Voting rights for women in Switzerland with Clare O'Dea, author of Voting Day

In this episode, we welcome back Clare O'Dea, who spoke with us once before about Swiss neutrality.

Clare is an Irish author and journalist living in Fribourg, here in Switzerland. She worked for the international service of the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation for 10 years, and she's written three books, 'The Naked Swiss: The Nation Behind 10 Myths', which examines the main stereotypes about the Swiss, 'The Naked Irish', which does the same thing for Ireland, and Voting Day, her first novel, which is set in 1959, on the day that Swiss men voted 'no' to granting women the vote. It will be Voting Day that we'll be looking at a little more closely in today's episode.

Show Notes

Transcript

Daniel

Hello and welcome to another episode of The Expert Guide to Your Life in Switzerland. My name is Daniel and I'm part of the team here at Rigby. We're starting an IT services company based in Zurich, Switzerland. And today we welcome back Clare O'Dea who spoke with us once before about Swiss neutrality. Clare is an Irish author and journalist living in Fribourg here in Switzerland. She worked for the international service of the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation for 10 years, and she's written three books, 'The Naked Swiss: The Nation Behind 10 Myths', which examines the main stereotypes about the Swiss, 'The Naked Irish', which does the same thing for Ireland, and Voting Day, her first novel, which is set in 1959, on the day that Swiss men voted no to granting women the vote. It will be Voting Day that we'll be looking at a little more closely in today's episode. So Clare, welcome back.

Clare O'Dea

Thanks very much, Daniel. It's great to be here. And I'm looking forward to talking about the book and and other things.

Daniel

Great, thank you. Well, maybe could we just go back to the beginning? So Clare, you studied Russian and French at Trinity in Dublin. What brought you to German-speaking Switzerland?

Clare O'Dea

Well, it's a it's a very familiar tale, because there are a lot of Swiss people who seem to go out into the world, capturing their mate. And so I met my Swiss husband, current, my husband now I mean, in Dublin, at a Swiss-Irish wedding. And so eventually, after a while, I came to live here to kind of try it out. And I'm still here 19 years later. But I mean, it wasn't that much of, maybe, a surprise that I ended up living abroad. Because, you know, having studied languages, when I look at the rest of the people in my class, we are pretty scattered, you know, people it does kind of give you, give you the idea of going away.

Daniel

Yeah, tend to be more kind of outward-looking maybe. 

Clare O'Dea

Yeah. 

Daniel

And, and you were at the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation. So Swiss Info for just under 10 years. What was that experience like?

Clare O'Dea

It was a it was a very interesting time. It was it was a great introduction to Swiss life and Swiss society. Although I didn't get the job straight away, like I did, I worked toward Business English for the first year, nearly two years after I arrived. But then I was I was so delighted to get a job in journalism again, when I saw this the job that came up in their offices in Bern. Yeah, so it was a great organisation, because it's part of the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation. And it's kind of similar to the BBC World Service, in that it has media coverage in lots of different languages. So in Swiss Info's case, it's 10 languages. And English is the biggest department, but you just had this amazing diversity in the staff. And, you know, we all put our put our heads together, and then you also, you got to cover everything and anything, you know, at that time. So it was, you know, a way to find out about Swiss politics and the economy and the culture. And and also, yeah, some of the problems in Switzerland I guess, you know, you're obviously in use you don't you don't concentrate too much on the positive!

Daniel

Yes, sure. And what an introduction to Switzerland, so you were kind of fast-tracked into learning about the country and how things are here.

Clare O'Dea

Yeah, definitely.

Daniel

And what about learning the language? Could you tell us a little bit about your experience of learning German?

Clare O'Dea

Well, German, I wouldn't choose Switzerland as the place to come to learn German. Because what you learn in class does not correspond to what you hear on the street. And, and Swiss people are reluctant to speak, you know, the standard German or High-German. So you know, they would prefer to speak English a lot of the time, you really have to insist and force them to speak German with you. And, so I started out by going to the Migros Klubschule, what they call Klub Migros here and Friburg. So, evening classes for adults, and then the well the best possible way to learn languages is just through necessity. So when I started working in Bern, I really needed to use it every day and read press releases and read the wires and do interviews in German, so that really kind of helped me speed up the process of learning. And but I was also, I suppose languages was kind of my thing. You know, I was I was brought up bilingual in Irish and English and went to an all-Irish Primary School. And so I already have I have or had more of a repertoire of of sounds. So I'm a bit of a parrot and I can I can get the accent quite well. I mean, if I say so myself, I think when actual Germans hear me speaking German they know that I've learned it in Switzerland. Yeah. And then having studied languages, so it kind of was, it was second nature to me to pick up a new language.

