I was very saddened to learn of the death of Marthe Gosteli, one of the leading campaigners for women’s right to vote in Switzerland, who died on April 7 at the age of 99. I had the honour of interviewing Dr. Gosteli in her home in December 2015. We sat in the front room of the pretty old country house in Worblaufen near Bern, surrounded by evidence of her life’s work – the archive of the Swiss women’s rights movement. The other evidence of her life’s work is that I as a woman had the right to vote when I was granted Swiss citizenship, also in 2015.
Dr. Gosteli impressed me with her sharp intellect and vigour, despite the frailty imposed by her advanced years. There was no doubt she was still a formidable woman. But she was also warm and welcoming.
In her capacity as president of the national umbrella body for women’s associations, Dr. Gosteli negotiated with the government in the lead-up to the 1971 vote. I think of her not only as a campaigner but as a leader. She helped lead the Swiss out of the dead-end in which they were trapped. Massive societal change was needed for women and men to recognise the full potential of women. There was even a counter movement of women’s organisations objecting to the political goals of Dr. Gosteli and her colleagues, and actively fighting against them.
We talk about positive energy a lot these days. Nothing can match the positive energy of Marthe Gosteli and her collaborators. The only time she seemed wistful in our interview was when she mentioned how she missed the camaraderie and friendships of those years. We can only imagine the tireless dedication and team spirit of these women, losing many battles before they won the war.
The real challenge for Swiss suffragettes was winning the argument with male voters who held the real power in the direct democracy system. Swiss women would not get the vote until Swiss men in all cantons used their electoral power to grant it. Gosteli and her colleagues were fighting a battle on dozens of fronts: “Many people don’t understand why it took so long. We had to win on three levels – communal, cantonal and federal. Full political collaboration was only possible when we had the right to vote on all three.”
Marthe Gosteli worked for the Swiss Army press and radio division during the Second World War and later for the American Embassy information service, before devoting herself fully to the women’s movement from the 1960s. The only complaint Dr. Gosteli had, she said, was that the achievement of female suffrage had lost recognition in Switzerland. “Huge work was done by many brilliant women in our country and no-one knows about it.”
May she rest in peace. Marthe Gosteli (22 December 1917 – 7 April 2017)