The voice of women



Alenka Bonnard, Océane Gachoud, Valérie Vuille, Marianne Ebel, Laurence Bassin, Gabrielle Nanchen and Nathalie Delbrouck represent the Swiss feminist struggle

On 7 February 1971, there was a revolution in Swiss society: women were finally given the right to vote and stand for election at federal level. Fifty years later, the fight continues to ensure that one day equality will no longer be a struggle, but an automatic right.

This year, Swiss women are celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of being granted the right to vote at the federal level. An opportunity to take stock of this major breakthrough and to review the current situation. «While this right has made it possible to bring about certain changes, in terms of equality, there is still a lot to do», says Pauline Milani, a teacher specialising in the history of women and gender at the University of Fribourg. «I am extremely glad that women’s suffrage is being celebrated, but we mustn’t forget that, until the marriage law was reformed in 1985, women lost most of their rights if they got married. Although there have been many gains, wage discrimination, for example, has changed little in the last fifteen to twenty years», she points out, noting however the importance of «showing the young generation that it is worth the struggle.» «I like to point out to my students that women were not given the right to vote because the men were being nice to them. It took over seventy years of fierce struggle to achieve it. So there is no choice: we are and always will be forced to fight.»

The expert also notes a «renewal of feminism since 2010», which is distinguished in two ways. First of all, «it is part of a dynamic that reaches far beyond the borders of Switzerland. Mass movements are developing across the world, including Ni una menos in Mexico, in 2015, extremely important movements in India, in 2012, following the horrific rape of a student, the Women's Marches in the US when Trump was elected and, of course, the MeToo movement that arose in the autumn of 2017.» All these movements have features in common: «We used to fight to change laws, but now we’re fighting for the physical integrity of women», she explains. The feminism of the seventies had already created a real epistemological rupture, with the debates on contraception and abortion. But the issue of women’s ownership of their body became side-lined a little. Now, however, there is a return to the question of the body as such: rape, harassment, domestic violence are mostly suffered by women. Women also account for most of the self-employed and suffer from wage discrimination. The focus has therefore returned to what has been done to the female body, to prevent it becoming a target for patriarchal domination.»

The role of social media

Feminists now have a particularly effective tool to spread their messages: social media. «Information has always circulated, but this has made the mobilization more global», notes the historian. Social media has also promoted freedom of speech, and made facts that already existed, but that no one heard about before, more widely known.» Pauline Milani stresses, however, that caution is still needed: while a significant and dynamic feminist movement exists, «opposite, anti-feminist reactions are still very strong and conservative forces hold sway.» And we can only dream of «a Switzerland where we have a 60% quota of women in every group, since it is proven that this is the only way they can influence decisions.» Perhaps something to vote for in a hopefully not too utopian future?

Representation of women in politics

The Federal Council includes three women.

  • Women account for 42% of National Council members.
  • Women account for 26.1% of Council of States members.
  • Women account for 24.7% of Cantonal Executive Council members
  • Women account for 27.2% of City Executive Council members.

Source: OFS, figures for 2019-2020.

Valérie Vuille, director of the feminist association DécadréE

Valérie Vuille, director of the feminist association DécadréE

This anniversary must not hide the inequalities that still exist.

Valérie Vuille

Valérie Vuille, 30, director of the feminist association DécadréE

We are celebrating fifty years of women's suffrage in Switzerland. What does this mean to you?
It's a bit odd because, on the one hand, like any anniversary, we want to celebrate it, while on the other hand these fifty years are a reminder that the right to vote came late, and that it was just a stage on the path to victory. It should not therefore hide all the inequalities that still exist in society.

Your association, DécadréE, focuses on gender-based violence... How is this manifested today in Switzerland?
It is manifested in many different ways across society, in all walks of life, through different types of violence: rape, domestic violence, or even sexist jokes, which are also considered to be a form of violence. And Switzerland still has a lot to learn in this area. We know, for example, that one woman dies every two weeks in Switzerland as a result of domestic violence, but also that sexual violence is very present in the work arena.

What is the most important feminist struggle today?
There isn’t just one, it would be wrong to say that. Firstly, there is the issue of gender-based violence, which came late in the history of the feminist struggle and now requires real progress to be made, because this is where the inequalities really crystallize. The issues surrounding the representation of women and education are also essential, because this is what allows solid foundations to be built for the future. Finally, we need to consolidate all the advances achieved so far.

Marianne Ebel, member of the Swiss section of the World March of Women

Marianne Ebel, member of the Swiss section of the World March of Women

I am just as angry as I was fifty years ago.

Marianne Ebel

Marianne Ebel, 72, member of the Swiss section of the World March of Women and of the Neuchâtel Collective for the Feminist Strike

«The Second Sex» by Simone de Beauvoir opened her eyes to the inequalities between men and women. May 68 made her want to change the world. «I became a conscious feminist in the early 1970s, when the new women's liberation movement was emerging around the world. We were fighting for the right to own our body, the right to abortion, the right to free and freely available contraception.»

