Background - 16.06.2021 - 00:00 

Social change reaches the law

A contemporary witness reports how she experienced the family law reform of 1988. Her story demonstrates that the act did not trigger off social change but instead took into account the social change that preceded it. By Kim Bauer.

16 June 2021. “I never had the feeling that I was under anyone else’s control,” says Elisabeth Illien. On paper, a wife may have been subordinate to her husband until 1988, but real life looked different. Until the reform, the law provided that women were not allowed to make any major financial decisions on their own and could only accept a job with their husband’s consent. The reform has therefore been described as a milestone in gender equality. The 71-year-old shop owner regards this depiction as merely half the truth because it accords the law too big a role. Young people, in particular, feel as if the act had placed severe restrictions on them.

Different worlds

The life of the woman from the Grisons demonstrates that society afforded women more options than is often assumed. In 1989, she and her sister-in-law set up Scarnuz, a gift shop, in Chur’s old town, after she had worked in a chemist’s shop for several years. Over a cup of fruit tea in the café opposite Scarnuz, she talks about her experience and does not want to hear anything about being disadvantaged. “It wasn’t a talking point whether a man or a woman opened a shop” – in fact, the majority of shops were owned and run by women at the time. She points to the businesses all around and remembers the then women owners. She only names one man, who sold menswear nearby. “We were fully accepted,” she says with conviction. By way of evidence, she adds that she herself was co-opted onto the committee of the Chur Old Town Interest Group after only a year – not a trace of marginalisation and discrimination.

The contemporary witness’s statements are in contrast to the representations of women’s federations, official documents and recordings from the referendum campaign. In a retrospective by the Federal Commission for Women’s Issues (FCWI), the new marriage law is referred to as one of the “milestones in gender equality”. Swiss radio and television interviews of 1985 show how the conservatives fought against it for being too radical. They were holding on to the role model of women as housewives and mothers, which was stipulated in law until 1988. People’s positions in the referendum campaign show that the modern image of women had not become prevalent. Apparently, politicians were unable to see the social changes described by Elisabeth Illien.

“We were happy to be housewives and mothers.”

The woman entrepreneur, who is always elegantly dressed, is of the opinion that today’s generation interprets that time as more negative than it was because they look at it from another perspective. The women of that time needn’t be pitied; on the contrary, those were carefree times. They used to go to the swimming baths together and enjoyed their time within the scope of their financial resources. It was primarily doctors’ wives who worked to support their husbands because they could afford a nanny. The distribution of roles was a matter of course in all social strata and was not perceived as suppression in Elisabeth Illien’s environment. She didn’t have any reason for rebelling against it. As a contemporary witness, however, she considers the assumption that women were not allowed to work to be wrong. None of the young mothers in her environment had been prevented from taking up a job. On the contrary, many women already worked before the reform because the families depended on both incomes.

The figures from the Federal Statistical Office prove her right. Even before the reform, more than one out of two women worked. The figures also show that many mothers gave up their jobs, but from the 1980s onwards, more and more women returned to work after their baby break. This development began before the reform and confirms that society was ahead of the law. The husbands’ consent, which was statutorily required, can’t have been much of an obstacle for women who were willing to work.

The law lags behind society

Elisabeth Illien still runs Scarnuz today although she reached her pensionable age some time ago. “I’ve always worked and have never been prevented from working by my family,” she says, looking back at her life. Then she adds that the act didn’t bring any change to those who were suppressed. “My mother would have liked to work, but my father was strictly against it.” It was particularly her parents’ generation which had been restricted by the law. The reform came too late for them to return to the labour market because they had long since missed the boat. In her own time, however, the husbands’ consent wasn’t needed any longer at all even though the law formally required it. The reform, she concludes, didn’t cause any change but adapted the law to social reality, thus pushing politics into the present day.

Kim Bauer is in her second semester of the Master in Marketing Management. This article was produced in connection with a workshop of the supplementary programme in Business Journalism headed by Stefanie Knoll, SRF, and is part of the series on “Money or Happiness”.

Image: Adobe Stock / Ruben

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