March 8, 2021

Christiane Brunner, a heroine of women’s right to vote

Romaine Jean

On the 50th anniversary of Swiss women’s suffrage

Large portraits of women now adorn the facades of buildings in the old town of Bern, to commemorate 7 February 1971, which enabled Swiss women to obtain the right to vote. 53 years after Germany, 52 years after Austria, 27 years after France. We are therefore right at the date of “50 years only”, and it would be a missed anniversary to fail to remember the age-old layers of ignorance, the layers of prejudice, the depth of contempt it took to justify the removal of half the world’s population from the decision-making process. Maturing takes time. So allow me to dedicate this text to all the courageous women who fought to tear down the wall of ignorance and especially to one of them, Christiane Brunner. What if we made her a national hero? Just like William or Henri?

Photo black and white of Christiane Brunner, in front of a microphone, facing a huge crowd
On March 6, 1993, around 8,000 people supported Christiane Brunner, Geneva SP National Councilor and Federal Council candidate who failed on March 3, in her appearance at the rally at the Muensterhof in Zuerich. Photo: KEYSTONE / Str

Why her. Christiane Brunner disappeared from the news radars, by her own will and because of her faltering health, but the young parliamentary journalist that I was in the early 1990s only saw her. She was one of the founders of the Swiss Women’s Liberation Movement – MLF. She initiated the great purple strike of 1991. An incredible movement of 500,000 women in the streets of the country. She was uncompromising in her defence of workers, fellow citizens, Swiss men and women. The bench and the backbench of the National Council sneered. She had had a free life, a divorce, a companion, children, biological and adopted, who formed a beautiful tribe. She knew how to love and give, it was visible. She had succeeded, she, the daughter of proletarians, destined for the checkouts of the supermarkets, to climb onto the benches of the university. Exemplary.

The difficult struggle for power. In 1971, Christiane Brunner was only 24 years old, already with one child and a destiny to build. Switzerland still lived under a regime of discrimination. And as history permeates people’s minds, it is not certain that all the miasmas of this strange past have completely disappeared.

The vote on 7 February was a liberation but above all a beginning. And Christiane Brunner was going to experience in her life, in her flesh and blood, the difficult struggle of the women of her generation and of the following generations to be accepted in the circles of power. She was not from the milieu, it was obvious. Too free, too much makeup, too much this or too much that. She had to pay a price for it. to join the Federal Council. Anonymous people then spread rumours of bacchanals and abortions. The popular press talked about nude photos, which one would never see. She had to explain herself, to deny it. She would be denied entry to the government, betrayed by a parliament where burly guys still set the price of the folding seats. Betrayed by her socialist president, for whom a woman was worth a woman but definitely not a crisis. Christiane Brunner, who had chaired the largest union in Switzerland, who was carried by the street, who was bilingual, who had a sense of compromise, was denied. She belonged to a time, not quite gone, when it was the men who selected the women. And they preferred them to be docile. She probably never recovered from this episode. I do not know for sure, but I can imagine.

Progress is being made, but it can be better. If I am saying all this today, it is because the great strike of 1991 and the non-election of Christiane Brunner were undoubtedly at the origin of the great progress of the cause of the women in this country. History has proven the Genevoise women right, who moved mountains and paved the way. In 2010, Parliament elected a female-majority federal council. In the canton of Vaud, 5 out of 7 members of the government are women. Not everything has been achieved yet. Equal pay, enshrined in the Constitution for 38 years, has still not been implemented. Only 17% of women sit on boards of directors and hardly any more at the head of companies. But the fronts are moving.

A heroine. I like the Swiss heroes, William Tell, the rebel, who, it is said, refused to submit to the arrogant Habsburgs. Or Henri Guisan, who gave confidence to the country at the height of the war. I love this country which puts forward courageous men. What if we added a few women?

Christiane Brunner gradually withdrew from the public arena, without complaint, discreetly. It is not because life is not elegant that one should behave like her, Françoise Sagan used to say. So yes, today I dedicate this text and a virtual sunflower to her, in the hope that she will accept it.

Romaine Jean is a journalist, producer, she was TV news and the Infrarouge program presenter, and editor in chief at the Swiss Radio Television.
Article originally published on 7 February 2021 on on the 50th anniversary of Swiss women's suffrage. Posted here with permission from