Half a century later, this tireless and irrepressible activist continues the fight. What drives her? Anger about the injustices and discrimination still repeatedly faced by women. «I am as angry as I was fifty years ago. We fought for equal rights and we won, but what good is it if this principle is not applied, if my daughter’s and maybe even my granddaughters’ generations don’t benefit from it?»

Marianne Ebel has learned to be patient and remains optimistic. Especially as she can see that young people are taking up the baton, mobilising en masse. «Our movement has never been as big as this.» Ebel is relying on this strength in particular to make sure the plan to increase the retirement age for women is abolished. That’s her next battle ... «You see, there is still something to stir up a lot of anger!», she concludes.

The Federal Palace welcomes women

Entitled Les femmes sous la Coupole fédérale, the new themed guided tour of the parliament building in Bern traces the history of the egalitarian movement in the Federal Palace itself, from the entrance hall, where demonstrators unfurled banners on 12 June 1969, to the breastfeeding room inaugurated in 2019. Visitors will also learn more about the first twelve women elected in 1971 and see how painters and decorators have introduced the image of women in a very masculine setting.

From 27 March to 23 November 2021, free, 90 minutes.
Booking required: www.parlement.ch

Alenka Bonnard, co-director and co-founder of the Staatslabor

Alenka Bonnard, co-director and co-founder of the Staatslabor

The public sector has to be more in tune with our times.

Alenka Bonnard

Alenka Bonnard, 36, lawyer, co-director and co-founder of the staatslabor

«The staatslabor is an association supported by the Migros Pioneer Fund that works to make the public sector more in tune with our times. People’s needs and the world around us have radically changed. Furthermore, projects developed by experts and senior officials are not always in line with people's expectations. Our mission is therefore to support municipal, cantonal or federal administrations in creating a public service that functions better. For example, we contacted several equality departments - which are still too often under-staffed and considered the fifth wheel of the public administration carriage - to see how they could develop their activities. This led to the launch of an exchange platform with the City and the Canton of Bern, called Werkplatz Equality, developed directly with companies to allow Bernese SMEs to learn from each other about equal opportunities. Companies are aware of the value of moving further in this direction, and peer-to-peer exchanges really help them move forward. As for Berne’s equality departments, as we do with the other public sector organisations we work with, the collaboration with staatslabor has provided the opportunity to work in a more innovative way.»

Nathalie Delbrouck, member of the Neuchâtel Collective for the Feminist Strike

Nathalie Delbrouck, member of the Neuchâtel Collective for the Feminist Strike

Nobody should be judged by their sexuality.

Nathalie Delbrouck

Nathalie Delbrouck, 29, member of the Neuchâtel Collective for the Feminist Strike

Nathalie Delbrouck embodies the new feminist movement; she is part of the generation who were taught about equality between the sexes. «In actual fact, we still don’t have the same rights or the same opportunities as men. Women are paid less, they occupy less valued positions, and the distribution of domestic tasks remains unfair...» Delbrouk learned about these disparities during her studies in political science at university. Since then, she has been a determined feminist.

The right of women to own their body is also at the heart of her concerns. «In secondary school I realised that a girl who was curious, who had multiple experiences, was considered a slut, while the same behaviour was valued in boys. This is absurd, no one should be judged by their sexuality!» The only notion that should matter for women is that of consent. «When we say no, it’s no!» She also welcomes the progress made thanks to movements like #MeToo or #BalanceTonPorc, which denounce sexual violence. «This has shed light on a culture of rape, it has freed up speech to a certain extent and helped us revive the feminist movement on a global scale.»

Find out more about the Neuchâtel Collective for the Feminist Strike: grevefeministene.com

Tilo Frey vs Louis Agassiz

The issue of feminising street names is a subject of debate. More has been written about this subject in Neuchâtel, where Espace Louis-Agassiz was rename Tilo-Frey in 2019, than anywhere else. The operation had two goals: to erase the name of the glaciologist known for his racist views and to honour the memory of this Swiss-Cameroonian politician, a pioneer in the emancipation of women and ethnic minorities.

Laurence Bassin, president of the Professional Farmers’ Association of French-Speaking Switzerland

Laurence Bassin, president of the Professional Farmers’ Association of French-Speaking Switzerland

One third of the agricultural workforce is made up of women.

Laurence Bassin

Laurence Bassin, 50, farmer, president of the Professional Farmers’ Association of French-Speaking Switzerland

What are the main problems faced by farming women today?
They revolve around pay and social protection. Remember that one third of the agricultural labour force is made up of the female family members of the farm manager, i.e. more than 43,000 women in 2019. However, only 30% of them are registered as employed or self-employed, the others are not paid for their work. If they retire, they receive insufficient benefits. This also means that in the event of an accident or illness, these women receive nothing, which is why, as a minimum, they should be covered for loss of earnings.

