February 2021 marks the fiftieth anniversary of women’s right to vote in Switzerland. This book celebrates the diverse accomplishments, struggles and strengths of Swiss women. One-page biographies give readers a glimpse into the lives of fifty Swiss women – both historical and contemporary – who inspire and intrigue. Each biography is paired with a unique, color illustration by Swiss illustrator Mireille Lachausse.
I’ve lived in Switzerland for 25 years, yet it wasn’t until working on this book that I searched for Swiss heroines. For the first time ever, I realized how many important, influential, and yes, amazing Swiss women there are out there. History has been written in such a way that women are often left out, something we tend to accept as reality. Hopefully, this book will help to give a truer view of Swiss women’s impact on the country and the world.
Laurie Theurer first got the idea to write a book featuring some of the Swiss women she’d read about while researching her Swiss history book for children in 2019. She included a few of the women in Swisstory, but there were so many more she wanted to write about. Swiss women had done some fantastic things and Laurie wanted to share their stories to inspire kids and adults.
In August 2020, she approached Bergli Books, a small niche publisher based in Basel, Switzerland. The editor was excited about the project but asked Laurie to complete it in just three months. Why the short deadline? Bergli planned to release the book to coincide with the 50th anniversary of women’s right to vote on the national level in Switzerland on February 7, 2021. That meant the manuscript had to be ready in December!
There was no way Laurie could write 50 biographies in just three months on her own. So, she decided to ask writer friends for help. Together, the five of us (Laurie Theurer, Katie Hayoz, Anita Lehmann, Alnaaze Nathoo and Barbara Nigg) and our amazing illustrator Mireille Lachausse achieved the impossible – researching and interviewing 50 women and then writing, editing, and illustrating their stories during a pandemic in 90 days.
I’m embarrassed to say that I never imagined there were so many inspirational Swiss women. Yet I wasn’t the only one. Our co-author, Anita Lehmann, a writer and historian who grew up in Bern, said although she’d looked for stories about Swiss women as a kid, she could never find any. Discovering so many amazing Swiss women was a surprise for her, too.
Of course, we’re now more used to seeing collections of biographies of exceptional women for children and adults thanks to books like Rebel Girls. In hindsight though, I realize I hadn’t even wondered why I wasn’t hearing more stories of remarkable women in Switzerland. But once my eyes were open, I saw extraordinary Swiss women everywhere!
I think it’s important to highlight women’s achievements for that reason – we unknowingly get comfortable with the status quo. We read books with barely a mention of women playing a role in changing the world and might not question it because it’s what we’re used to hearing. That can then shape our beliefs of what women can and cannot do.
Changing the perception of what women CAN achieve – even when faced with ignorance, sexism, racism, and classism – by showcasing what they HAVE achieved is vital. Doing so has completely changed my understanding of the impact Swiss women have had on their culture, laws and history. It’s given me deeper insight into the country I live in.
And Switzerland has been shaped by Swiss women of ALL kinds. Those of us on the writing team have strong ties to Switzerland, either by being born here, or having lived here for the greater part of our lives. We know that to be “Swiss” can mean many things. So, we wanted our selection of the women in the book to reflect that multiplicity.
But still, choosing which women to highlight was tricky. Some of the decisions were made for us—a few women declined to be in the book, and we couldn’t find enough research on some of the historical women who would’ve been interesting. But, overall, it was extremely difficult to decide whose stories we would share.
In the end, I’m happy with our choices. The book is full of surprises. And it appeals to kids with all kinds of aspirations. We showcase different struggles, dreams, and achievements from array of Swiss women – past and present.
We include well-known women like Ruth Dreifuss or Emilie Gourd, but also tell the stories of lesser-known women who inspire us personally. Some were born in Switzerland, and some became Swiss later in life. The women are different from each other in lots of ways, and yet they have one vital thing in common: they persevered and believed in themselves, even when society imposed barriers or pushed back.
One of the most difficult challenges was making sure our stories did justice to the women. Distilling a rich, complex life into a one-page biography written for children meant we had to choose what to include and what to leave out. And we had no time to dawdle with such a tight deadline.
Working together, we spent a lot of time encouraging each other, sound-boarding the key points in each woman’s story, editing, and even jumping in to help write sections when someone got stuck. We had weekly meetings via Zoom and stayed in touch on What’s App and email. By collaborating in such a way, we managed to complete the book in record time as still be satisfied with the results.
I know all of us are proud of the book, but what has been the most inspiring is actually the response to it. We didn’t expect such an outpouring of enthusiasm. Although it’s a book primarily aimed at children, it seems to mean a great deal to adults, as well. Particularly women, who take the time to write to us to express their appreciation. Many have told us that this is exactly the type of inspirational book they would have liked when they were growing up in Switzerland. Laurie speaks for the whole team when she says, “It does my heart good to give them the heroines they have always longed for.
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