I am standing in front of a case of dolls while Els Flour explains something to me that is so obvious, I am ashamed that it never crossed my mind before: in the 19th century, girls’ dolls looked like women. It was only around the turn of the 20th century that the “baby doll” was introduced, to reinforce the idea – from an age when girls were practically infants themselves – that a girl’s job is to take care of babies.

Separate and not quite equal: Women push coal at a 19th-century Belgian mine
Separate and not quite equal: Women push coal at a 19th-century Belgian mine

An intriguing show in Brussels looks at the changing perceptions of gender in Belgium

I am standing in front of a case of dolls while Els Flour explains something to me that is so obvious, I am ashamed that it never crossed my mind before: in the 19th century, girls’ dolls looked like women. It was only around the turn of the 20th century that the “baby doll” was introduced, to reinforce the idea – from an age when girls were practically infants themselves – that a girl’s job is to take care of babies.

Although we still see baby dolls today, this issue is part of what made the introduction of Barbie so significant. If you had looked above my head at that precise moment, I swear you would have seen a light bulb floating above.

Flour is an archivist at the Archive Centre on Women’s History in Brussels and one of four brains behind a new exhibit in the capital’s BELvue museum: Boy or Girl… Destiny for a Lifetime? Belgium 1830-2000. Through the lenses of family, education, and work, Boy or Girl shows changes and advances in perceptions of masculinity and femininity in Belgium over the past two centuries.

The exhibit begins with classic conceptions of gender – the stairs are lined with phrases such as “Boys don’t cry” and “Girls play with dolls”. Then we are introduced to the role of women and men in family life, starting in the early 19th century, with images of women as subordinate to men and showing women working at home, dependent on the independent man.

But the exhibit is also quick to show how these ideas were undermined by reality – drunken men, divorcees, strong women or upper class women who hired nannies to tend to their children.

As we reach more modern times, we see a growing acceptance of gay and lesbian relationships. And there is a quick but fascinating foray into women’s fight for trousers: “It used to be that very little boys would be dressed in girls’ clothing. That’s changing now – from the moment a child is born, they are put into different types of clothes depending on their sex,” Flour explains. “By the 1920s, it was common for women to wear men’s clothes, but you still don’t often see men wearing skirts. Women had to fight for it, but it was easier for them to move into wearing men’s clothing, whereas for men to wear women’s clothing is seen as a step down on the social scale.”


The Belgian footprint

As you move into the “education” section of Boy or Girl, you start to see more of the Belgian footprint on the issue. Boys and girls were schooled separately in Belgium through much of the 19th century. Classes were separated, but so were the subjects. Girls learned all about the home, while boys were introduced to more complex ideas and improved technology.

In 1864, Isabelle Gatti de Gamond opened the first school where girls received the same education as boys. Within 20 years, other schools were following, and Belgian universities even started accepted women to their ranks.

The strong Catholic education system in Belgium had deeply ingrained both the roles of men and women and the idea of their complementary positions: women were valued but served a different purpose from men. According to Flour, this held Belgium back when other countries made advances in equality. With the beginning of a breakdown of these barriers in the school system came the beginnings of the feminist movement. However, it took advances in women’s professional lives – the third part of the exhibit – for the women’s movement to formally take shape.

The idea of “the working woman” is actually both an old idea and a familiar reality. “There was only a short period at the end of the 19th century when women were not working,” says Flour. “Generally, they were part of the work force, often doing demanding, physical work, like in factories.” Boy or Girl highlights women in various professions, including lawyers, nurses, secretaries and mineworkers and shows the progression in attitudes towards women holding these jobs.

One female lawyer in particular is essential to the history of the women’s movement in Belgium. Born in 1846, Marie Popelin followed and completed the law course at the Free University of Brussels (ULB) in 1888 only to be denied admission to the Brussels bar because of her gender.

In 1892, she co-founded the Belgian League of Women’s Rights, thus kicking off the feminist movement in Belgium (and proving how dangerous it is to deny a woman what she wants). Despite establishing herself as one of Belgium’s first feminists, Popelin herself was never admitted to the bar; she died in 1913, and it was not until nearly a decade later that Belgium saw its first female lawyer.

Still, Popelin stirred up a great deal of controversy, and the exhibit includes various cartoons mocking and criticising the idea of a female lawyer who must breast feed while in court and who leaves her motherly duties to her husband to tend to her job. In this sense, professions such as nursing were more amenable to the public perception of a woman’s function.

The First World War, in particular, was an important time for nurses. “It became a respected profession,” notes Flour, “but you see women more in the role of caretaker than as a professional.”


Last in the right to vote

In many countries, the First World War became an emancipating time because men were away fighting, and women took their jobs in the workplace. But in Belgium, the country was officially neutral and, of course, occupied. There were also fewer men in the army, and the German army had dismantled most factories.

Belgium, therefore, ended up with a reverse situation. Men were home and out of work, and women were carrying on with their usual pursuits. Men, like women, were out trying to find food for their families, which undermined the ideas about the man as the head of the household.