How are farming women perceived and viewed in rural areas?
Fairly well, but there remains a patriarchal aspect in the farming world which is more tenacious than elsewhere. There are also taboos that stop farming women receiving a salary that recognises their work. They should be better protected, which is what the draft new agricultural policy, currently suspended, is intended to do. 

How has the cause of farming women evolved in recent decades?
It has evolved enormously, in parallel with the cause of women everywhere in Switzerland, but perhaps with a slight delay. It is worth remembering that, in 1978, under the old matrimonial law, women still had to ask their husbands to sign their registration for a farmer's licence. This is water under the bridge now and women who want to can become farm managers, although only 6.6% have yet taken that path.

Ida Pidoux and Mauricette Cachemaille in history

She was the secretary at the Cantonal School of Agriculture in Grange-Verney, near Moudon. Her name was Mauricette Cachemaille. On 20 May 1959, Miss Mauricette Cachemaille, as she was known at the time, became, and will forever remain, the first female municipal councillor in Switzerland. A few weeks earlier, several kilometres away, at the stroke of 1 p.m. on 19th April, in the electoral office of Oulens, Miss Ida Pidoux, owner of an agricultural estate, had quite simply become the first woman in Switzerland to carry out her civic duty.

Gabrielle Nanchen, former National Council member for Valais

Gabrielle Nanchen, former National Council member for Valais

My husband was more of a feminist than me.

Gabrielle Nanchen

Gabrielle Nanchen, 78, retired, former National Council member for Valais

Elected in 1971 to the National Council at the age of 28, Gabrielle Nanchen was one of the first twelve women to take her seat in the chamber. The election had taken her by surprise: «The Socialist Party had asked me to stand, I had accepted because of my activism and ideals, but I didn’t want to be elected, I lived where I live now, in Icogne, Valais, I didn’t have a car, I would have had to find someone to look after the children, it was inconceivable.» She considered refusing her election. «But my husband said ‹no way, you have to honour the voters’ wishes›. He managed, with the help of his mother, to take care of our children. When we met, he, a man from Valais, was more feminist than me, a woman from Vaud.

Gabrielle Nanchen recalls that Le Nouvelliste published her photo in black and white, while those of the other two parties’ candidates were in colour, highlighting her maiden name: Straggiotti, which was of Italian origin.

When we point out to her that things have hardly changed, given that the current Valais representation in Bern includes nine men and only one woman, she replies that, of course, «it is unworthy of a modern and democratic canton», but that politics «is about other things as well. What you do as a citizen is also important.» And while the representation of women in official bodies remains too small, «on the other hand they have a strong presence and play a major role in civic activities, as we have seen with the women's strike or the climate demonstrations».

Unterbäch’s starting shot

In March 1957: even the New York Times reported on the village of Unterbäch in Haut-Valais, which was the first in Switzerland to allow women to take part in a federal poll, having decided that the subject, the establishment of compulsory civic service for women, concerned them. The Municipal Council installed two ballot boxes, one for men and one for women, which allowed the Valais government to invalidate the 33 ballots cast by the female citizens.

Océan Gachoud, author of a dissertation on the barriers to women's suffrage in Switzerland

Océan Gachoud, author of a dissertation on the barriers to women's suffrage in Switzerland

I vote to fight inequalities.

Océane Gachoud

Océane Gachoud, 20, student

On 7 February 2021, Océane Gachoud, from Fribourg, will be 20. The exact day on which, fifty years ago, Switzerland granted women the right to vote. A happy coincidence for this student who was praised for her excellent dissertation that dealt precisely with the obstacles to the introduction of female suffrage! «The trigger was Petra Volpe's film The Divine Order. It traces the journey of a feminist fighter in the 1970s and it had a profound effect on me. I wanted to uncover this secret and find out why Switzerland took so long to give women the vote.» Inspired by her subject, Océane Gachoud read widely and met pioneers and committed historians, including Brigitte Studer and Elisabeth Joris. So why did Switzerland lag behind? «The patriarchy was well-established. The stereotype of the housewife bringing up children has persisted in advertising and mentalities. Until 1988, men could forbid their wives to work!» Stunned by this, Océane Gachoud now says she is sensitive to women's rights, but does not believe in fighting by force. «To fight inequalities, I vote! It is both a right and a duty, not to exercise it is scandalous. In 1971, the ‹yes› campaign won 65.7% of the vote. Which means that every voice counts!»

Text: Nadia Barth, Patricia Brambilla, Véronique Kipfer, Alain Portner, Laurent Nicolet, Pierre Wuthrich

Photos: Niels Ackermann, Julie de Tribolet