Public Playpens and Women’s Catcalls
Dolle Mina’s Ludic Actions
Longread — 3 Jul 2018 — Janna Schoenberger
In the 1960s and early ’70s, a unique situation arose in the Netherlands: the Dutch performance artist Robert Jasper Grootveld influenced political activists, such as the Provo anarchists, by deploying play as a strategy of social critique.1 Provo consequently inspired the feminist group Dolle Mina (“Crazy Mina”), which took its name from the socialist Wilhelmina Drucker (1847–1925). Dolle Mina, formed in 1969 in Amsterdam, principally responded to the oppression of women in Dutch society. Their ludic actions offered new ways of thinking by obliquely posing alternatives to the current social order. Implicit critique, however, can elude the comprehension of its intended audience, proving ineffectual. Athough Dolle Mina was apprehensive about misinterpretation by the public, their playful campaigns drew attention to social issues and gained support for change.
In December 1969, Dolle Mina dubbed their ludic protests prik-acties (“prick actions”), which were meant to raise awareness of gender relations in society.2 This text highlights two actions televised on the news program Brandpunt on January 24, 1970.3 Four million people watched Dolle Mina on Brandpunt, and after the broadcast the group grew from nineteen members to several hundred. By the end of 1970, they counted around 5,000 participants.4
The first ludic action took place in January 1970 on the Beursplein in Amsterdam, one of the busiest squares in the city. Dolle Mina wanted to bring attention to the shortage of daycare by openly sharing domestic duties: the group installed playpens—complete with toddlers—in front of the stock exchange, an area of work conspicuously dominated by men.5
The absurdity of bringing childcare out of a private space and into a public square drove home the point that not only was there a lack of (affordable) services, but this was a problem for society, regardless of gender. In the course of the next few years, Dolle Mina arranged several more crèche-acties (“daycare actions”) in various cities, including Utrecht and The Hague.
Dolle Mina’s most ludic protest was the nafluit-actie (“catcalling action”): women catcalling men. On Brandpunt, women were filmed whistling at men in the street and commenting on their appearance. This probably did not induce the desired effect. After one Dolle Mina inspects a man’s clothing, he says, “I like it.”6
The program appears to take a solemn turn when a shot focuses on a woman raising her finger to warn men not to go out on the street alone at night. Unless a man was accompanied by a woman, something very bad would happen, she threatens. Dolle Mina’s catcalling action was also covered by the New York Times.7 In the article, “Dutch Women’s Lib: Whistling at Men,” a young Dolle Mina speaks about the group’s ludic approach. “We think perhaps the groups in the United States are too serious, too angry. We are serious and angry also … But this is covered with humor—so society will notice and our cause will grow. After all … making people laugh is the best way of waking people up to the absurdity of our position in society.”8
In 1970, Dolle Mina explain that they used a ludic approach in order to soften their critique and make it more acceptable; however, they acknowledge the risk that such strategies may also be easier to dismiss.9 Dolle Mina’s members were aware that their actions might be interpreted as “fun and harmless,” an image that, according to the group, was strengthened by the media, and one which they were fighting against.10 Thus, in Dolle Mina’s prick actions, we see the paradox of the ludic arise: it can be an appealing and effective strategy of critique, but its critical intent may be lost beneath the veneer of play.
In the 1975 Dolle Mina publication, Meid, wat ben ik bewust geworden (loosely translated as “Girl, I am Woke!”), a reflection of the past five years of Dolle Mina’s history, Marjo van Soest writes about the early prick protests.
She explains that the group consciously used the ludic tactics they observed during the “Provo period” in order to garner attention, and she felt that such actions would reach more people, in comparison with traditional methods such as sending petitions to the House of Representatives.11 Reviewing their ludic approach about halfway through the book, Van Soest writes, “The first months of ’71 signaled the end of Mina’s prick actions. The word ludic will remain unmentioned in the rest of the book, and hopefully also be permanently deleted from the feminist dictionary.”12
Ultimately, millions of people witnessed Dolle Mina challenging societal norms on national television. Did their ludic actions create a foundation of support among the Dutch public? Perhaps changes in Dutch abortion legislation or the Dolle Mina’s Werkende Wijvenplan (“Working Bitches’ Plan”), which led to the foundation of the national Ombudswoman Foundation, could have only occurred once Dolle Mina started to question society using an indirect, playful approach.13 While Dolle Mina was quick to reject its ludic tactics by 1975, we should not overlook the power of play.
About the author
Janna Schoenberger teaches Global Modern and Contemporary Art at Amsterdam University College. She completed her PhD at the Graduate Center, City University of New York. Her dissertation, “Ludic Conceptualism: Art and Play in the Netherlands from 1959 to 1975,” explores the critical capacity of play. Starting August 2018, Schoenberger will join the Rijksmuseum as a fellow, with reseach focusing in the cultural atmosphere in the Netherlands in the 1960s.
All translations from Dutch are by the author.
1. Notably, former Provo Roel van Duijn credits Robert Jasper Grootveld for introducing ludic aspects to the group. Roel van Duijn, Provo: De geschiedenis van de provotarische beweging, 1965–1967 (Amsterdam: Meulenhoff, 1985), 15.
2. In Dutch the word “prik,” similar to English, refers to both the verb (to sting or pierce) and to male genitalia. Lonneke Geerlings, “‘Bra Burners’: De Korsetverbranding van Dolle Mina in Trans-Atlantisch Perspectief,” Leidschrift 30, no. 2 (2015): 57–58.
3. Brandpunt was produced by the KRO (Katholieke Radio Omroep, or Catholic Radio Broadcasting). The program was known for its socially engaged content in the 1960s when covering the Vietnam War, for example.
4. Geerlings, 58–59.
5. Marjo van Soest, Meid, wat ben ik bewust geworden: Vijf jaar Dolle Mina, ed. Eva Besnyö (The Hague: Stichting Uitgeverij Dolle Mina, 1975), 7.
6. Brandpunt (KRO, January 24, 1970).
7. Bernard Weinraub, “Dutch Women’s Lib: Whistling at Men,” New York Times, May 20, 1970; Henry C. Faas, “The Old and New Find a Home in Amsterdam,” New York Times, February 22, 1970. One report read: “A group of Dolle Minas went on the warpath, wolf-whistling back, and in the evenings set out in cars and abducted men they caught on the prowl. They dumped them about 20 miles out of town.” Lonneke Geerlings, “‘Crazy Mina’ Guerrillas Hit Holland,” Historica 36, no. 3 (October 2013): 8. Ultimately, Dolle Mina did not kidnap any men. Van Soest, 9.
8. Dolle Mina member Corry Ehlen cited in Weinraub, 12.
9. Dolle Mina, Dolle Mina: Een rebelse meid is een parel in de klassenstrijd (Amsterdam: SUA, 1970), 43.
10. “Leuk en gevaarloos,” in Van Soest, Meid, wat ben ik bewust geworden, 57.
11. Van Soest, 9.
12. Van Soest, 58.
13. Dolle Mina also demonstrated for abortion rights and access to free contraception. In March 1970 they crashed a gynecology conference with Baas in eigen Buik (“Boss of my own belly”) written across their stomachs, an act that won widespread support in the Netherlands. Gisela Kaplan, Contemporary Western European Feminism 4 (New York: Routledge, 2013), 155.