing with the private world of the home and leisure rather than the public sphere of business and politics.[11] This tied in with the deliberate attempt to attract female readers that took off in this period. The content included more items that were thought to appeal to women, such as travel reports and book reviews. The Rotterdamsch Nieuwsblad had a daily fashion item in 1895. Newspapers also paid serious attention to women’s political demands, with coverage of feminist organizations’ meetings and petitions.

This was the context for a story involving Sophie van Wermeskerken-Junius, a middle-class woman who fitted into this new, broader imagined community. While her alleged victim did not die, she was accused of poisoning, which was regarded as a particularly horrific crime as it was clearly premeditated and could kill others. Yet unlike V.d. M., she was treated with sympathy by the press. The story broke in November 1895, when Van Wermeskerken-Junius was accused by her husband, a notary in Krommenie, of putting poison (antipyrine) in his beer and gin. The public prosecutor took the charges sufficiently seriously to detain the wife while the case was investigated further, but she was released a few weeks later and the investigation was eventually dropped. The marriage was an unhappy one, Sophie van Wermeskerken-Junius had moved out of the home for a while in the past (taking the children with her), the husband was now filing for formal separation and it was suggested in the press that she might have turned to poisoning as she was afraid her husband would be assigned custody of the children. When arrested, Van Wermeskerken-Junius had denied the charges and claimed she was “the victim of a false, crafty accusation”.[12]

The case was covered at length in the press. Poisoning stories always made good copy as they offered so much scope for speculation. But the accused herself also made this a high-profile case: under her pen name of Johanna van Woude, Van Wermeskerken-Junius was the author of successful books about love and marriage and the editor of De Hollandsche Lelie, a moderately emancipatory magazine for middle-class girls.[13] She would therefore have been a familiar name to the new female readers who the papers were trying to attract.

In initial reports on the case, the newspapers adopted a neutral stance, presenting the story as an unseemly family drama in which there was little to choose between the two protagonists. But the tone changed in later reports, with Van Wermeskerken-Junius now being presented as the victim of her husband’s maltreatment. Two articles in De Telegraaf, both of which were reprinted in full in the Rotterdamsch Nieuwsblad and Leeuwarder Courant, played a key role in this reconstruction of the protagonists. The first article, printed a few days after she was arrested, gave Van Wermeskerken-Junius the moral high ground and turned the potentially negative aspect of her position as a working mother to her advantage. Her writings only showed what a pure conception she had of married life and demonstrated her devotion to her family in seeking to bring them prosperity. Moreover, her work was presented as a calling; her husband, who had allegedly tried to stop her writing because he no longer found it “appropriate”, was roundly criticized for this. “Who has the right to forbid a rose to bloom or a bird to sing?”[14]

The second De Telegraaf article firmly positioned Van Wermeskerken-Junius as a middle-class protagonist on an equal footing with the community of readers. It was an interview with Van Wermeskerken-Junius just after she was released from prison. The interview as a genre was relatively new in Dutch journalism but it was well suited to creating empathy with the interviewee.[15] Moreover as a journalist herself, Van Wermeskerken-Junius would have been better placed than most to turn the occasion to her advantage. She expressly adopted a superior moral position and presented herself as a devoted mother who was eager to see her children as soon as possible: “My children are the most important thing for me”. Readers were also told no details would be given about Van Wermeskerken-Junius’s unhappy marriage or the poisoning story at her request for reasons of “decency”.[16]

As a woman who had left her husband in the past and a mother who was pursuing a career as a writer, Sophie van Wermeskerken-Junius was deviating from the norm of the devoted wife and full-time mother. Yet her class and her reputation as an author and editor made her someone the newspapers’ new female readers could identify with. In many ways, she epitomized the kind of woman newspapers were now targeting. Accordingly, after some initial hesitation the press treated her story with sympathy, transforming her in the process into a dedicated mother first and foremost.

1910: self-defence in Rotterdam and murder in Sneek

By 1910, the working class had acquired the newspaper reading habit, largely thanks to rising incomes. In 1900, the Rotterdamsch Nieuwsblad had a circulation of around 50,000 at a time when the city had about 70,000 households. De Courant, a so-called ‘kopblad’ of De Telegraaf (a cheaper version of the paper aimed at a working-class readership), had a circulation of 110,000 in 1911, giving it a market share of around 10 percent of all Dutch households. Even newspapers aimed at the middle classes, such as the Algemeen Handelsblad, no longer portrayed the working classes as the unruly ‘other’: with the extension of the vote to around 60 percent of men and the rise of political parties that represented their interests, the respectable working classes had been incorporated into the imagined community of the nation.[17]

Both this more expansive definition of the community and its limits are evident in two stories of 1910 involving lower-class women who killed their partner. The two incidents were quite similar — in both cases, the woman stabbed and killed her partner during an argument — but they were treated very differently by the press, reflecting the two women’s different status within Dutch society. One lived a settled, respectable life that placed her within the community of readers; she was portrayed as the victim of circumstances. The other woman lived a mobile life on the margins of society; her story was consequently treated with suspicion.

