Death of a great Swiss leader and suffragette

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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)

Disclaimer: I am a woman

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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.

A positive African voice in Switzerland

Lisa Chuma loved this gift from the organisers
Lisa Chuma loved this gift from the organisers

It you had to talk about your life, would it make a good story? Would it inspire people? I listened to someone in Bern yesterday who has the gift of being able to present an inspirational narrative of her life. Her name is Lisa Chuma and her message is about empowering women in business.

Chuma is a rarity in Switzerland – an African businesswoman. The Zimbabwean-born entrepreneur has been attracting attention in Swiss media since she emerged as the founder of Women’s Expo Switzerland, an annual networking event in Zurich which serves as a platform for businesswomen to showcase their products and services.

As a journalist I’ve sat through more than my fair share of talks. These are usually horribly detailed presentations involving a criminal amount of line-by-line Powerpoint reading.

The talk by Chuma was like a breath of fresh air in comparison. It’s not only her message that has a positive effect, it’s how she communicates the message.

Watching her last evening, I was trying to figure out the secret. Chuma took her time speaking to us. She paused to allow her ideas to sink in. She built her message around stories that were all linked to defining experiences in her life. This was public speaking as a form of storytelling.

What I found most interesting is that the stories Chuma told could also have been presented as stories of suffering and defeat. Chuma spoke about her mother’s brave decision to leave an abusive marriage and the tough year she spent at a Zimbabwean boarding school when her mother was establishing a new life in London.

The inspirational part came in the support that Chuma’s mother received when she left her husband. It was a difficult place and time to be a single mother. Her female friends rallied round and thanks to their practical and emotional support she was able to pursue her dream of becoming a nurse and achieve financial independence.

We need to see more women helping women, Chuma said. Too often we have fine ambitions but when we come up against our own limitations we give up. The trap of talking ourselves out of progress is more a female one, which is why Chuma’s focus is on women. Together we can achieve much more. Chuma’s talk was really aimed at women who have their own businesses but the principle can be applied to any area of life.

Chuma came to Switzerland because of her husband’s job and began her life here moving in expat circles. She noticed that expat women were not mixing with Swiss women, both groups wrongly assuming they were not needed or wanted by the other. It is a great achievement that she has broken down those barriers and built a community of businesswomen in Zurich who are now actively collaborating with each other. The vast majority of women who attend the annual Women’s Expo are Swiss.

The talk in Bern was organized by the American Women’s Club of Bern and Bern English Resource Network BERNnet, which happens to be a great example of Chuma’s ‘better together’ principles put into practice.

If you’d like to see Lisa Chuma in action, here she is giving a TEDx talk in Zurich this summer.