Women and Democracy in Switzerland


IF those of us who are old enough in years, and old enough in thought and habit, and young enough in grace, to date ourselves consciously back to prehistoric times, to the days when there was a Lady of the Castle, and a Lady Abbess, and a Vanishing Lady: to the days when the Gentlewoman loomed large in life as in literature, to the days when Châtelaines were not manufacturers’ daughters, when Nuns were not secularized, when Ladies were not Helps, when Woman was not writ large — if those of us, I say, could but live in this tiny corner of the most truly democratic government the world has ever seen (more truly democratic than most countries would ever desire to see!) we should be lost in amazement — so much is it a back issue here — at the heat of argument over, and the timeliness and popularity of, the Woman Question in the United States to-day. For more than a year American newspapers have brimmed with it. Reviews have published essay after essay. And as if this were not satiety, a few are even offering their readers a further year of it!

Certainly Americans when they take up an issue, whether football, athletics, or woman, take it up intensively. Otherwise the subject would be a dead issue. There would be nothing paying in it. God forbid that — as a nation — we should lose our sense of proportion, our sense of humor!

Now living in Switzerland, or more properly speaking living in this particular part of Switzerland (the shores of Lake Geneva), tends to a larger, broader, because lazier, point of view. When nothing matters overmuch, when time is of no account, when to-morrow will do as well as to-day, life slips along easily, surely; old habits change, new ones are introduced, reforms come, the Lady vanishes, and no one seems to have anything in particular to say about it, or any special share in the doing of it. ‘ C’est comme cela ’ — that is all. Things simply happen.

Surely this is a saner and a more advanced and restful state of affairs than the constant clamoring for things to happen, as with us; less wearing to one’s nerves, and to the nerves of the country at large.

Must we then lay to our editors, conscientious, thoughtful men as they are, the responsibility for this overwhelming intensiveness with which a question, and often not a vital question, is discussed? Probably; for where would the college editor find his matter, and the city editor his, and the magazine editor his, in this day of the fifty-page sheet, and the one-hundredand-fifty-page magazine, were it not in this detailed and reiterated treatment of a theme?

But where reviews are but a few pages thick, and newspapers but a single sheet, and an infinitesimal sheet at that, quantity is not needed. And how well one can do without it ! How clear one’s vision becomes! What tang to the short, crisp, sparkling editorials! How quickly, too, results follow! Why, only last year the women of Switzerland secured religious suffrage with scarcely a hot word, so quietly was the campaign conducted. And as church and national policies are closely allied here, undoubtedly Switzerland, without so much as a single militant suffragette, will be among the very first countries to give equality in political suffrage.

And ‘ the Lady ’ has vanished ? Most assuredly. And no one comments on it, or wonders at it, or writes about it. One never so much as catches a glimpse of an old-time Gentlewoman! And one does n’t expect to.

But surely in this land of castles, there must still be ‘the Lady of the Castle’? Castles there are in plenty, — beautiful old specimens of twelfth, and thirteenth, and fourteenth-century work; massive, imposing, dignified. One meets them at every turn. Castles also of a later date, warm, sunny, terraced affairs of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but — as for the Lady of the Castle, alas, there is not one!

‘What! not here, in this wonderful old building with moat and court?’ No! indeed! — that châtelaine is an American! ‘Or in this?' Again, no! — only a rich merchant’s daughter from Zurich! ’Then here — in this rounded tower, fronting terraced sweep of lake?' No! not even here — an artist!

And where is ‘the Lady Abbess?’ Gone! Gone as completely as a myth of the Middle Ages! But in her place has come the Secularized Nun, quick of wit, keen of intellect, thoroughly the modern business woman — in a brand-new house, perhaps a city block in size; in a brand-new frock, without coif, or veil, or floating robe; with an uplifted eye, and manners to suit the times, and holding her own against all other twentieth-century competitors, as scholar, educator, philanthropist!

A startling change to us of the Western world, and we stare in sheer amazement ! But she lives, and achieves, and the Swiss eyelid never flickers!

And ‘Woman,’ plain ‘Woman,’ what of her? Is any career closed to her that she chooses to undertake? Apparently not one. Is there equal pay for equal work? Most certainly. Street-cleaner, field-hand, school-teacher, merchant, lawyer, doctor, dentist , —woman is all this and more. Married or single, old or young, the race is to the swiftest — man or woman.

