April 15, 2021

Ruth Dreifuss, Switzerland’s first female president

Isabelle Gattiker

Up the north face in a straight line

1993. It seems so far away and yet so close. I was 15 when Ruth Dreifuss was elected Federal Councillor. My parents, feminists but equipped with a solid practical sense, pushed me to find a job that was not too demanding: a career seemed hardly compatible with marriage and the children that, logically, would arrive. I hated dresses and knocked over everything in my path like a clumsy foal. I was what they called a “tomboy”: a rough specimen that was going to end up on the right path.

And then in the books and movies, women who weren’t defined as wives, prostitutes, aliens, or secretaries were Cruella at worst, peplum Cleopatra at best, exalted, calculating, ferocious. In the press, we had our choice of Margaret Thatcher, the ruthless woman, or Elizabeth II, the silent queen. Nothing that makes you want to jump into the arena.

The newly elected Federal Councillor Ruth Dreifuss on 10 March 1993 is welcomed by a cheering crowd in front of the Federal Palace together with the defeated first-time candidate Christiane Brunner. Photo: KEYSTONE/Lukas Lehmann

And then all of a sudden, there she is bursting onto the family TV screen. Ruth Dreifuss, standing in front of rows of seated men, a sun on her chest and eyes sparkling with intelligence behind her huge glasses. When taking the oath, she giggles twice. She doesn’t take herself seriously, and yet, she is so legitimate. Articulate. Accessible. And above all, a female leader. Yes, a female leader: the word shines like a new penny, endowed with a magical power. Abracadabra: A female leader! Suddenly, thanks to this upstanding woman and her laughter, a huge sky opens up.

On the battlefield of politics, in the face of Achilles, Ruth Dreifuss is like Ulysses, the pacifist, the captivating one, who always manages to get around the obstacles with his pure intelligence. But she also has Penelope, the original Penelope, the proud, tenacious one, who never gives in to the men who try to threaten or flatter her. An absolutely new figure, seemingly simple, with which we could all identify.

And the most amazing thing is that it worked. With her quiet strength, Ruth Dreifuss led the way up the north face in a straight line, without ever showing the slightest sign of fatigue, she fought, and still fights, with formidable efficiency. We have seen her on all fronts: AIDS patients, disability insurance, the death penalty, the legalisation of workers without legal status, drug policy. When she speaks, she captivates her audience without frills or one word too many. And pragmatic with it: if she goes on a humanitarian trip to Kosovo and the plane is empty on her return, she brings 20 refugees with her. It can be as simple as that, being a female leader.

So for me, it’s not easy. I have neither her calm nor her patience, and I still have two left hands. But I hope that I have become, in my own way, a “missing Ruth”. Thanks to her, we are thousands of women, upstanding, serene… sometimes giggling too. Without fear and with joy in our hearts. Hats off to her.

Since 2015, Isabelle Gattiker has been the General and Programme Director of the International Film Festival and Forum on Human Rights (FIFDH), one of the most important events for film and human rights worldwide, of which Ruth Dreifuss is the patron. She has also produced numerous documentaries for Intermezzo Films in Geneva and has taught in the Master's programme in cinema at ECAL and HEAD. She has two children.