Unconventional individualist and resistance hero
She is undoubtedly one of the most special Utrecht women of the 20th century. Marie Anne Tellegen held positions that until then had been reserved for men only. She played a leading role in the resistance during World War II. Also in her private life she was different from most other women.
Marie Anne Tellegen (1893-1976) came from what she herself called an ‘governmental environment’ with a professor of constitutional law as grandfather, a director of municipal services, later mayor of Amsterdam as father and with other family members who made it to parliament, minister or Royal Commissioner. She grew up in a liberal and socially-minded family in which a girl’s academic study was self-evident. Both grandfather Tellegen and her mother actively supported the women’s rights movement.
Quirky and independent
During her law studies at Utrecht University (1914-1919), her fellow students became acquainted with a headstrong, critical and independent woman who did leave her mark in student life. She was – as the only woman – a member of the editorial board of the student magazine Vox Studiosorum (1915-1916), had great success in the transvestite leading role in the play Elckerlyc (1919) and was a prominent, but because of her principal views a sometimes controversial member of the Utrechtsche Vrouwen Studenten Vereeniging (Utrecht Women Student Association). She graduated in 1919 and a year later she obtained her doctorate. In one of her theses she argued for the legal regulation of infant nurseries for female factory workers.
‘Child of Carry and Frans’
In the 1910s, Marie Anne met two people who would have a great, lasting influence: the female writer Carry van Bruggen and the male writer, literary critic, museum director and womanizer Frans Coenen. Thirteen years her senior, self-confident and highly individualistic Van Bruggen was a role model for Marie Anne, whom she first looked up to, but with whom she later developed a friendship based on equality. In letters, Van Bruggen addressed her with the pet name ‘creepy-crawlies’ and she signed it with ‘Bad Black Boy’. Van Bruggen introduced Marie Anne into a free-spirited intellectual and artistic circle in which she soon felt at home. There she met Frans Coenen, 27 years her senior, with whom she had a ten years long, initially secret, passionate, free love affair with S&M traits. The lovers met alternately in the Amsterdam Museum Willet-Holthuysen, of which Coenen was curator, and in Marie Anne’s Utrecht student rooms Biltstraat 24 and F.C. Dondersstraat 13.
As far as we know, no man after Frans Coenen met Marie Anne’s standards to share her life with. In her own words, she remained ‘a child of Carry and Frans’ for the rest of her life. Their place was taken, in a different and more detached way, by a number of lifelong best friends such as her fellow student An Maas and, from the 1960s, the painter Jeanne Bieruma Oosting. According to Oosting’s biographer Jolanda Withuis, their friendship had ‘an undeniably erotic component’, but Withuis doubts whether this led to physical intimacy.
Woman in male stronghold
Marie Anne Tellegen was often the first woman in traditional male strongholds: as head of department in a large municipality, as a member of the National Committee of Resistance and as director of the Queen’s Cabinet. In the latter position she was also the first without a noble title. For company photos she naturally took a central position, equal and equivalent to the men, an aristocratic figure in dark robes, her black hair tightly combed backwards. In Utrecht, the ‘determined stern-dark miss Marie Anne Tellegen, Master of Laws’, as a newspaper called her, was a well-known appearance. As an individualist, she disliked movements and parties. She did not want to call herself a feminist, although in her opinion higher educated women should play a distinctive role in society. In 1934 she became president of the Association for Women with Academic Education, and then board memberships in the pre-war women’s movement followed in rapid succession. She was particularly opposed to the plans of the Colijn cabinet to ban paid work for married women. Despite her weak health, she worked hard, also as a medicine in recurring periods of depression and loneliness.
When the mayor of Utrecht, Ter Pelkwijk, in April 1942 had to make way for NSB member Van Ravenswaay, Marie Anne Tellegen immediately resigned as municipal chief of Social Affairs and Statistics. Until the end of 1944, when she had to go into hiding, she devoted all her time to the resistance. She did this from her apartment on Maliebaan 72bis, right next to the headquarters of the German Sicherheitsdienst. Using the pseudonym Dr. Max – the Germans were always on the hunt for a man with that name – she grew into a spider in the web of the resistance and all her organizational, mediating and leadership qualities came together. She was involved in sheltering Jewish children, forging identity cards, distributing the resistance newspaper Vrij Nederland, coordinating work in the National Committee of Resistance and organizing the railway strike.
After the war, she became a member of the purging committees of the municipality and the Utrecht University. The latter asked her – again as the first woman – to take a seat on the Board of Trustees.
