FORCE – Forensic Culture in Europe, 1930-2000


Bringing Sex into the Fictional Courtroom

Our team at FORCE has welcomed an intern, Iris Stofberg, in December 2019. Below is the blog that Iris has written for our project. An important part of our research project is how social or cultural norms – such as ideas about gender –  interact with forensic evidence and expertise. The blog that Iris has written highlights this interaction very well through an examination of the fiction court proceedings present in a Dutch novel Margreet vervult de wet (Margreet fulfills the law) by focusing on the topics of the modern women, gender and child murder. Not only is the novel very topical with regards to the FORCE project; it is also a rare find, as only few Dutch novels deal with infanticide this way.


Bringing Sex into the Fictional Courtroom: How to Create an ‘Innocent’ Child Murderess

By Iris Stofberg

In 1936, the Dutch author Constant van Wessem published his novel Margreet vervult de wet (Margreet fulfills the law). The novel features An Winters: a young, naive girl who moves to the city, falls in love with Ferdinand, drinks sherry, has sex, gets pregnant, panics, and murders her child. Often the novel reads more like an official casefile than a fictional story as the reader not only gets an insight into An Winters’ background, mind, and motives, but also into her trial and its proceedings. Van Wessem is not the first writer to deal with the problem of the unmarried child murderess in his work. It is a topic already touched upon by famous authors such as Goethe, Schiller, Cremer, and many others. Moreover, this character is not confined to fiction only. How to deal with young, unmarried girls who murder their child out of fear and shame is a topic often debated in various moments in history. The case of An Winters differs from fiction and reality as van Wessem brings in the character of Margreet van Voort: a modern woman and lawyer. One might expect to read an ode to modern femininity but reading between the lines points us to a more traditional ideal of womanhood. As I will show, it is precisely the combination of those two perceptions of femininity that support the plea of ‘not guilty’.

In the nineteenth century, young unmarried girls who had murdered their child could rely on public sympathy. People could – to a certain extent – understand the emotions, such as fear and shame, these girls experienced when they found out about their pregnancy. Some believed that the patriarchal ideas on marriage and sex, which were deeply embedded in society, left unmarried mothers no choice but to commit infanticide. Child murder, therefore, was thought of as not only an act performed solely by the unmarried mother, but also by society. Different women’s organizations were concerned about the fate of unmarried mothers and tried to improve their social position. Already at the turn of the nineteenth century, for instance, more attention was paid to male responsibility and the absence of research into male paternity was questioned. In the interwar period, the (physical) relation between men and women changed through for instance dancing and jazz music: women’s and men’s bodies moved in closer contact with each other. At the same time, contraception became more widely known and an unwanted pregnancy could, although still illegal, be resolved through an abortion. Although somewhat more space was created for women’s sexuality, it was not a welcome development. The changing relations between men and women were considered a danger and resulted in moral hysteria. Hence, the lives of women who were sexually active did not become that much easier.

During An Winters’ trial, her lawyer pleads ‘not guilty’ and it is a claim she struggles with throughout the entire novel. Because how to convince a judge that An Winter is not guilty, even though this young girl admitted that she had murdered her child? It proves to be one of the major challenges and Margreet tries to solve it by putting emphasis on An Winters’ environment. The people who raised her, are orthodox Christians, who condemn immorality and a non-Christian lifestyle. The modern lawyer Margreet is shocked when she first learns about the ideas An Winter grew up with. She is astonished that these ideas and this upbringing are still present in some parts of modern society as she thinks of the orthodox Christian environment as anti-modern. In An Winters’ world, fun and laughter are not only sins, but God is also always watching over you, ready to denounce your choices and thoughts. An Winter writes ‘And I even saw God laughing scornfully when I would lay my eyes upon Him.’ Hence, Margreet stresses the enormous impact of her Christian upbringing on An Winters’ development in her plea bargain. She states: ‘the methods that these harsh orthodox people employ become actually infernal when applied to young, still immature, creatures.’ An Winter was raised to be afraid of God: every tiny mistake would result in His wrath. Being an unmarried mother would result in expulsion by her community and her conviction by God. In short, An Winters’ life would be over. Therefore, Margreet argues that An Winters cannot be held responsible for her crime as she was forced to carry out this act by her fear of God, obtained by her Christian upbringing.

Because the reader gains insight into the trial and its proceedings, questions such as ‘how?’ and ‘why?’ are important. One of the important questions is why An Winters would be sexually active in the first place. If she is so afraid of God, why, then, engage in this ‘sinful’ act? Margreet discusses this issue during her plea bargain and she solves this problem from an almost modern viewpoint. She argues that An Winters cannot be held responsible for having sex. It was not something she could influence. To be more specific, Margreet argues that women are designed by nature to love andreproduce. ‘Nature’ does not care if a woman is married or not and there is no way to escape fate. In short, women cannot be held accountable for being sexually active outside of marriage. It is a very different take on women and sexuality than the contemporary ideas on this topic, in which women were restricted to having sex within the boundaries of marriage.

At first glance, Margreet advocates a modern concept of femininity: condemning unmarried mothers is not right because women who are having sex, inside or outside of marriage, are following nature’s will. The argument of ‘following nature’ does not sound very modern, but the idea in general – being sexually active while unmarried, is nothing to be ashamed of – does. I argue that although the idea of sexually active women sounds modern, Margreet’s argument is driven both by traditional and modern perceptions of femininity. The female characters, Margreet and her friend Lydia, advocate reproduction. Intercourse is a means to achieve reproduction, and thus, it is a way to fulfill women’s destiny. The narrow-mindedness of society towards unmarried mothers, restricts women in fulfilling their destiny. Margreet, therefore, blames her environment for An Winters’ terrible act. Up until her crime, she fulfilled society’s expectations of women, yet, she was punished for it. The importance of reproduction sheds a different light on these ‘modern’ ideas. The more modern notion of femininity – women can be sexually active regardless of their marital status – is supplemented by the traditional ideal of femininity: motherhood. These two perceptions of femininity are combined in a framework of women’s sexuality on which Margreet builds in her plea.

Combining traditional and modern ideas on gender is not a development unknown to Dutch society in the 1930s. Analyzing the reaction towards modern femininity shows that public discourse was not entirely unfavorable towards the modern woman. Women could look and behave modern to a certain extent. Only in those moments when being modern became a threat to motherhood, the public opinion became hostile. For instance, women’s smoking and dieting resulted in emotional reactions as these would have a negative effect on women’s bodies and health and thus have negative consequences to their fertility. In the 1920s, the modern woman represented a figure who broke away from her traditional role as wife, mother and daughter. Only in the course of the interwar period, being a mother gradually became more important in the construction of (modern) femininity. In short, women could look and act modern, while still advocating a ‘traditional’ ideal of womanhood.

Halfway through the 1930s, the novel still displays the need to shed light on the problems surrounding the child murderess. The tragic story of An Winters was one that needed to be told. The author might have hoped to spark a new debate on the position of the unmarried mother in society. The novel Margreet vervult de wet is not so much about child murder as it deals with conflicting ideas of gender. It represents how women, their sexuality, and their bodies were not only constructed by modern ideas, but also by traditional ideas. Through cultural discourse, the female ideal could be negotiated. Even so, Margreet vervult de wet is an ode to the mother. And what better way to highlight the importance of motherhood than to combine it with the terrible reality of infanticide?


Featured image by Bill Oxford on Unsplash