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Maartje Janse: Dissenting Voices in the 19th Century

11 March 2021

Dissenting Voices in the 19th Century: Meet Maartje Janse

In recent years we have seen Climate Marches and Black Lives Matter protests. Freedom of assembly and protest are considered to be human rights. Where do these forms of protest originate? LeidenGlobal spoke with associate professor Maartje Janse from the Leiden University Institute for History on the origins of pressure groups and Dutch politics in the 19th century.

“I have been fascinated by history from a young age. But I was quite surprised when I learned at the age of 14 that you could actually make a living out of studying history - someone I met told me their mother worked as a history lecturer. She became a dear colleague many years later.” Trained as a cultural historian at Utrecht University, Janse specialised in the political history of the 19th century, especially protest and social movements. “I am interested in people’s conception of politics: what issues are considered political, who is supposed to participate in politics, and how they should do so. Political conflict often reveals competing conceptions of politics.”

During her PhD, she focused on 19th-century Dutch citizens who established single-issue organisations for example with the aim to abolish slavery. “This is interesting because it shows shifting ideas of what is right and wrong in society, but also the way people understood politics. Should they take to the street, or go canvassing? Or was that considered too radical and did they choose to present petitions instead?” To find out what was acceptable, Janse looks at the disputes within such organisations. Besides that, her research provides insight in the resurfacing interest in the colonies in 19th-century Netherlands. “Being critical about colonial policy is not something recent, dissenting voices have been around for a long time.” Janse has contributed to research projects aimed at establishing a connection between slavery and the cities of Amsterdam and Utrecht.

Her current research centres around the rise of mass political organisations and the origins of the modern-day pressure group in 19th-century Europe and the United States. “A lot of these ideas were transferred from Britain to for instance the Netherlands.” Part of her research evolves around the language and concepts used within these organisations. Using the prefix ‘anti’ signalled a specific position. “The way these activists talked about the issues, says something about the way they understood politics, and their role in it.”

Politics in the 19th century is very different from politics in the 21st century. We need to be careful when comparing current protests with those of earlier pressure groups, says Janse. But whether we are talking about the past or in the present, protest helps us understand how people see their world, their political system, and their role as citizen.

If you want to stay up-to-date with Maartje Janse’s research, you can follow her on Twitter.


Interviewed by Karianne Ooijevaar, commissioned by LeidenGlobal


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