Swiss democracy and the public humiliation of women

Il seguente post in lingua originale ci è stato gentilmente messo a disposizione da Gender Campus, il portale per gli studi di genere, le pari opportunità e la diversità  delle scuole universitarie svizzere. Un ringraziamento va senz’altro all’autrice Patricia Purtschert.

This year, Switzerland remembers the introduction of voting rights for all its citizens. Fifty years ago, on February 7, 1971, women were enfranchised. This moment was preceded by 123 years of male-only suffrage, granted in 1848 to a selected group of men that initially excluded poor and Jewish men. Even today, voting rights are not granted for anyone without a Swiss passport.

The 50-year anniversary opens up important discussions about the injustice done to women, including the call for an official apology. The CH2021 initiative has published a manifesto proposing that the Federal Council launch an official “day of remembrance” in parliament, and commit to a “binding action plan to realize true equality”.

In this blog entry, I want to take a close look at one dimension of the injustice done to women. Referring to six moments in the lives of path-making women, my aim is to make visible the specific humiliation directed at women who have dared to enter the public space in order to raise their voice and participate in political decision-making. On the level of national politics, this history includes the social democratic politician Lilian Uchtenhagen who lost her attempt to be voted onto the Federal Council in 1983; the forced resignation of the first female Federal Councilor Elisabeth Kopp in 1988; and the parliament’s refusal to re-elect Ruth Metzler as the third female Federal Councilor in 2003. However, and as the stories below demonstrate, the long and largely unacknowledged history of women’s humiliation in the public sphere both affects and transcends the realm of parliamentary politics. That’s why I start narrating this history of humiliation not from within the parliament – the building itself – but from the public square right in front of it.

On the 22nd of September 2020, a Black woman whose name remains unknown, marches in a demonstration, initiated by illegalized people from different parts of Switzerland. The protest raises the unbearable conditions in which people must live when denied the right to asylum in Switzerland. The protestors, mainly people of color, hold posters with slogans like, “Don’t deal with human lives”, “I don’t want to live in prison” and “Asylum camps are places of violence”. When the group starts marching towards the parliament building in order to take their demands to the seat of Swiss government, they are brutally stopped by the police. With rubber bullets and water cannons, the demonstrators are prevented from entering the Bundesplatz, the public square in front the parliament building. The protesting woman I just mentioned is pregnant and walks together with her child who starts crying when the tear gas hits the crowd. Imagine how it feels when a supposedly democratic state forbids you from being in a public space in order to stand up for your human rights.

On the 5th of May 2011, Maria von Känel leaves the Swiss Federal Court in Lausanne together with her partner Martina and a group of LGBTQ activists. She has just lost her case to adopt their daughter and thus receive parental rights for her own child. Imagine the vulnerability of having one’s intimate relations put on trial like this. The court has argued that the couple had been living in a so-called registered partnership for only three years whereas heterosexual couples needed to be married for five years in order to qualify for a stepchild adoption. The court did not take into consideration how married heterosexuals do not need to adopt their own children in the first place. It also did not recognize that Maria von Känel and her partner, who had been together for thirteen years, were prevented from legally registering their relationship until 2007. In 2018, stepchild adoption for same-sex parents is finally introduced in Switzerland after a continuous struggle, one in which Maria and Martina von Känel have played a decisive role. Even in 2020, when the Federal Parliament voted in support of marriage equality, recognition for children born into a marriage between two women is still restricted by arbitrary, nationalist criteria. At the time of writing, right-wing and fundamentalist religious groups are collecting signatures for a referendum to block the introduction of the marriage equality law.

On the 10th of March 1993, National Councilor Christiane Brunner stands before parliament and withdraws her candidature for a place on the Federal Council. In her speech, she condemns the underhanded culture of politics “in which women can only loose”. For weeks, she has been targeted in a media campaign initiated by an anonymous letter-writer claiming that she had had an abortion and that the writer possessed a nude photo of her. Imagine the courage it takes to hold patriarchal politics accountable at the very moment of your exclusion, all hinging on completely baseless sexist and classist accusations. The subsequent election of a male politician and the reconstitution of an all-male government brings feminist protesters from all over the country to the capital, prompting new elections one week later. It is then that the unionist Ruth Dreifuss becomes the second female and the first Jewish Federal Councilor in Swiss history. Right after her election, she addresses the crowd in front of the parliament building, with Christiane Brunner by her side. For many years, the golden sun badge that they both wear on this day is worn by Swiss women as a symbol of both hope and rage.

