Before watching the movie The Divine Order I will admit that I had no idea that women in Switzerland did not win the right to vote until 1971. Nineteen seventy-fucking-one! It wasn’t until 1981 that Swiss voters even approved an equal rights amendment to the constitution. And, until 1985, women had to legally obtain their husband’s approval if they wanted to get a job.
But it’s not just me, an American, who was in the dark when it came to fully understanding Switzerland’s troublingly late feminist gains. As director Petra Volpe explains, the story of the Swiss women’s right to vote is one largely swept under the rug even to the people who grow up in the country. Which is why her charming new film The Divine Order, now the official Swiss entry for the foreign-language Oscar, is a period piece that’s a long time coming.
The film takes place in a small Swiss village, cocooned and sequestered from the political and sexual revolution that was taking place in many other western countries, and focuses on a young housewife and mother of two named Nora (Marie Leuenberger.) Tired and bored of cleaning house, she decides she wants to get a job but her husband forbids her and it’s ultimately against the law for her to go against his wishes. And when Nora begins to notice the small ways in which men are allowed to control the women in their lives, the right to vote for women suddenly seems increasingly necessary.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
JEZEBEL: What first inspired you to make a movie about this moment in history?
PETRA VOLPE: I think by being a woman [laughs] and my having a mother and a grandmother and seeing them. The topic of equality and gender equality was always present in my life and I saw my mother and my grandmother sort of struggle with their roles in society as women. I made a couple of movies about women who liberate themselves, it’s kind of the theme in my films. I think [with this film] I kind of wanted to set my mother free, who couldn’t be as free as she wanted to.
This particular film came up in a conversation I had with my producer talking about movies we want to make, topics that are dear to our hearts, and he said: nobody’s ever made a movie about the women’s right to vote in Switzerland. And the more we talked about it the more we realized that it’s been a chapter in Switzerland’s history that was very much swept under the rug, which is very typical for women’s history. We kind of don’t exist in the history books, especially school books because they’re written from a very male perspective.
We thought this was such an important part of our history because Switzerland always claimed it was the oldest democracy but actually Switzerland did not become a democracy until 1971 when women were also able to vote. We also felt like even though the film looks back in time it also has a lot of relevance to this day because we obviously don’t live in an equal world where men and women are treated equally on every single level.
You mentioned that growing up, the history books you were reading in Switzerland were very male-oriented. Do you remember when you first came to learn how and when exactly women gained the right to vote?
Actually I don’t. It’s kind of like common knowledge in Switzerland that women didn’t get the right to vote until 1971 but somehow nobody feels something about it! Up until our movie it was just this awkward aspect of our history. Even as a kid you’re not so scandalized about it until, say when I became a teenager and I became more aware of more feminist topics and became a little feminist myself, it’s just something you kind of accepted as part of your society. It’s something you accept as normal until you realize, wait a moment, it’s quite scandalous!
But it was with me becoming more aware of social issues that I was more aware of women’s history in Switzerland and it took many more years for me to do research for the movie because I didn’t know anything about the very rich and vivid women’s movement in Switzerland. These women fought for over a hundred years for the right to vote, they were very organized and internationally connected. It was almost like a female parallel society that was very politically active but couldn’t vote. And those women we never learned anything in school about them.
Tell me more about what sort of historical research you were doing as you were making this movie.
Well, when I started out there was this abstract idea to make a movie about the women’s right to vote in Switzerland so it meant I didn’t have any characters or story, I hadn’t decided on the perspective. So I started researching almost for a year, talking to a lot of women who were activists in the movement. I read a lot of books, I read a lot of American feminists like Betty Friedan and Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room, because I also wanted to understand the context like what was happening in the other countries.
One very important encounter was with Marthe Gosteli. She dedicated her whole life to fighting for rights for women and the fight for the vote and she founded an archive in Switzerland, the one and only women’s archive. She felt it was important to collect women’s history and preserve it because otherwise it just gets lost. So she has documentation for the whole struggle for the vote in her archive, pictures and posters and the petitions at the time. She was almost a hundred years old when I met her and she was still a fierce feminist. She gave me an interview where she told me a lot about the times and the resistance they met.
Why focus on a housewife in this story who, at the beginning of the movie isn’t exactly against or strongly for the right to vote, rather than someone who was more entrenched in the women’s movement at the time?
