>AMSTERDAM: French women, says a recent bestseller, don’t get fat. Japanese women, says another, don’t get old or fat. But their sisters in the Netherlands may have one up on both of them.
That is because Dutch women, according to a book just released in the Netherlands, don’t get depressed.
After scores of interviews with historians, psychologists, fashion designers, image-profilers, personal shoppers, magazine editors and ordinary Dutch women, Ellen de Bruin, a Dutch psychologist and journalist, throws down the gauntlet. In a title billed as the Dutch woman’s answer to the French and Japanese, she argues that women in the Netherlands are a whole lot happier than their counterparts in most parts of the world.
“It has to do with personal freedom,” said de Bruin, whose work, sure enough, is titled “Dutch Women Don’t Get Depressed.” “Personal choice is key: in the Netherlands people are free to choose their life partners, their religion, their sexuality, we are free to use soft drugs here, we can pretty much say anything we like. The Netherlands is a very free country.”
While the book clearly parodies its French and Japanese rivals, it is underpinned by serious research. And its author does seem to have a point. While Dutch women do sometimes get depressed, just as French women do sometimes get fat, the Dutch as a nation emerge close to the top of the world happiness rankings established by Ruut Veenhoven, professor of social conditions for human happiness at Erasmus University in Rotterdam. On a scale of 1 to 10, where 10 signals greatest life satisfaction, the Dutch score 7.5 – beating 6.5 for the French and 6.2 for the Japanese. They also defeat Americans with 6.4, the British with 7.1, and the Italians and Spanish who each total 6.9.
Part of the reason lies in the social organization of the Netherlands, which offers women greater control over their lives than that of France or Japan.
“Japan is a very collectivistic culture with very little personal freedom when it comes to the choice of a job, a partner, a religion, the major things in life,” de Bruin said in an interview. A high degree of centralization, meanwhile, seems to reduce life satisfaction in France. “We have a built-in distrust of central governments and a very high need for, and rates of, personal freedom in every aspect of our lives.”
Such elevated levels of contentment may come as a surprise to some close observers of the Dutch. After much coaxing in interviews, foreigners living in the Netherlands came up with a collective portrait of Dutch women that, were they to become aware of it, could give them a good dose of the blues.
“We are seen as very tough,” de Bruin said in a recent conversation in Amsterdam, before cycling off to a class in runway walking to learn how to balance in high heels. “We don’t know how to dress and we are not very hospitable – if you come round to our house at dinnertime you get sent away.” Clothing is geared more to the weather than seduction. “We do everything by bike, which is why we don’t dress very elegantly,” de Bruin said. And, with a highly developed sense of equality between the sexes, “we are bossy to our men.”
Still, de Bruin’s observations suggest that glamour, hospitality and charm may not be essential ingredients for female happiness. Living in a wealthy, industrialized society plays a huge part in the Dutch woman’s sense of contentment, she said, given the benefits of a social net that allows for balance between work and family life. She backs that claim with statistics: 68 percent of Dutch women work part time, roughly 25 hours a week, and most probably do not want a full-time job.
Long used to a measure of economic freedom, Dutch women worked before marriage from as early as the 14th century, when the decimations of the plague made female labor a necessity and conferred a habit of independence that some historians have called the first feminist revolution.
A large component of the Dutch woman’s happiness today derives from the importance attributed to the nuclear family – an institution invented by the low countries and whose hold there today is so strong that even gay couples want it. Furthermore, it became customary in the Netherlands much earlier than elsewhere for young people to choose their own spouses – the bidding of Pope Gregory IX in 1234, that people should marry by consent, not parental coercion, was quickly taken to heart in Catholic Holland. That, plus the Dutch eschewal of dowries – daughters and sons historically have had equal rights to inherit from their parents – meant women did not have to marry early to come into money.
“It doesn’t contribute to happiness to marry young,” de Bruin said. “Those who married young married into their in-laws’ family and had to work for them, and they had a sexual relationship at a younger age with partners they didn’t choose themselves.”
Meanwhile, the burgeoning capitalist economy in the Netherlands’ Golden Age, in which the 17th-century Dutch established the first stock exchange and set up retirement funds, freed Dutch women to a greater extent than women in rural societies from the burden of caring for the aged.
“These patterns are long-lived and deeply ingrained in the collective mentality of a country,” de Bruin said, adding that the differences in social organization between Mediterranean and northern European countries are still wide. “If you look at the elderly living in old people’s homes,” she said, “in the Netherlands it’s virtually everybody above a certain age, more than 80 percent, while in Spain its less than 4 percent.”
Still, a long history of financial independence, consensual marriage and lighter family burdens has not shielded Dutch women from all social pressures today. While they have substantial freedom to choose whether to work full or part time, for instance, full-time working mothers “are stigmatized more in the Netherlands than in the countries around us,” de Bruin said.
The Netherlands has long been renowned for its relative sexual freedom – prostitution today is legal in Amsterdam’s red-light district – and visitors in the Golden Age often wrote of their amazement at the Dutch woman’s sexual independence. Once married, however, sex often took a back seat; for some early Calvinists even sex within marriage was sinful, de Bruin says, and Dutch women sublimated their sexual energy into domestic bullying.
“They ordered the men around – there are many stories of bossy women and subordinate men,” she said. “We know this from the literature of the 16th century, and it hasn’t changed.”
Modern Dutch men are expected to share the chores at home, “without being told, or when told,” de Bruin said. The Dutch woman “wants the man to do housework to help her feel equal, but he has to do it her way.”
Which perhaps raises the question, do Dutch men get depressed?
Not much, according to de Bruin, who says that the behavior of the sexes evolved simultaneously, that Dutch men like their women bossy while Dutch women are not keen on macho men. Still, she sympathizes with men who have to negotiate a jungle of rules that they never understand and that are always set by women.
“Luckily,” she said, “most men have enough Tarzan in them to like a bit of a jungle.”