The first incident took place in Rotterdam in May 1910, when Aletta van den Heerik stabbed and killed her husband G.J.W. Nieuwendaal. Although arrested after the event, she was released the next day without charge. All four papers set the scene at the start of their articles on the incident by introducing the husband as a habitual drunkard who was regularly out of work. This was contrasted with the industriousness of Van den Heerik herself, who ran a vegetable shop in an effort to support her family of eight children. The fullest account of the incident was given in the local paper, the Rotterdamsch Nieuwsblad. Nieuwendaal returned home drunk one Sunday afternoon and started beating his wife when she refused to let him have more to drink. The sixteen-year-old daughter tried to come between them but was injured in the process. The couple continued fighting and when the husband appeared about to kick the cradle containing their three-month-old baby, “that was too much for the provoked mother”: she picked up a breadknife and stabbed her husband, piercing his lungs and heart. He died immediately.[18] It is telling that the other newspapers’ briefer accounts omit mention of Nieuwendaal beating his wife. Instead, they present her act as purely the defence of her offspring by an anguished mother. Van den Heerik’s position as the true victim is also underlined by references to her distraught emotional state after the attack and to the local community’s sympathy for her and her children.[19]

The second case involved two peddlers, 45-year-old Sijbordina Verwer and her 27-year-old partner Berend Heerus, in an incident in July 1910. When Berend returned to the lodging house in Sneek where they were staying, Sijbordina was preparing sandwiches. Told he would have to wait for his food, he became angry and advanced aggressively on her. She held up her arms with the breadknife in one hand, which pierced his heart. Heerus died immediately. The case went to trial, where the key question was whether Verwer had held up the knife in self-defence (as she claimed) or had used force to deliberately injure her partner. When she was found not guilty, the public prosecutor appealed but the judgment was confirmed in the court of appeal.[20]

The incident and subsequent trials were reported in detail in the local newspaper the Leeuwarder Courant and the two populist papers De Telegraaf and Rotterdamsch Nieuwsblad. The deed could have been presented as an act of self-defence like the case of Van den Heerik in Rotterdam, but the papers chose a different approach. They cast doubt on Verwer’s claim that the killing was accidental by emphasizing that this was merely her version of events, adding phrases such as “according to claims by the woman Verwer”.[21] Moreover, the incident was consistently referred to as “murder” in headlines. The court’s judgment was described by the newspapers as not guilty “due to lack of evidence”, the implication being that Verwer had killed her partner deliberately but it had not been possible to prove this.[22] Even the woman’s small size in relation to her partner was used as evidence against her rather than evoking sympathy for her as the victim of his aggression: the papers stressed an expert’s opinion that this proved she must have used a deliberate action to pierce his heart because otherwise she would have stabbed his stomach.[23]

Thus whereas journalists had expressed sympathy for Van den Heerik, unquestioningly treating her case as an act of self-defence, they were critical of Verwer and portrayed her act as murder (without ever explicitly criticizing the judicial proceedings). The reporters’ negative attitude to Verwer reflects her position on the margins of society. Whereas Van den Heerik was a married woman and a mother of a large family living a settled life among the urban working class, Verwer was an outsider in numerous respects. She was a peddler moving from lodging house to lodging house. She was not law-abiding: readers were told she had registered under a false name in the lodging house night book and that she had been arrested the previous year for public drunkenness.[24] Moreover, she lived an irregular private life: she was unmarried, apparently had no children and was cohabiting with a man almost twenty years younger than her.


These four cases show that the Dutch newspapers treated some women accused of domestic violence with sympathy but not others. Differences in treatment were not simply the result of weighing up the partners’ performance in the light of gender norms, as has been argued in the literature. On the contrary, journalists could choose to downplay or reinterpret deviations from the norm. A drunken husband could be a mitigating factor in some cases but not in others. And in a period that was increasingly critical of working mothers, journalists were able to construct the wife’s work as a sign of her devotion to her family.

Journalists’ attitudes can better be explained by seeing their approach as dictated by a desire to write stories that appealed to the community of readers. The crucial factor was the female perpetrator’s position with respect to that imagined community. As female readers became an important category, journalists were more inclined to empathize in their reporting with women who committed intimate partner violence. And as working-class readers joined that imagined community, that empathy was extended to working-class women too. By 1910, only women on the margins of society were still excluded.

