Wilhelm Tell’s Daughters

In her final year at the University of Bristol, our daughter, Lucy wrote an essay she titled: Wilhelm Tell’s Daughters – The Myth of Autonomy and the Long Road to Women’s Self-determination in Switzerland. My English grandmother, Grace was given the vote in 1918. Lucy’s two Swiss grandmothers were not authorised to vote, in either cantonal or federal elections, until 1971, at which point both women were in their mid fifties.

February 7th, 2021 marks the 50th anniversary of Swiss women’s suffrage. Not all of them, however, received the right to vote in 1971. It was not until 1990 that the women of the two cantons of Appenzell (Innerhoden and Ausserhoden) were given their ballot papers. Husbands, fathers and grandfathers continued to vote against their wives, daughters and granddaughters and eventually the Swiss Supreme Court intervened, declaring that if a woman wished to vote she could register a constitutional appeal and would subsequently be issued with voting papers. Not all women in Switzerland wanted to vote. Some preferred to be guided by their husbands and others expressed a lack of interest in politics. There is a Swiss saying: ‘A man is head of the family but his wife is the neck’ and some women chose to wield their influence in other, possibly more subtle ways.

Voting in the canton of Appenzell takes place in the village square on the last Sunday in April. Issues are decided by a show of hands and this has been the tradition since 1403. Until 1991, men carried their ancestral swords, the only identification required in order to participate in the assembly. Today the men, like the women, are more likely to have paper documents but the ceremonial sword remains a valid form of identification.

My mother married my father in 1955 and consequently she was voting in English elections 16 years prior to being able to vote in her Swiss homeland. Lea was an ardent supporter of Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s first woman prime minister (1979 –  1990). My Liberal voting father was appalled by his wife’s open admiration for a woman, seen by many as a ruthless and divisive leader. My mother was generous-hearted and compassionate and I too was mystified by her respect for a woman who demonstrated such a fervent disregard for those who ‘refused’ (were not in a position) to help themselves. Lea, like many of her Swiss sisters, was not particularly interested in politics; what impressed my mother was Mrs. Thatcher’s assertiveness vis a vis her all-male cabinet. Margaret Thatcher was not only the ‘neck’ of the world in which she lived, she had successfully managed to stage a coup on the ‘head’ and, this, above all else, was what Lea considered to be the Prime Minister’s crowning glory. My mother was never able to articulate why she so admired Thatcher, perhaps because this would have required her to openly criticize Switzerland, something she rarely did. Beneath her respect and admiration, however, my mother must have cradled more complex feelings: resentment, indignation and rage that, for the first 55 years of her life, it was men who cracked the whip and ruled the roost. As my Swiss mother-in-law used to say: ‘In my next life, I intend to return with hair on my teeth’.