Shortly afterwards, the women’s suffrage movement began in Belgium. Initially, voting rights were granted solely to mothers and widows of soldiers and civilians killed by the enemy, as well as women imprisoned or condemned by the enemy during the war. Then in 1920, women were given the right to vote – but only at the local level (and excluding prostitutes and “adulterous women”).

Before that time, men could each vote three times in an election, and the discussion of granting the right to women became wrapped up with the “one man, one vote” campaign. The discussion was divided along party lines: Liberals and Socialists were opposed to women’s suffrage, but the Catholics were in favour (they suspected that women would vote overwhelmingly Catholic). “One man, one vote” and women’s (limited) suffrage were both adopted, but it was not until 1948 that women could vote at all levels of government, making Belgium one of the last Western countries to give women what is now considered a fundamental right.


Party lines

Party lines similarly disrupted the progression of the women’s movement. Rather than a single unified women’s movement, Belgium saw women’s movements within the Socialist, Liberal and Catholic parties. Marie Popelin attempted to set up a more universal women’s party called the General Party of Women, but her efforts failed.

This fragmentation of the Belgian women’s movement continued up to the “second feminist wave” in the mid-20th century. Until that time, most feminist activity came from the French-speaking community. Women’s issues were rooted in the higher Belgian classes, which were almost exclusively French-speaking in the 19th and early 20th centuries. But the second wave took hold in Flanders slightly earlier and more strongly than in Wallonia.

It was under this second wave that “equal pay for equal work” became a legal issue. Belgian laws were finally established in court in 1968 when air hostess Gabrielle Defrenne brought a case against the national airline Sabena for forcing her to retire at 40, while allowing male colleagues to work to 50. The European Court of Justice in Luxembourg ruled in her favour, arguing that this was discrimination on the grounds of sex.

The Flemish Vrouwenoverlegkomitee (Women’s Consultation Committee) held Belgium’s first Women’s Day at about the same time, on 11 November, 1972. With an estimated 11,000 participants, the event became annual, although numbers have dwindled considerably in recent years. They now hover around 1,500.

“When people come, they are glad they came, but it’s hard to get them there,” admits Four. “They worry that it’s all day, and it’s all women – but there are also some men who come.” In general, she sees a stigma developing as more and more people reject the label of “feminist”.


Gender blender

Gender studies have recently made inroads in the academic sphere, but it has run up against the same trends that Flour sees. Universities across Flanders created an inter-university programme in Women’s Studies, but Professor Marysa Demoor, chair of Ghent University’s Centre for Gender Studies, notes that this has now fallen apart – in a way, for good reason. “Universities tend to have mainstream courses on women and gender issues,” she says, and this general interest made a unique programme difficult to sustain. “Students don’t need to make the effort to go to Antwerp just to learn gender studies.”

Even as gender studies becomes more of the norm, some factors start being taken for granted. Professor Chia Longman, chair of Gender and Diversity Studies at Ghent University, notes a more troubling trend in the mindset of her students. “The outlook is very androgynous. They can’t really understand what gender studies are about,” she explains. “They see problems of discrimination in other cultures – ultra-religious societies or the Third World – but they don’t see it in their own.” But when Longman gives them the statistics, “they see how these inequalities creep out, and they become very interested.”

Longman’s course on “Gender and Diversity” also looks at new conceptions of gender – moving beyond the dichotomy of male/female to explore issues of transgender identities or ideas of a third or fourth gender. In Flanders there have been steps at the governmental level to introduce awareness on these issues.

“Gender in the blender” is a project sponsored by, among others, the province of Flemish Brabant, that aims to assist with gender issues faced by teenagers. Their website includes a variety of resources to help young people work through questions of gender and identity, including an extensive and engaging series of lessons to be used in classrooms or other settings.

“Everyone is confronted with their own gender identity and with gender norms –  social pressure to conform to norms of masculinity and femininity,” says Joz Motmans, a researcher at the Policy Research Centre on Equal Opportunities at the University of Antwerp, who interviewed subjects for the project. "We wanted to create solidarity among youngsters and in [encourage] respect for being different, for being gender variant.”

Awareness, then, seems to be at the forefront of a modern gender movement. But as people begin taking for granted how much has been accomplished, there is a danger of losing momentum in achieving more. The BELvue exhibit shows us the remarkable shifts in Belgian society over a relatively short period of time. Even as we take a moment to rest on our laurels and appreciate it, let it be a reminder of how much we collectively have yet to accomplish.


Boy or Girl…Destiny for a Lifetime?

BELvue Museum, Paleizenplein 7, Brussels

Until 31 May



The under-representation of women in parliament remained a sore point in Belgian politics. This led in 1994 to the introduction of the Smet-Tobback law, which forced parties to include a minimum quota of women on their lists. The rules were applied for the first time in the 13 June 1999 elections, leading to a virtual doubling of the number of women in the House. In Flanders, the number increased from 12 to 20.

The 1999 election brought a new generation of women into politics. Many of them were young, bringing fresh ideas to the political debate.

From The Belgian House of Representatives: From Revolution to Federalism (2006), published by the House of Representatives