Clare Wilkinson (1964) is a PhD candidate at Leiden University. In her dissertation, she researches gender and violence in Dutch newspapers between 1880 and 1930. 


  1. In 1880, newspapers were aimed at middle-class men. Source: RKD.
  2. The Rotterdamsch Nieuwsblad had a daily fashion illustration for female readers in 1895. Source: Delpher.
  3. Sophie van Wermeskerken-Junius, author and editor under her penname Johanna van Woude, who was accused of attempting to poison her husband in 1895. Source: Literatuurmuseum.
  4. Schildersteeg, the street in Rotterdam where Aletta van den Heerik killed her husband in 1910. Source: RKD.

[1] M. Wiener, Men of Blood. Violence, Manliness and Criminal Justice in Victorian England (Cambridge 2004); E. Ferguson, Gender and Justice. Violence, Intimacy and Community in Fin-de-siècle Paris (Baltimore 2010); G. Frost, ‘'She is but a Woman': Kitty Byron and the English Edwardian Criminal Justice System’, Gender & History, 16:3 (2004), 538-560.

[2] A. Bingham, Gender, Modernity, and the Popular Press in Inter-war Britain (Oxford 2004) 30-31.

[3] B. Anderson, Imagined communities. Reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism, rev. edn. (London 2016), 6, 33-36.

[4] Y. Jewkes, Media & Crime, 3rd edn. (London 2015) 285.

[5] M. Wolf, Het Geheim van de Telegraaf. Geschiedenis van een krant, (Amsterdam 2009) 171-174.

[6] ‘Een Petroleuse’, Algemeen Handelsblad, 13 November 1880, p. 2; Algemeen Handelsblad, 19 November 1880, p. 6.

[7] Rotterdamsch Nieuwsblad, 16 July 1880, p. 2.

[8] Het Nieuws van den Dag, 13 November 1880, p. 7; ‘Een Petroleuse’, Algemeen Handelsblad, 13 November 1880, p. 2.

[9] J. van de Plasse, Kroniek van de Nederlandse dagblad en opiniepers, (Amsterdam 2005) 192.

[10] H.J. Scheffer, In vorm gegoten. Het Rotterdamsch Nieuwsblad in de negentiende eeuw, (The Hague 1981) 50-82.

[11] Kevin Williams, ‘Anglo-American Journalism. The Historical Development of Practice, Style and Form’, in: Marcel Broersma (ed.), Form and Style in Journalism. European Newspapers and the Representation of News, 1880-2005 (Leuven 2007) 1-26.

[12] ‘Een familiedrama’, Algemeen Handelsblad’, 22 November 1895, p. 6.

[13] U. Jansz, Denken over sekse in de eerste feministische golf (Amsterdam 1990) 40, 80, 113.

[14] ‘Johanna van Woude’, De Telegraaf, 25 November 1895, p.1; ‘Het drama te Krommenie’, Leeuwarder Courant, 27 November 1895, p.2; ‘Vergiftiging?’, Rotterdamsch Nieuwsblad, 27 November 1895, p. 2.

[15] M. Broersma, ‘Mediating Parliament. Form Changes in British and Dutch Journalism, 1850-1940’, in: H. Wijfjes and G. Voerman (ed.), Mediatization of Politics in History (2009 Leuven) 167-184, espec. 180-183.

[16] ‘Johanna van Woude. Interview’, De Telegraaf, 16 December 1895, p. 1; ‘Johanna van Woude’, Leeuwarder Courant, 19 December 1895, p. 6; ‘Vergiftiging?’, Rotterdamsch Nieuwsblad, 18 December 1895, p. 2.

[17] Plasse, Kroniek, 192-193; F. Wielenga, Nederland in de twintigste eeuw (Amsterdam 2009) 34-37.

[18] ‘Doodslag uit noodweer door een vrouw’, Rotterdamsch Nieuwsblad, 10 May 1910, p. 1.

[19] ‘Een familiedrama’, Algemeen Handelsblad, 9 May 1910, p. 1; ‘Een huiselijk drama’, De Telegraaf, 9 May 1910, p. 5; ‘Moord’, Leeuwarder Courant, 10 May 1910, p. 2.

[20] ‘De moord te Sneek’, Leeuwarder Courant, 7 October 1910, p. 2.

[21] ‘Doodslag’, De Telegraaf, 3 July 1910, p. 3.

[22] ‘De moord te Sneek’, De Telegraaf, 12 August 1910, p. 2.

[23] ‘De moord te Sneek’, Leeuwarder Courant, 4 July 1910, p. 3.

[24] ‘Doodslag’, De Telegraaf, 3 July 1910, p. 3.