The unknown history of women

The unknown history of women

by Stephanie Meier

The Bernese historian and archivist Franziska Rogger’s current book is entitled “Gebt den Schweizerinnen ihre Geschichte. Marthe Gosteli, ihr Archiv und der übersehene Kampf ums Frauenstimmrecht” (Give the Swiss women their history. Marthe Gosteli, her archives and the disregarded struggle for women’s suffrage)1 It is common knowledge that in Switzerland, women’s suffrage was not introduced until 1971. So there is need for explanation in one of the oldest democracies of the world. Franziska Rogger comes to the surprising conclusion that the long women’s suffrage struggle should be seen as a real success story. The “misappropriated, independent history of Swiss women, their tenacity, their tactics of resistance and their victory” are reviewed extensively. For the first time Rogger evaluates the papers and documents from the archives of the “Working Group of the Swiss Women’s Associations for the Political Rights of Women”, which have hitherto been neglected by Swiss historiography. In her book she corrects the over-emphasis on those women who fought so full-throatedly for women’s suffrage in the wake of the ‘68 movement. We have been made to believe that their media-effective means of protest – especially the march to Berne of 1 March 1969 with the attendant barrage of catcalls – caused the shift of opinion in the male voters, whereas the political actions of organized women’s groups were marginalized. The sources tell a different story. The dedicated women of the old women’s movement were successful in their struggle for women’s suffrage, with their “tenacious cracking of tough nuts and the way they bravely pulled themselves together after every defeat”. According to Rogger, the old labels old/bourgeois and new/left (since ‘68) women’s movement are basically imprecise and tend to promote thinking in ideological stereotypes. There was no clear dividing line between the two groups of women.

In her current book Franziska Rogger honours the rich life and work of Marthe Gosteli as one of the best-known representatives of the Swiss women’s movement. The first part of the book is devoted to the long and rocky history of the struggle for women’s suffrage. In the time before the second federal vote in 1971 Marthe Gosteli played a central role as President of the “Working Group of Swiss Women’s Associations for the Political Rights of Women”. Together with representatives of the organized women’s associations she negotiated with Parliament and the Federal Council about the best time for a referendum. Would Switzerland sign the European Convention on Human Rights without any reservations and thus prioritise the vote on women’s suffrage? The minutes read like a thriller, even if the outcome is already known.
Marthe Gosteli’s track record as country lady, as archivist and “historian from the heart”, as Rogger calls her, is the focus of the second part. Marthe Gosteli visited the girls’ high school in Berne and enthused over her two teachers Louise Grüter and Helene Stucki – incidentally the sister of the great Federal Councillor Walter Stucki. A comprehensive education and shaping of the human character was to enable their students to lead a self-determined life. Later Marthe Gosteli would follow in the footsteps of these women’s rights activists. Gosteli memorialised them and many other women by setting up her archive on the history of women’s rights in Switzerland. The creation of this archive is Marthe Gosteli greatest pioneering achievement.
In the third part of her book Franziska Rogger turns to Marthe Gosteli’s ancestors: the Gosteli and Salzmann families. Since 1735 the large farmhouse on the Altikofen has been in the possession of the Gosteli family. It is a Bernese peculiarity that it was always the youngest boy of the family who inherited the farm. The women formed an indispensable part of the extended family, which operated as a sort of SME, but they hardly ever made any decisions about the development of the estate. Widowed women in possession of financial resources had more leeway. Elisabeth Walther-Gosteli, Marthe Gosteli’s early widowed great-aunt, for example, had had the stately residential outbuilding built on the Altikofen, which now houses the archives documenting the history of the feminist movement in Switzerland. Time and again there were also supporters of women in the two families. The “old patriarch” (so called by Marthe Gosteli), her grandfather Christian Salzmann, hired young Ida Somazzi as the first secondary school teacher in Bolligen – notabene with the same pay as her male colleagues.
With her book Franziska Rogger has closed a long overdue gap in the history of the struggle for women’s suffrage. The “old” women’s movement is appropriately appreciated, and in particular its pioneer Marthe Gosteli gets the well-deserved appreciation for her life’s work.     •

1    Rogger, Franziska, Gebt den Schweizerinnen ihre Geschichte. Marthe Gosteli, ihr Archiv und der übersehene Kampf ums Frauenstimmrecht, (Give the Swiss women their history. Marthe Gosteli, her archives and the disregarded struggle for women’s suffrage), publishing house “Neue Zürcher Zeitung”, Zurich 2015

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