Daniel

But was it at secondary school that you had classes in English for the first time?

Clare O'Dea

Well, actually, yes, yes. Although I suppose we would have in primary school have had an English class where we had an English we learn to read the English alphabet and pronunciation as well. But we had we probably must have had, yeah, just like as if English was a foreign language, you would have no interest like language exercises, then you'd read your little English Reader and so on. But all the other subjects were an Irish and, and woe betide if you if you were called speaking English, like we were, we were very afraid to speak English. But that was just quite a quite a strict national school that I went to. And people took it very seriously back then. But now, there are so many more, there's been there's been like a renaissance of interest in Irish. So, there are so many more of these schools in Ireland today, like 10 times more. It's very popular.

Daniel

That's so interesting. And can we turn our attention now to a book, which I've recently read and enjoyed very much, which is Voting Day? 

Clare O'Dea

Gladly, yes. 

Daniel

Right? Well, maybe we could begin by just setting the stage a little bit. So, in February 1959, Switzerland held a referendum on extending voting rights to women, or giving women the vote. And the men voted 'no', by a majority of 66.9%. In fact, only very few Gemeindes voted 'yes'. And none of them in the German speaking part of Switzerland. So, Voting Day looks at that day through the eyes of four Swiss women and offers a glimpse into how life must have been for them at that time. So could you tell us a little bit about the story of Voting Day?

Clare O'Dea

Yeah, sure. Like, it is, it is pretty shocking, that Swiss women have only had the vote since 1971. You know, it's something that makes people take notice. And so, you know, when, when everyone knows about 71, but not not that many people know about 59, that the men said 'no', before they said 'yes'. So, I find that a very interesting concept and moment in history. So, I kind of, yeah, the story is about these four women and they're all connected, and, and then their lives change on the day of that vote, you know, they, they all go through something. And, and what they, I suppose if there's a message, it's kind of like, the solidarity is, is what what kind of saves them or helps them with solidarity with each other. So there's, first of all, there's a farmer's wife, who's in her late 40s. And she's kind of a bit downtrodden, you know, serving her family and doesn't have much of a life outside the home. And she's due to go for an operation the next day in Bern. So, the day after the vote is her operation, but she has to make her way there and check into the hospital. And so she's, you know, looking forward to being spoiled in hospital and having a break from the daily grind. And she goes to meet her daughter in Bern. And then the daughter is next. I mean, the story is kind of handed from one person to the next. Then we meet the daughter and she's a young office girl, as they were called, 'Büro Fraulein'. And she has her own issue problems going on. And she confides in her mother, and then that sets off a reaction. And now the mother has a foster child staying with her. And the third character is the mother of that foster child. She works in the hospital as a cleaner, and she comes from a travelling background. Like, she's from an ethnic minority called Yenish. And the final character is the only character actually who's interested in what's happening with the vote. And she's, she's a campaigner for the vote and she's more of a, she's older, she's around 60, she's more educated, she's more bourgeois. She's got a job as the hospital administrator, and she actually has some social power, unlike the other three, so she, she that she has an opportunity to use that to make a difference. So that's, that's the story.

Daniel

Could you tell us a bit about the experience of writing the book?

Clare O'Dea

Well, it was, I mean, that it was there, ready to be written. So I mean, I'm not going to say, it was work, but it was also a pleasure to write. And, yeah, I had a very clear idea of how it was, how it was going to be. You know, I knew that it was happening in this morning until evening. On the day of the vote, I knew who the characters were going to be. I didn't know exactly what was going to change for them or what was going to connect them and that, that sort of evolved through the writing process. But one thing that made the story easier for me to write was that I'd essentially done all the research in advance, you know, because I was just interested in these topics of historical injustices, and the care system, and also the way the history of the women's movement. I'd interviewed people from that era. So, I, it was familiar to me. And I'm also very nosy when it comes to meeting people, like, I am interested in, like, hearing people's experiences from their youth, you know, especially older people. So a lot of the ideas I got or details would have come from conversations with people, either in my extended family, my Swiss side of the family, or, you know, parents of people, or just older people that I've come across.

