A woman sits and cries on the dike in Kolhorn, West Frisia. It is the end of the thirties of the last century. That morning, with her five children and some household goods, she left her trusted Zeeland by truck to join her husband, who had moved to North Holland as an unemployed farm worker and was put to work in the ‘work relief’ at Wieringermeer. When she arrives, he is not home yet. The house he has rented at the bottom of the dike turns out to be far too small, almost empty and polluted. She doesn’t know anyone here, she doesn’t even understand the people. She will feel lonely and lost for years to come.
Ali de Regt only heard this story about his mother much later from his older sister. A few months after her birth, she was the seventh and last child, the family moved to Winkel, a village a few kilometers to the south. Father De Regt started a fruit company there. They remained poor: applesauce and stewed pears from their own country and a currant bun on Sunday were the only frivolities on the table.
For Ali de Regt, who conducted sociological research and taught at the University of Amsterdam from 1968 until her retirement in 2006, her origins played a lasting role. It showed in the subjects she delved into, always revolving around the theme of social inequality. Like her book Money and family (1993), on the intertwining of economic and emotional relationships between family members and its changes during the twentieth century. Friend and former colleague Rineke van Daalen: “A wonderful subject, completely inspired by her origins. Like the book she wrote with Don Weenink on private education, Invest in your children (2003). There, too, she very wisely puts her finger on sore points, such as parents who support the ideal of equality, but who nevertheless make different choices when it comes to their own children.”
Father De Regt, a pacifist, socialist and liberal Protestant, had already had to leave school at the age of nine to start working. He placed great importance on his children continuing their education. It would happen even if Ali was the only one who wanted to go to university. Politics were discussed at the dinner table and reading was encouraged. After high school, Ali attended teacher training in Alkmaar. Then she wanted to go to Amsterdam. Life partner Nico Wilterdink, emeritus professor of cultural sociology: “They read at home The green Amsterdammershe watched everything that made her curious, such as reviews of theater performances.”
Ali became a teacher at Mussenstraatschool in Amsterdam-Noord, now Het Vogelnest, known for the documentary series classes. Education went well for her, but she wanted to develop further. Alongside her job and her board work for the Amsterdam branch of the PSP, she followed a written HBS course, and when she passed the state exam after two years, she said goodbye to school and went to political science. Her father believed that his daughter was being prepared to enter politics with this degree, and was deeply disappointed when it turned out not to be the case.
After her bachelor’s degree, she focused on sociology because, says Nico Wilterdink, she was interested in society ‘in the broadest sense’. Ali and Nico met when they were both student assistants at the sociology sub-faculty. They had a broad common interest, not only in social issues, but also in culture and literature.
Christien Brinkgreve, emeritus professor of sociology, also became friends with Ali de Regt during his studies. “She was clearly ‘different’: someone without fuss. I remember her light North Dutch accent. But the most striking thing was that she was interested in everything. A conversation with her always became interesting. It remained so until her death. She had fast opinions, but her curiosity always trumped the desire to judge.”
When people were derogatory about the ‘bad taste’ of lower social classes, it bothered her enormously
Ali de Regt had no children of his own and was all the more interested in the children of others. For Marina de Regt, daughter of Ali’s eldest brother and an anthropologist associated with the Free University, she was a ‘fantastic aunt’. “We are similar, our areas of expertise touch, but she was more analytical and very critical. She came to see me when I was living and working in Yemen and asked my head. About Yemeni society, politics. Until I shouted: ‘I really don’t know all that!’”
Ali’s father didn’t see the point of science, how important he thought learning was. He believed that one should contribute something concrete to society with one’s education. It left her with a lifelong tendency to put the meaning of her work and sociology in general into perspective. Rineke van Daalen: “She could sort of enjoy cleaning up her desk and then throw too much in the bin. Then I quickly fished out something that I wanted to keep.” Christien Brinkgreve: “She was a valued teacher with great authority. No one could speak as passionately about social issues as she could. And yet, after each series of lectures we gave together, she wondered if we had taught the students enough.”
As a sociologist, De Regt was aware of her own ‘status uncertainty’ as a result of her background. Although she was a social climber, she never looked down on the environment she came from. When people spoke dismissively of money as something that shouldn’t be important, or denigrated the “bad taste” of lower social classes, she became very annoyed and took it upon herself.
After her retirement, De Regt stopped publishing, unlike many of the sociological colleagues she befriended. She thought it was time to make a more concrete contribution and started teaching refugees, low literacy and reading difficulties and children with learning difficulties. Since last year, says Nico Wilterdink, on her initiative they have offered residence permit holders in their house in Gerrit van der Veenstraat in Amsterdam. She felt at home in Amsterdam South, among the nice ladies of her reading club, but she never denied her strict origins. “Like her mother, she was still aware of the prices in the shop. I often heard her say, ‘What an idiot!’”