I wanted to show how someone becomes politicized. Is that the right word, politicized? Because to realize, as an individual, that the personal is political, which is like the theme of the movie, it can be anybody. I wanted her to be a person that anybody at anytime can relate to and be inspired by. I wanted to show a person who raises her voice and puts into motion a political and social process. I also wanted that character to be timeless; she could live in the 1970s or she could live today. That was the approach, to find a central character that goes on a journey to become someone who is engaged with social and political questions.
I also wanted to inspire anyone to become a Nora. You can get up and start to fight for equality for justice. It can start in your bedroom or in your kitchen and in your family and be brought up to the community. And also I come from a total working class family. My mother just had me when the right to vote was being voted on. I come from these very normal people and I wanted to make a movie that encourages them and also tells them they can be a Nora.
You mentioned before you wanted to make a movie about feminism that was sort of funny but also seductive, I’ve noticed you’ve used that word before. I’m interested in how you struck the balance between portraying the movement as something serious and important but was also at the time fun, in a way.
I don’t think it’s contradictory to show an existential conflict, which it was for the women, it was existential to get the right to vote, with humor. At the base of the best comedies is existential conflict. So I never saw it as a contradiction to make a politically engaged, feminist movie that’s also funny. For me feminism and humor go very well together, actually, and I think there is a horrible misconception that it doesn’t. I think, with seduction, you have to reach out to people and kind of lure them into watching a feminist political movie. So I think humor is a very good way to open people’s hearts and make them open to the more painful aspects of a story. When people are allowed to laugh they are more open.
This movie also works really well with men because the film doesn’t necessarily villanizes them, it shows how patriarchy and tradition also puts them in a place for what they have to be as men. And I think the movie also shows the social pressure on men at the time and they are equally crushed by a society when it comes to who they must be as men. It was a very important point for me to make that a fight for equality is a fight for both genders.
On that note about including the perspective of the men in the film, something I really liked about the movie is that you were clearly showing a very wide spectrum of how the inability of women to vote at the time was hurting them. We see instances of women being denied jobs, domestic violence, women being imprisoned, all different levels of the patriarchy at work. How important was it, for you, to show that spectrum?
The fight for the right to vote is the driving engine of the movie but underneath that it’s very much about fundamental human rights that women don’t have and still to this day don’t have. It’s really about women were oppressed in every single aspect of their life. They weren’t free and they were treated like objects, not like subjects. They weren’t taken seriously as full people. So I wanted to show the different ways that affected their lives. Women were discriminated against at every single level of their professional lives, private lives, sexual lives. That’s something of course some of those laws have changed and women can work without asking their husbands for permission but as you can see now with what’s happening in Hollywood, which is just a mirror of reality because its mirroring what’s happening to women in all workplaces, is how women are still being treated as objects. There’s still a long way to go.
How feminist or progressive would you say the Swiss film industry is?
The Swiss film industry isn’t really feminist but there are a lot of great feminists making movies now. As in all the countries there have been statistics and data on our film industry and it turns out most money goes to funding men and not women. In Europe the film industry is as sexist as America but the good thing is is that as soon as they got the data they immediately started to change it. And in the European Parliament they’ve actually spoken about discrimination against women in the entertainment industry, they have put an action plan into place.
When it comes to feminism I just think at the moment it’s really important to use that data. The numbers are so clear and there’s such proof of discrimination. The numbers are clearly showing that women are given the chance to make movies, everyone benefits. There’s a lot of money to be made in women’s stories. So, I’m a little bit hopeful [laughs] and that in the future there will be a more equal distribution.
How does it feel to have The Divine Order be the Swiss entry to the Academy Awards? We all felt really excited and curious, you know, what that might be like. I was here with my actress Marie [Leuenberger] and we’ve been campaigning for the movie. We’ve gotten a lot of great feedback and a lot of American women who come to us and say, we remember those times, this is not foreign to us. They remember the struggle and the oppression. So the movie especially in America it hits very close to home right now.
How does it feel to release the movie in a political climate that feels more pertinent to the film’s subject matter?
It had made the movie even more timely than it was when we started out. We couldn’t have anticipated that how extremely timely, eerily timely it would be. This movie had it’s premiere in January and two days later there were Women’s Marches in New York and America where women were holding up the same signs as they were holding up in our movie. Women had to fight for those very basic rights and now they might be taken away again.
And also what’s happening right now in Hollywood, with the sexual harassment coming to the surface that has always been there but it’s just been hidden. Or the fact that Nora is just one single woman who steps up and helps set fire to an oppressive system and that’s what’s happening right now in Hollywood with women coming forward. So I hope the film encourages people to be courageous, especially women to keep up the fight for our rights.