Right, because, in fact, we're not even going that far back. It was only prior to 1971 that people lived with this reality.

Yes. And it's definitely, it's, it's had an impact. I think it hasn't gone away, you know? These mindsets, and old prejudices. They, they kind of, you can see the remnants of them in, in some of the traditional attitudes that are still quite strong in Switzerland, that, you know, there's a very strong sense that a woman's place is in the home, or that family comes first. More so than in other countries I'm familiar with.

Daniel

You know, you mentioned historical injustices in in the social care system. There were all kinds of funny rules. So, I think one is that if you took support from your Gemeinde, that you would lose your vote.

Clare O'Dea

Yeah, that's, it was really serious, if you if you fell on hard times. I mean, that's, if we all our societies, you know, before they, we developed a conscience and the kind of sense of responsibility for the vulnerable, and also the money to look after them. You know, it was like, people could really fall on hard times and be left with very poor, very bad options. And yeah, so I think Swiss, poor Swiss families in the past, you know, they would go to great lengths not to be identified by the system, even though the system had eyes everywhere, because things will change, you know, big decisions are made on at local level, there would be a poor committee in the village, or whatever. And so yeah, if a family did need financial support, they would lose their vote for the duration. And then, more commonly the response to a family in difficulty, would be to take the children away and place them, either in a children's home or as a foster child, you know/farm worker, on a farm.

Daniel

You know, you mentioned speaking to your extended family. I was wondering, how did you go about researching this book? What was that process like? 

Clare O'Dea

Well, it's, it's a kind of a compilation of things, you know? I think it just overlaps with my interests. So it's, you're building it up all the time. So, you know, like, I would I just, I do so many random things professionally, you wouldn't believe it. But like once I was, I was writing profiles of notable women who went to Bern University. And, you know, I, that's how I came across some of the, some of the, the names of the, you know, the people who are at the forefront of the women's movement, you know? They were the first women to get an education and so on. So, I'd read a bit more about that. But there was one book in particular, that was an absolute goldmine for, for, like historical nuggets and details. And it's, it's like it's this, it's written by Iris von Roten. It was published in 1958, just a few months before this vote. And it's, she was a lawyer and a journalist and a campaigner. And she basically analysed the whole of Swiss society from the point of view of women. She looked at all the jobs women were doing, you know, their conditions. And she, she looked at the political side of things, she looked at the family life. What did she call domestic the domestic burden, 'Bürde ohne Würde' - a burden without dignity. So, she talks about she basically thought that, you know, there was a huge con being exerted on women in Switzerland, made to feel that they were valued but they weren't valued? And so, I got quite a lot of ideas from from her book. And the amazing, another amazing thing about this book it's called 'Frauen im Laufgitter' - 'women in the playpen', is it's never been translated into English. And it's, she's like the the Swiss De Beauvoir, and yet her work has not been deemed, you know, valuable enough to be to be translated. And also she was, there was a huge backlash when it was published. And some people blamed her for losing the vote because she, she annoyed the men, which was considered to be a big mistake.

Daniel

Right. Iris von Roten. We'll make sure to link to that in the show notes.

Clare O'Dea

Yes, let's do that. There's now a French translation, only since last year, I believe. 

Daniel

Oh, that's interesting. What about the process of publishing a book here in Switzerland Clare? What was that like?

Clare O'Dea

Well, it was it was quite different with this book. Because my first Swiss book, The Naked Swiss, was published with a traditional publisher, Bergli Books, in Basel. And, it was very straightforward. You know, I delivered the manuscript and they did everything else, kind of thing. And also, the distribution. My dog has come to the door now. And he's going to, he's just going to be tapping away there. I'm going to try to ignore him, but if you hear a little taps in the background, it's him, it's Lucky. Yeah, so Bergli Books. Like, I learned a lot from from working with them. But when it came to the this novel, which is actually technically a novella, although this distinction is a bit blurred, because novellas are being treated as novels, especially when they're successful. And so, yeah, I didn't really know how to go about getting it published on time, because it was, it was only finished, like six months before, well, halfway through 2020. And 2021, was going to be the 50 year anniversary of the vote, and I really wanted it to come out in time for that. And there was no Swiss publisher that would have been able to, to publish it in all four language versions, because I also had, did a  crowdfunder. And I got paid for the translations into German and French and Italian. And that's another whole story because I learned a lot from the translators, I got feedback from them, you know, so before the whole thing was set in stone. And my German translator, Barbara Traber is actually, is in her late 70s now, so she wrote the foreword of the book, because she remembers the day of the vote and she has her own her own, her own opinion on it, obviously. Yeah, so that was, so I ended up getting it distributed through a Swiss publisher. But essentially, it was self-published. And then parallel to that, an English publisher was interested in the book. So there's been kind of a separate, standalone English version with Fairlight books that came out this year. It's quite an adventure.

