“He’ll be doing the right thing for his country, a country that has been well ruled by decent men for seven hundred years.”
Voting Day, by Clare O’Dea, is set in Switzerland on 1 February 1959. On this day the adult male citizens of the country were voting in a referendum that asked if females should be granted the right to vote too. Told from the points of view of four interlinked but very different women, the story offers a window into their everyday world and the challenges faced by being female. Only one has any particular interest in the vote taking place despite their circumstances being stymied by gender.
The first part focuses on Vreni, a farmer’s wife and mother to four grown children who has lost something of what she once was along the way. Her daughter, Margrit, works in Bern where Vreni is preparing to travel for a medical procedure. Her three sons are living at home along with a foster child, Ruedi. Although a conscientious wife and mother, the young boy is not treated as one of the family. Vreni believes he must be prepared for the hard life he will likely lead later.
“It’s not a good idea to show affection to these children. They get the wrong idea.”
The second part of the book focuses on Margrit who has a serious problem with her boss to deal with. What I found most fascinating about these first two sections was how the mother and daughter regarded each other and themselves. There is obviously love between them but the lens through which they view the same incidents are very different.
Margrit’s story offers the perspective of a modern career woman who is just starting to understand the difficulties encountered when living without the social and financial protection of a husband.
The third part introduces the reader to Esther who works at the hospital Vreni is admitted to. She is Ruedi’s mother and her backstory explains why the boy was taken from her. This section depicts a Switzerland that offers very little to those struggling financially, who do not have family to fall back on. Esther was also taken from her parents, when she was seven years old. They were Yenish, leading a lifestyle many did not approve of.
“Somebody somewhere decided that our little home was too full and too free. They took three of us away and left the younger ones. They wanted to see children in straight lines with clean dresses and plaited hair. They wanted us meek.”
Esther misses her son dreadfully and is doing all she can to turn her life around that he may be returned to her. She understands this will be difficult given her low earning capabilities. Her current job and accommodation were organised by Beatrice, on whom the final part of the book focuses.
Beatrice, at sixty-one years old, is a successful hospital administrator. She chose not to marry, a choice made easier due to her personal financial stability. Well organised and capable, Beatrice enjoys her work.
“she was proud of how smoothly everything functioned. She had the respect of all the doctors, the board, the staff. Her salary was generous, for a woman.”
Beatrice has been working hard at the Bern Women’s Vote Association and cares deeply about the day’s outcome. The difference in how men act and are treated compared to women has long bothered Beatrice.
“I used to hate how the men sat for the duration of the party and filled the room with their voices, never fetched or served a single thing or moved from the spot to deal with interrupting children”
Covering for a sick colleague at the hospital, she returns home to learn of the result from her visiting brother.
“it was the recognition I imagined with such intense craving. I wanted them to say, this is your country too”
When Beatrice first came across Esther and learned of her situation, she did what she could to help. Galvanised by her disappointment at the vote result, she concocts another plan in an attempt to make a real difference, one of which her brother disapproves. He has his own difficulties and can only see her concern for Esther through his resentment of how he is regarded by society. As many would do well to remember today, helping one struggling minority does not mean a lack of care for others who face discrimination.
An epilogue takes the reader to a year later and an event that brings the four women together. Although Vreni proved earlier that she could act decisively when she had to, she is in awe of how Beatrice has dealt with the authorities – mostly men.
“You just have to act like them, as if the world belongs to you, too. It confuses them.”
This denouement sweetens what has gone before although little of substance has changed.
In her Author’s Note at the end, O’Dea explains how Swiss women were eventually enfranchised.
“In the end, an outside catalyst was needed to force the next, successful referendum in 1971 in the form of the European Convention on Human Rights. The convention dated from 1953 and by 1968 the Federal Council (Swiss government) was keen to sign, just without the clause concerning women’s political rights.
This ridiculous prospect galvanised the upcoming more radical generation of the women’s movement, giving them enough fresh outrage to persuade the government to deliver a new referendum. Times were changing.”
It seems incredible that a modern, European democracy withheld the vote from half its population for so long, and felt it was acting reasonably in doing so. This was a slice of history of which I was unaware.
Written with warmth and understanding, the story is well paced and offers nuggets of insight into women’s lives and how disinterested men tend to be in specifics that do not detrimentally affect them. Succinct and perceptive, issues are explored with pleasing depth whilst avoiding polemic – a recommended read.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Fairlight Books.