A Swiss woman of fire and fury

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This time sixty years ago, Iris von Roten was putting the finishing touches to her life’s work, a 600-page cri de coeur on the woeful position of women in Swiss society. A journalist and lawyer, von Roten put years of research into her book, Frauen im Laufgitter: Offene Worte zur Stellung der Frau (Women in the Playpen: Plain Words About the Situation of Women). In ruthless and unsentimental terms, she examined subects like equality in the workplace (or lack thereof), civil rights, domestic drudgery, motherhood and sexuality. This is a work of fire and fury, the product of a free spirit who all around her saw women in chains.

To give you a taste of von Roten’s style and themes, here is a short passage I translated from the opening chapter, “Female professional activity in a man’s world”.

“Every era has its favourite illusions, and one of the most cherished of our century is that of “the modern woman”, the professionally equal, independent and successful woman.

The “woman of today” supposedly has extensive professional fields open to her; in contrast to her grandmother she is active in every job at every level. Even the most prestigious and highly-paid jobs are not out of reach of the capable woman. Where such positions are not yet occupied by women it is only because no woman has yet deigned to clamber up and take the place that the progressive man is hurrying to offer her. Just like a young man, the young woman can attain the job that corresponds to her talents, standing on her own two feet. To wait for a man, to marry so as to be provided for, this is unknown to today’s woman. She marries purely for love, when and whom she wishes, which allows her to complete the work of art – the combination of job, housework and motherhood – running the show and “mastering life with a laugh”. Beside the modern woman stands the progressive man, filled with admiring awe for the proud swan that the ugly duckling has become. He has long ago freed his mind of prejudices and slowly but surely clears the way for the equality of the sexes in the life of the family, the economy and the state.

The reality, however, looks different in some places, and especially in Switzerland.”

You’ve got to love that sarcasm. I would like to see von Roten’s work gain wider recognition in the English-speaking world. Her radical book/manifesto is one of the leading feminist texts of the twentieth century and there is still a lot to learn from it.

For a brief update on the position of women in Switzerland today, check out this article I wrote for the current edition of International School Parent Magazine: Working mothers in Switzerland – something has to give. I’ll start you off here with the opening two paragraphs.

“Switzerland manages to successfully project two flattering but contradictory images side-by-side. On the one hand, it is a rural mountain idyll populated by wholesome country folk, and dotted with chalets, ski resorts and pretty medieval towns. On the other hand, it is a sophisticated economic hub powered by a productive and innovative workforce.

It is nice balance if you can spend your working hours in business Switzerland and your free time in bucolic Switzerland. But for women, it is certainly not easy if you are expected to raise a family in the traditional model while facing all the challenges of the modern workplace. Something has to give.” (Read more)

Carnival season is kicking off in Switzerland. It’s hugely popular but I’ve never really enjoyed carnival much, if I may admit that. I like the effigy (Rababou) burning in Fribourg because, after the long speech, it’s the only part where I don’t feel bored and cold!

Von Roten’s book came out in the autumn of 1958, a few months before Swiss men voted by a two-thirds majority to deny women the right to vote. She had hoped that her carefully constructed arguments would win hearts and minds. But instead of seeing her ideas analysed and debated, von Roten was personally attacked and villified in the media. Some even blamed her for the negative outcome of the vote. Most painfully, she was ridiculed at the Basel carnival, her fellow townsfolk having spent the winter preparing elaborate costumes and floats on the theme of her book.

But don’t let me ruin carnival for anyone. Depending on where you go, it can be spectacular and wild. If you have any good carnival tips or experiences to share, let me know in the comments. I’d also be really interested to hear your thoughts on Iris von Roten’s work.

4 Comments

  1. I don’t know much about carnivals. But the role of women is big news in the United States right now. The Women’s March last year, sparked by dismay at the election of Donald Trump, was the biggest march in US history. Many women are planning to run for office in the next election. The Me-Too Movement is huge. Prominent men have lost their jobs as a result of sexual harassment. Two high-level Trump administration officials had to quit in the past two days because they had a history of spousal abuse. Women are waking up. And yet, our president and the people he surrounds himself with are dinosaurs in their attitudes toward women.

    1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Nicki. I have been following these developments in the US with interest and some hope. And I can only offer my condolences to you on having to live with that jumped up buffoon as president. My fear is that women might settle for the appearance of change without any real change taking place. I think this has happened a lot in the past and we are comforted with the illusion of progress. Will a handful of famous men being fired make ordinary women safer at work? These attitudes run so deep and many (a majority?)of men and women still think feminists make too much of a fuss about everything. Sigh.

  2. Yes to your previous comment. I’ve just started reading Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time, and in the foreword to the 2016 edition the author writes about how the book came out at a time of political foment and optimism. 1970s feminists worked so hard for change and they achieved a lot – yet half a century later, inequality in all spheres of life is still growing, and those hard-won rights are being rolled back. Now, it feels like we’re having another powerful political moment, but what chance do really we have of creating real, lasting change?

    Thank you for your article, and for telling us about Iris van Roten.

    1. Thank you for providing more context. I rrad this week that a Swiss government minister and former president, Simonetta Sommaruga, receives the greatest quantity of negative online comments, followed by the only other female minister. The study included 200,000 comments that were too offensive for newspapers to publish, largely gender based. Just another tiny example of the problems we are up against. I guess that anger is a sign of distress, that these hard-core types feel threatened.

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