Book Review: Gender Innovation and Migration in Switzerland by Francesca Falk


Carolina Hutmacher March 2019

At the beginning of 2019, Francesca Falk published her book «Gender Innovation and Migration in Switzerland» on the historical effects of migration in gendered innovation discourses. Her work is particularly valuable for expanding the social imaginaries of countries and citizens in need of adopting more inclusive and gender-fair concepts of national identity.

Impression of the guided tour "Places of Participation" (read more below)

Falk takes an agency-centered approach to describing processes of migration and women’s emancipation. Hereby the author emphasizes the active role of women in shaping significant historical events. She presents different types of inequalities and privileges based on gender and migration and traces their roots within a Swiss context. She investigates the following interconnected fields, focusing on intersections of migration and gender:

  • accessibility to higher education
  • influencing politics, work and the shifts in its gendered divisions
  • the ways in which nursery infrastructures were introduced in the country
  • female suffrage.

As the author states “These fields have been selected to show that migration generated gender innovation in various constellations” (Falk, 2019:20).

By drawing particular attention to the potential for socio-political innovation as the outcome of the intersections between privileges and female- and migration based discriminatory structures and practices, the author proposes an illuminating understanding of history. In the following paragraphs I will briefly summarize and comment each chapter of the book.

The first chapter portrays the political engagement of her emancipated northern Italian mother living in a conservative Swiss Canton. It offers a glance into the valuable contributions of female immigrants to the struggle for gender equality in Switzerland. The comparisons between the state of women’s struggle for emancipation in Italy, as described by her mother, and in Switzerland makes clear how Switzerland was (and still is in different domains) lagging behind compared to other European countries in the struggle for equality.

The anecdotes about traditionalist idiosyncrasies related to gender relations in her hometown give the book an intimate perspective. This biographical touch, combined with extensive research references highlighting other migrant’s voices, create an intelligible and well-founded base for a re-telling of Swiss history. Falk puts it as follows: “Such voices, while always individual, allow us to paint a picture of Switzerland’s past that until now was seldom part of either Swiss historiography or collective memory. In this way, they bring to the fore not only personal, but also structural conditions” (Falk 2019:14).

Moreover, Falk’s own reflected anecdotes, for instance, on her mother’s political activism and the reactions of the traditional world that surrounded, adds another layer of insight to the book, namely, that of the second generation’s reflection. The description of domestic education courses for girls, as experienced by Falk herself, and geometry classes, usually for boys, who unlike girls were being prepared to pursue a higher education: “I hated this domestic education curriculum and above all its claim to being scientific” are put in relation to primary sources presenting a variety of questionable justifications by local authorities for their introduction.
Falk points out that within the Swiss educational system not only women were discriminated against, but also the children of working class immigrants who were very underrepresented in high schools, but overrepresented in the less academically demanding Realschule.

Indications of the current state of affairs give the reader various points of reference to assess the development in the country related to women and migrants’ struggle for equality. So, today, as Falk states, inequality is still present within the Swiss educational system. This is underlined by the fact that females are overrepresented in high-schools, but underrepresented within the teaching and research bodies of higher education institutions.

The references to feminist scholarship throughout the book give further resources for the reader to reach out in a quest for a more encompassing understanding of historical facts. These include the influences of migration, as well as the views of women from various cultural backgrounds. By relying on concepts to challenge mainstream interpretations of history, like sedentary bias, the author provides conceptual tools to question historical accounts that are taken for granted.

In chapter three, changing gendered divisions of work are illustrated via a re-telling of Swiss emigration with its colonialist dynamics in the receiving countries and the analysis of the migration of Indian nurses from Kerala to Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. Here the author draws attention once again to the uncritical adoption of narratives when writing about history. She presents an alternative interpretation of facts with new constellations of gender relations favoring women’s emancipation. Some more obscure sides of these emancipatory processes are also mentioned. Fore example, the fact that : “Female colonists exercised power over colonised men and were, for instance, able to delegate menial work to them. According to Katharina Walgenbach, the German colonies were therefore less places of women’s liberation than scenes of subordination of the racialized other” (Falk, 2019:34)

Following Falk’s call for a “‘migrantisation’ of our understanding of the past”, a German translation of the book would be very welcome. Her approach would certainly open paths for dialogue with more traditionalist readings of history. For instance, it would give me the chance to offer to my Swiss-German grandmother an access to an alternative view of the past, in this way opening a path for insightful discussions and a fertile ground for a intergenerational gender-Innovation.