Daniel

Yeah, definitely sounds like it. There was one other thing that I meant to ask you, Clare, because some people say that referendums like this one can show a kind of dark side to the direct democracy that we have here. Because, perhaps there's the potential for people to push through things that are in their own best interest, rather than the best interest of society overall, or for the greater good. And, yeah, when they go and have the last word on something, and vote anonymously, that they can push through things that a politician in another democracy might not be able to. Would you understand that view, Clare? Do you think that has any merit?

Clare O'Dea

I do think that is the drawback of direct democracy because, I mean, there's a lot, all the power, the last word goes to the voters. I mean, if you feel like yeah, that's the way it should be, like, that's great, you know? That this is the purest form of democracy, you know, if the people have the last word. Now, that means they can bring, they can suggest new laws, and if enough signatures are collected, and they can also change laws that they don't like that have come in that the parliament has passed, they can say, 'no, we're not doing that'. And then of course, they have the, they have to approve any changes to the constitution, which was what was needed with the women's vote. Because the word for voter in German and French and Italian was masculine. So, so yeah, there's an in-built disincentive to expand that pool of voters for the existing voters. And there's also a sense that it's kind of, it's more highly skilled than what voters do in other countries, you know? Voting once every four or five years for your favourite party, and then going back to your life and just, you know, saying, 'oh, well, nothing I can do about it now', is obviously, is not as much of a commitment on the one hand from the voters, and it's not as much responsibility. So, Swiss voters, you know, do feel that it's complicated, that they have to vote a dozen times a year, and they'd have to, you know, if they want to do it right, kind of research the subjects and understand them. And you know, back in the day it was considered that was a bit too much for women to cope with. And way the way it is now you have a quarter of the Swiss population who don't have the vote and they are the foreign residents of Switzerland. Some of them are second or third generation, so-called 'foreigners'. And there's absolutely no rush to expand the, you know, the citizens of Switzerland. It's really, it's, I would say the barriers to naturalisation keep the numbers of new Swiss, artificially low and the number of foreigners artificially high, and it's got something to do with direct direct democracy.

Daniel

Perhaps you could say that there is potential for it to be more self-serving than the political system that we grew up with.

Clare O'Dea

Yeah, yeah, I guess so. Although we've had referendums as well, in Ireland, we have referendums for  changes to the Constitution. And, and the UK has had pretty momentous referendums as well. But we basically kind of leave it to the professionals. That's kind of the way the political system works. And, yeah, there's an argument to, to how well they do their job, you know, without the kind of constant scrutiny of the voters, or the constant participation of the voters.

Daniel

Right. I mean, it's definitely a quite a different system. In some respects. It's interesting to think about. Well, anyway, thank you, Clare, for joining us. I really enjoyed reading the book. Could you tell our listeners, please where they can find it? And where they can find out more about you?

Clare O'Dea

Oh, yeah, sure. Well, if you're in Switzerland, you can go into any bookshop and ask for the book. And they'll, they should find it in their system. It's distributed by a publisher called Zytgloggeverlag. And that's Z-Y-T-G-L-O-G-G-E. And then in other countries, it's available through Fairlight books. Fairlight books is based in Oxford, so they have it on their website, or again, it should be in the system if you ask in a bookshop.

Daniel

Okay. Well, I'd certainly recommend it. Thank you very much, Clare, for joining us again.

Clare O'Dea

Thank you. Thank you. It was a real pleasure talking to you today.

Daniel

All right. Well, that'll do it for this time. Thank you once again for listening from us at Rigby. We're a staffing and IT-services company based in Zurich. If you or anyone you know, is looking for a new role, or if you're looking to hire, let us know, we'd be happy to help. The best way to do that is by sending an email to contact@rigby.ch. Okay, thank you and until the next time