“There was actually no interest whatsoever in emancipatory issues at Erasmus University”, Henny Langeveld herself states in a jubilee book celebrating forty years of social sciences at Erasmus University. “Nor was any funding allocated to me. If I wanted to do research, I had to fund it myself.” Langeveld gave this interview in 2003, one year before she passed away. She was made Professor of Empirical Sociology in 1969, becoming the first female professor to be appointed without any ‘friction’. “That was fine with me”, she said regarding the absence of any fuss surrounding her appointment. “I don’t think it was that big of a deal anyway. The one difference was that I was appointed as a lecturer first, whereas many male colleagues were fast-tracked to professor straight away. So there was still discrimination going on.”
In 1986, Langeveld spoke to Quod Novum, the precursor to Erasmus Magazine, about how she coped with that discrimination in the academic world. “Emancipation is a process of a lifetime. I still do conform sometimes. For example, men are very much inclined to puff themselves up and sell themselves. Sometimes, you’ll end up sitting next to a man like that at a dinner, and he’s exuding an air of success and omniscience and has stopped listening to other people. That’s when I get the sense that they’re making a conscious effort to impress. What you really ought to do in such circumstances is tell them to ‘zip it!’. But I don’t, because I’ve no desire to spoil the mood. Also, it would lead to another argument.”
Henny Langeveld was born on 21 June 1926. She obtained her doctorate in 1957 with a thesis on migration from East Groningen to the Randstad region of the Netherlands. Langeveld joined the Nederlandse Economische Hogeschool (which went on to become Erasmus University Rotterdam) as a member of the academic staff in 1962. She used the surname In ’t Veld-Langeveld whilst married but went back to using her maiden name following her divorce. This was not an easy thing for an academic to do – it made her previous publications harder to find, for instance. She passed away on 23 February 2004 at the age of 77.
Nigh on two decades after her death, Langeveld will receive a tribute – a tribute the size of a building, in fact. Emeritus professor and sociologist Han Leune laughs as he imagines how Langeveld might have reacted to the prospect of a building bearing her name. “She’d have found it over the top. She’d shrug her shoulders and say: ‘Is that really necessary?’” She turned down the distinction of a knighthood in the Order of the Netherlands Lion in 1991. “She was modest.”
Leune characterises the professor as “extremely versatile, creative, markedly empirical in focus, not ideologically motivated, very dedicated and not one to look down on people from an ivory tower”. Leune was one of the initial 47 students at the fledgling Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences in 1963. Langeveld subsequently supervised his PhD project.
‘A debt of gratitude'
“Erasmus University Rotterdam owes her a huge debt of gratitude.” Leune closed his eulogy with these words at Langeveld’s funeral. “She was a pioneer, involved in founding the Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences. As a scholar, she knew her subject and was solid on the teaching front. She studied society assiduously and was extremely creative when it came to finding appropriate research methods. She was also heavily engaged in statistical research, making her a pioneer in that regard as well.”
Leune praises Langeveld’s versatility too. She started out researching migration, then switched to sociology of the family. Subsequently, she shifted her focus to women’s position in society and after retiring focused primarily on cultural sociology. “She not only studied societal issues objectively but also thought about what could be done about them, as her 1973 transition to the Scientific Council for Government Policy (the advisory body at the intersection between science and policy) attests. Henny’s farewell gathering was held at her house, but we were not in high spirits. We were sorry to see her go.”
Langeveld returned to Erasmus University in 1986. Minister Arie Pais wanted to encourage research into emancipation and awarded funding for a professorship. Back then, Hanne Groenendijk was a member of the academic staff in Women’s Studies and was on the selection committee. She can still clearly recall some of the male professors’ attitude towards women’s studies. “One of the professors in the department in which I was to be appointed went to the press. My appointment was going to adversely impact on his international reputation and that of his department.” Groenendijk did not let this stop her, just like Langeveld, despite her disappointment regarding her second post.
Langeveld was ‘shut away’ – at least, that was how it felt to her – in the rooms around the pond, in Philosophy. “Staff referred to that part of the building as ‘the pit’”, explains Groenendijk. “Henny was engaged in scenario research on how society might develop if women went out to work more and what impact this would have on family life. But she did not receive any funding from the university for those research projects. She had to secure contract research herself. “This made her feel like she wasn’t being taken seriously as an academic. It was hugely disappointing for her.”
“But looking back, Henny achieved a great deal despite the obstacles. She carried out research for the Ministry of Social Affairs and Employment, for Rotterdam City Council and for the Rotterdam police too. The police were keen to recruit more women to the force and therefore wanted a study on recruitment and selection policy. She researched how to help women off benefits more swiftly for the local authority. Both of these are still current topics and persistent problems. She really understood the importance to society of those studies.”
More and more female academics
An increasing number of women are working at Dutch universities. Proportionally, there…
Groenendijk remembers Langeveld as a ‘very level-headed, positive lady’. Smartly dressed, beautiful jewellery, with a husky voice, ‘because she liked a cigarette’. “She was very much her own person. She didn’t follow the crowd, neither in terms of clothing nor in terms of science. She was always very straightforward, once saying about a professor that she’d never managed to squeeze an original thought out of him. She didn’t talk much about her personal life, but if she’d been to a great art exhibition, then she’d tell us all about it.
Groenendijk adds that Langeveld was an optimist, because she truly believed that, if you showed people the path to change, then they’d bring about that change. “She’d be surprised at just how current emancipation issues still are. She thought that men would be rational and see the benefit of women working and would therefore take over care duties.”
The fact that research is still being done on the same issues also speaks volumes about
Langeveld’s status as a pioneer, says Laura den Dulk, professor of Public Administration. “She did an awful lot in terms of emancipation research, which we’re still building on now.” Den Dulk believes that change is a gradual process. Even if she can see how things have changed since Langeveld’s time, “The context has changed. It’s now normal for women to be in gainful employment.”
“It’s absolutely right that a building has been named after her”, thinks Den Dulk. “I also see it as a reminder that we still have a way to go. Why, when there’s so much female talent in the lecture halls, are so few women progressing to higher academic positions? There’s still a lot of work to be done here at Erasmus University too. We need policy to effect that change. Langeveld would be very quick to point that out.”