Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Tireless women’s rights campaigner honoured

by Jean-Michel Berthoud,

Marthe Gosteli, the 94-year-old doyenne of the Swiss women’s rights scene, was honoured for her life’s work with a human rights prize.

Marthe Gosteli says she's been on the receiving end of everything from honours to slander (Elsbeth Boss)

She received the prize at a ceremony in Bern on December 10 – Human Rights Day – from the International Society for Human Rights Swiss Section.

Despite her age, Gosteli - who receives the award along with Bern emeritus professor of history Beatrix Mesmer – is still involved in the Gosteli Archive on the history of the Swiss women’s movement, “although it doesn’t really need me anymore,” as she laughingly told

The pioneer described the women’s rights movement as “one of the biggest liberation movements of the last century”.  “And it remained without bloodshed,” she added.

Gosteli was born into a farming family near Bern which was very interested in politics. Her grandfather sat in the Bern cantonal parliament and her father was very active in centre-right circles.

Her mother was upset about her lack of legal rights in her marriage, “although my father was no macho” , remarked Gosteli. This was what prompted her lifelong interest in equality for women.


When Gosteli joined the women’s movement in around 1940 she recognised that some ground had already been laid by 19th century pioneers.

By the beginning of the 20th century the loosely organised radical women’s rights activists were, however, being denounced as “suffragettes”.

“I was also called a suffragette,” Gosteli said. “In my life I have experienced everything – from the highest honours to the nastiest slander.”

Opposition – not just male – developed to the activists who were perceived as being a bit too militant and not always acting in the right way. Society was not ready to accept women having the same rights as men.

" Many women who work for state institutions have told me that they don’t want to be quota woman. I wouldn’t want to be one either. "
Marthe Gosteli


It took 50 votes – all decided by men – before Switzerland finally allowed women to vote in 1971, one of the last European countries to do so. Gosteli said a lot of work had been done to convince people of the merits of the change.

But opponents had carried out a fierce campaign, using rather crude posters to warn of the “perils” of women voting.

Gosteli said that she was surprised at just how many educated women took part in the “no” campaign, despite the fact that “they had only been able to study thanks to the early women’s movement”.

Women’s suffrage 40 years ago was an important milestone. But the whole fight was exhausting and Gosteli found that even when she learned of the positive result, “it was a relief but I was not jumping around for joy”.

“I was simply happy that we had won.”

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