And what is the result? The result is simply—justness; it could not well be less. But — it is not pleasing. In courtesy, it means a complete leveling down to mutuality. Woman has her place in train or tram — and so has Man; and his is not ceded to her. She has her place on street or sidewalk — and so has he; and he is careful to keep his right, and not to step aside. Should a foreign lady insist on greater ceremony, the man may give it, but — public sentiment is with the man, not with the lady.

And as with courtesy, so with manners: equality, always equality! The poor man elbows the rich woman. The tenement child screams from his window, ‘ Chapeau rouge ! Chapeau rouge !’ if he deems the color of your hat too vivid. And neither act excites the slightest comment. Why should it? Has not Woman the same privileges as Man? Who speaks of chivalry or protection?

‘Kindliness?’ Ah! yes! stern kindliness there is in plenty. But always as between comrades. Never because of sex. And one more sweet and gracious element in life has passed!

And if the Lady, and Courtesy, and Manners have vanished, so also has the Servant! ‘What! No servants?’ No! none whatever — that is none to the manner born. One can get them from France. One can get them from Germany. One can get them from Italy. One can get them from England. But if one wishes a Swiss servant one must take her from the field, the shop, or the parlor. There are no others. And whether from field, or shop, or parlor, she is totally ignorant of service. Each phase has to be taught her, and life is short.

If, however, as occasionally happens, one is willing to accept age, and by age is meant something approaching seventy, one may secure efficiency, loyalty, manners. And what a glorious combination these three make! At present we know of just such a treasure in ‘Madame Caroline.’ There is nothing that she cannot bake or brew, no service that is too hard for her. Guests are received as by a duchess. And late in the evening, as we step into the kitchen to see what she is doing, we find her, wide awake, eyes sparkling, reading Fogazzaro! Even she must march with the times. Yet — Madame Caroline never reads novels! What then will be her awakening when in time she realizes the extent of her sin, we are eagerly anticipating!

But if age brings efficiency, it has also its drawbacks, drawbacks to be considered in these days of employers’ liability. Age — is brittle. So the two days a week in which Madame Caroline goes to market we live in fear and trembling of accident to life or limb. And the days she spends indoors are even more of a nightmare, for when we see her — a little, gray, bent figure — perched on the topmost rung of a high step-ladder, cleaning windows, we fuss, and fume, and nearly faint.

There is of course that recklessly modern alternative, the Lady Help! And the Swiss delight in her. There is one around the corner, doing the service of a bonne-à-tout-faire; and a little farther on, another, as lady cook for a family of eight; and still farther on, a third, as lady nurse to a group of tiny sisters; and at Geneva, in a charming old château, a fourth — the quaintest of Kate Greenaway figures —red hair, green smock, — a lady gardener! But is it pleasant meeting lady help? Certainly not. It is extremely disconcerting.

So also are other things in this land of democracy. Compulsory insurance, for one. Not of jewels, or valuables, there might be sense in this; but of towels, and frocks, and trunks, and bags, and pots, and pans, and endless household nothings. Individually insured, too; a maddening process—running into pure comic opera — when the City Fathers present themselves to make the verification.

And woman, like man, pays Federal State, and Municipal taxes,— three in all, — even if, as a foreigner, she is exempt from property or income tax. Oh, Woman has her privileges!

And chimneys are swept whether one will or no; at fifty centimes a chimney it is true, but— by order of the municipality, and by city appointees, and as often as they please, not as we please. And the present ramoneur nearly frightened us out of our wits the other day when we caught him embracing Madame Caroline in the Hall, and on both cheeks! A scene which was fairly startling till we were told he was her son-in-law — and yet the Swiss are not held to be demonstrative!

And if one’s landlord dies, one’s lease is canceled. And if he sells, one’s lease is canceled. And if he fails, one’s lease is canceled. Danger lurks in both living and dying, and the best lawyer in the land is none too good when it comes to the question of a lease!

And should the wind blow and one’s house be a châalet, municipal authorities appear, and the fires are put out and one is left to shiver and shake, and to eat cold victuals! But — the house stands. It does not burn down. No wonder insurance rates are low.

And should one require a telephone, one can secure it by a sliding scale arrangement: a large sum the first year, a moderate amount the second year, less and less the third, till finally the telephone is practically given one. Why not! the Swiss say. Why should it be otherwise? And — why should it?

A curious study—this race of hard-headed old Calvinists! But oh, the pure, sheer democracy of it all! The lack of fuss and clamor, the ease with which reforms appear, the readiness to abide by laws when made, the perfect Equality, the all-spreading Mutuality, the unfailing Common sense, and last, but not least, the touch of humor in the Lady Help, the Ramoneur, the Law!