The resistance work led to an interview with Queen Wilhelmina, who then asked her to become director of the Queen’s Office. She was made out for that role as the link between monarch and government. As before for mayor Ter Pelkwijk, she became an advisor and confidant for queen Wilhelmina and later queen Juliana. She was not reluctant to use her influence if she thought that this would serve the general and especially women’s interest. She always successfully suggested to nominate at least one female member in governmental delegations– for example to the United Nations. In Utrecht she was nicknamed ‘deputy mayor’ , now she was called ‘vice queen of the Netherlands’ in a satirical pamphlet.
Belle van Zuylen
Besides Carry van Bruggen, Marie Anne Tellegen had another idol: Belle van Zuylen (1740-1805), also known as Isabelle de Charrière, a Dutch-Swisse writer of the Enlightment, best known for her novels and letters. In this ‘spiritual, witty and noncorformist’ woman (Marie Anne’s words) she recognized a kindred spirit. Belle’s well-known statement ‘I have no talent for subordination’ could have been Marie Anne Tellegen’s parole.
In the 1930s, Marie Anne was one of the first in the Netherlands to draw attention to the work of Belle van Zuylen and to start translating (from French) a number of her letters. After her retirement she devoted herself again to popularise life and works of her idol. She was a member of the Board of Regents of the Slot Zuylen Foundation, where Belle lived until she was 31, and co-organized a successful Belle van Zuylen exhibition held in 1961 in Paris and Amsterdam.
Marie Anne Tellegen died in 1976. A plaque on the facade of Maliebaan 72 and the Doctor M.A. Tellegenlaan in Kanaleneiland (district of Utrecht) keep her memory alive.
Much in Tellegen’s life indicates that she felt especially at home among women she considered kindred spirits: women who, like herself, were independent, erudite, unconventional, critical and socially engaged. She belonged to the women who, between the 1930s and the 1970s, between the first and second wave of feminism, did not want to be confined within the boundaries of marriage, housekeeping and motherhood; women who wanted to make full use of their talents in a social career as a leader, writer or artist; women who often had relationships with both sexes and maintained lifelong, profound friendships, especially with women. Some of them lived during long periods together with other women without those around them, let alone others decades later, knowing or being able to guess the exact nature of their relationship.
Can we rightly include someone like Marie Anne Tellegen in our portrait gallery of Utrecht men and women who were ‘oók zo’ (‘also like that’ or ‘one of our sort’?) Probably not if we limit ourselves to those who were generally known as LGBTI+ or who identify themselves as such. The possibilities and the desire to do so were simply a lot less in her time. Given her important social position, it was unthinkable and it did not suit her individualism to present herself as a lesbian – if she considered that term to be applicable to herself at all.
Marie Anne Tellegen does deserve a place in this canon if we open it up to all people who did not adhere to conventional sex and gender roles, sometimes unashamedly went their own way and thus, consciously or unconsciously, became an example for others.
Maurice van Lieshout
Marie Anne Tellegen with the municipal secretary and other department heads of the municipality of Utrecht in front of the entrance to the City Hall in 1934.
Marie Anne Telligen as director of the Queen’s Cabinet behind Juliana who signs the Act of Confirmation of the Statute for the Kingdom during a solemn meeting in the Hall of the Knights in 1954
Mineke Bosch, ‘Marie Anne Tellegen verzetsvrouw’, in: Els Kloek (samenstelling) 1001 Vrouwen uit de Nederlandse geschiedenis (Nijmegen 2013) 1291-1292.
Maurice van Lieshout, ‘De ontdekking van een geestverwante. Marie Anne Tellegen en haar bewondering voor Belle van Zuylen’, Tijdschrift Oud-Utrecht 96 (2023) nr.4 (in druk).
Marian Spinhoven, ‘Bij Belle van Zuylen op het kasteel’, Het Parool 11 november 1968, 7.
Roos Vermeij, De ‘vrouwendingen’ van mej. mr. M.A. Tellegen. Doctoraalscriptie Vaderlandse Geschiedenis RU Leiden (Leiden 1992).
W.H. Weenink, Vrouw achter de troon. Marie Anne Tellegen 1893-1976 (Amsterdam 2014).
Jolanda Withuis, Geen tijd verliezen. Jeanne Bieruma Oosting 1898-1994 (Amsterdam 2021).
Marie Anne Tellegen (left) with Carry van Bruggen and her son Keesje in 1914 (National Archives, collection M.A. Tellegen)
Marie Anne Tellegen with the municipal secretary and other department heads of the municipality of Utrecht in front of the entrance to the City Hall in 1934 (The Utrecht Archive, collection of visual material)
Marie Anne Telligen as director of the Queen’s Cabinet behind Juliana who signs the Act of Confirmation of the Statute for the Kingdom during a solemn meeting in the Hall of the Knights in 1954 (photo collection Anefo reportage)
Portrait of Marie Anne Tellegen by her friend Jeanne Bieruma Oosting, 1972 (collection Museum Henriette Polak, Zutphen)