Moreover, one important outcome of migrant families arriving to the country after the Second World War was, as presented in chapter four, the need for a child care system. This in turn influenced greatly the creation of a Nursery infrastructure. Therefore: “it cannot be ruled out that people coming to Switzerland from places where nurseries had been created may have acted as brokers in the transnational diffusion of nurseries” (Falk 2019:41). Different references are given to the controversies that arose through the introduction of nurseries. These public testimonies show the impact nurseries had on the changing understanding of the role of women.
In this chapter, attention is also drawn to the less than ideal current situation of child care facilities in Switzerland, were working conditions and wages are inadequate. Additionally, Falk states, young migrants and second generation women in particular are usually employed in this sector. Moreover, the increased presence of male staff in nurseries, is also presented as an outcome of migration-driven changing gender relations.

The role of women from the Tsarist Empire studying in Swiss Universities is portrayed in chapter five. Falk shows the accomplishments of these pioneers in opening the way for Swiss women to make use of their right to pursue a higher education. The author points out, how German professors, like Ludwig Stern, opened the doors to female foreign students.
For instance, Falk introduces the reader to the story of Nadezhda Suslowa, the first woman to obtain a doctoral degree in Switzerland. Falk also presents how Suslowa influenced Marie Heim-Vögtlin, the first Swiss-born female physician, in starting her studies. Not surprisingly, the author remarks how mainstream Swiss history books tend to omit references related to foreign born women.

The story of Anna Tumarkin, the first extraordinaria in the German-speaking Swiss academic world is introduced at the end of chapter five. Tumarkin, as Falk recounts, was the first woman in Europe qualified to supervise Ph.D students. Falk makes a point in showing how despite her accomplishments Tumarkin was not properly recognized at the time. She was denied a full professorship, partly because she was a woman. Falk points out that this lack of recognition is still present today. A tiny path at the northern side of the university Building in Bern was named after Tumarkin, giving her a very marginal role.
Some personal details related to the difficult life of these young academics arriving in Switzerland in the nineteenth century, often as refugees, are introduced through the story of Tumarkin. Historically relevant social practices at the time are shown. Details on personal relations of the characters that do not fit into a bourgeois life model, are given importance. The reader learns for example, that female academics at that time often lived together as couples, as in the case of Tumarkin and her friend Ida Hoff, the first school doctor in Bern and the first woman to drive a car in this city.

Chapter six, Female Suffrage, shows connections between migration and prominent women involved in the movement for obtaining women’s right to vote in Switzerland. Some influences of migration experienced by women like Marie Goegg-Pouchoulin, who founded the first association in Switzerland promoting political and legal equality for women, are highlighted. Falk also includes an analysis of the last Swiss cantons introducing the right to vote for women, Appenzell Innerrhoden and Appenzell Ausserrhoden. Again, Falk makes a point of showing the way migrants, like the Polish woman married to one of Elisabeth Pletscher’s cousins, influenced the understanding of women’s role in society. Chapter six also offers a glance at the contributions of Tilo Frey, so far the only black woman who has been elected to the Swiss National parliament. Frey, as the author points out, suffered various racist verbal attacks before and after her election. In addition, the role of migrants in highlighting a female perspective in the public cultural memory of the country up to the current day, is exemplified by the fact that the first film about the introduction of female suffrage was directed and written by a woman with migration background, Petra Biondina Volpe.

To conclude, in the last chapter the author presents a reflexion on the tendency to omit migration-related facts in history. Falk proposes for current and future historiography to acknowledge the effects of migration, and to make it visible to the reader. In so doing, the author’s work also encourages diversity to be recognized and valued by migrants themselves, Swiss citizens and their manifold and colorful amalgamations.
As someone who has experienced migration myself, I particularly appreciate Francesca Falk’s work. I certainly felt empowered and motivated while reading. The important contributions of migrant women and their proactive roles are a source of inspiration in my day to day life. I like seeing myself, and the fellow migrant women I work with, as powerful agents of change in a society that is learning to acknowledge our accomplishments.
Francesca Falk was of great support while conceiving our guided tour within the project I’m currently working on. The tour is titled “Places of Participation”. In it, fourteen women from all over the world, our project manager Aglaia Wespe and myself, created a marvelous tour showing what different places in the city of Bern mean to us as women and as migrants. Francesca Falk’s research, her loving support and her valuable insights were greatly appreciated.

Publication Date:

04 March 2019

Belongs to:


Carolina Hutmacher