At the moment I am writing about women in Switzerland for the book, and trying very hard to be fair. I almost think this chapter needs a disclaimer: I am a woman but the word may not mean the same thing to you as it does to me.
We are all products of our culture and family circumstances, and I have to hold my hands up and say that my background makes it very difficult for me to approach the Swiss situation in a non-judgmental way. I believe that the subjugation of women is the biggest swindle in human history. Nothing in my experience has taught me that women are in any way less important or less capable than men, therefore I cannot and will not accept any arrangement based on this idea.
My family is full of inspiring women, going back more than a century. I grew up in a three-generation household where both my mother and grandmother worked full-time as teachers. My maternal grandmother worked as a cook before she married, and later farmed a smallholding, while bringing up nine children. Her sisters emigrated to America to work. A great-grandmother on the other side was a ‘deserted wife’ who trained as a nurse in England in the 1910s and went on to work as matron of an old people’s home. There’s another great-grandmother who had her own toy shop in Dublin in the 1890s. One thing all these women had in common was that, somewhere along the line, the men in their lives could not be financially relied upon, mostly through no fault of their own. The women learned through experience that having children and doing paid work did not have to be mutually exclusive (disclaimer within a disclaimer: I think looking after children without doing paid work is equally admirable, as long as it’s a choice).
I come from an all-girl family, which meant I never experienced the division of chores on gender lines that happens in some households. I was just as often asked to wash the floor as cut the grass or bring in the coal. The secondary school I attended was also all-girls with a long tradition of fostering female achievement. A woman became president of my country when I was eighteen, not to mention that women got the vote in Ireland at the foundation of the state in 1922 (in Switzerland it was 1971).
By the time I noticed that my version of what it meant to be a woman was not the norm, it was too late. The meaning of the word had set in my mind forever. Forget about ‘Frailty thy name is woman’, I will always believe that women are strong, capable decision-makers. That is why I don’t like the ‘Irish Mammy’ cliché, which portrays Irish mothers as simple-minded old biddies. Funnily enough there is no popular incarnation of the Swiss mother, like the Italian or Jewish mamma or the Irish Mammy. One saving grace at least.
Have you ever thought about what the word woman means to you? I’m curious to hear your thoughts.