On the 30th of November 1971, shortly after Swiss women finally got the right to vote, the first eleven women take their seats in the National Assembly. Among them is Tilo Frey, probably the first Black parliamentarian in Switzerland. This epoch-making shift in political representation is barely touched upon in the media. When it does get mentioned, newspapers write about flowers, colorful handbags, and scarfs adorning the parliament chambers. Tilo Frey is repeatedly singled out, and her political abilities are questioned, for wearing a white dress – the color of suffragettes and festive occasions. The parliamentary dress code is, needless to say, oriented towards men: dark suits. Imagine the affront when such a historic moment is depicted as a side note, women’s political representation reduced to a matter of etiquette, and the one Black woman is portrayed as failing on both counts.

In February 1959, the Basel carnival has a predominant target: women’s struggle for suffrage thwarted by the all-male vote on February 1st. The central target of the spectacle is Basel-based author Iris von Roten, whose feminist magnum opus “Frauen im Laufgitter. Offene Worte zur Stellung der Frau” (“Women in the Playpen. Plain Words about the Situation of Women”) provoked huge public debate before the vote. Many years of careful research preceded the publication of Iris von Roten’s long (600 pages), brilliant and ground-breaking book in fall 1958. Imagine the indignity of your encompassing analysis of contemporary patriarchy being ridiculed in a carnival parade celebrating another victory of men over women. Women’s suffrage is introduced in Switzerland in 1971, making Iris von Roten a full citizen at the age of 54. Her book remains an inspiration and an incentive for feminists to this day.

In February 1939, Frieda Berger, whose name is anonymized due to archival law, writes to Federal Councilor Philipp Etter. It is one of many letters she has sent to decision-makers, stating, in startlingly clear language, that the deprivation of her freedom without a trial was a severe violation of her rights. Frieda Berger earned her livelihood as a domestic worker in households and on farms. In 1930, at the age of 36, she had been placed under guardianship due to “unruly behavior”. Her main offence was her romantic and sexual relations with men she was not married to and her alleged involvement in prostitution. Over the next four decades she spent fifteen years in asylums against her will. Most of her letters to the authorities remained unanswered or poorly answered. Imagine having your freedom in the hands of men who refuse to hear your voice, even if you appeal to the rule of law. Many years after Frieda Berger’s death, historian Tanja Rietmann discovered over 130 of her letters in archives and made her story public. Then, on the 10th of September 2010, 71 years after Berger sent her letter to a member of the Federal Council, Federal Councilor Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf made an official government apology to the many people forced into administrative detention [administrative Versorgung].

These are just six out of many untold stories about Swiss democracy. They refer to various places and protagonists, to diverse struggles and victories, and to very different historical circumstances and contexts. They also make apparent how women’s ability to raise their voices and to gain access to public space is always intertwined with their class, race, sexuality, nationality, or legal status. My aim is not to claim that these women share the same or even similar experiences. Instead, I want to highlight the ongoing practice of humiliating women when they do try to enter the public arena, and the way their humiliation is normalized by the very people who are supposed to represent and uphold “Swiss democracy”.

Writing Swiss history from a feminist perspective means comprehending how the humiliation of women sets the ground for their complicated feelings of un/belonging in the public. This generates a deep sense of anxiety, uneasiness, and trepidation, one which is rarely taken into account when we talk about democracy, participation, and equality. It is a collective affect so often engraved on the faces, voices, and bodies of women exposed to public humiliation. And it is inscribed in the hearts and minds of those who watch(ed) them, including the girls who learn to imagine what their place in the world might be. Yet, the steadfastness, rage, and perseverance of these women also constitutes the ground for political action, social change, and the re-invention of the political – often in ways that could not have been imagined possible before.