Ursula Breuninger is a long-time champion of women’s rights and former president of the Gstaad-Saanenland Soroptimist club, an organisation that works to improve the empowerment of women and girls.
Ursula Breuninger is a long-time champion of women’s rights and former president of the Gstaad-Saanenland Soroptimist club, an organisation that works to improve the empowerment of women and girls. GstaadLife met with Ursula to discuss equal rights, feminism and self-determination.
Could you tell us a little about your background and what brought you to the Saanenland?
It was clear from a young age that I would work in social services. After qualifying as a kindergarten teacher in Germany, I re-trained as a social worker and child therapist. This led to my joining the support team at a woman’s shelter, where I worked with the traumatised children of abused mothers. While abuse is often seen as black and white, for the impacted children it is not so clear because the abuser is also their father. I helped the children build up relationships with their fathers; it was demanding but rewarding work.
After moving to the Saanenland, I worked as a child therapist then more broadly across the spectrum of social services. I am still employed here as a social worker, but now on a part-time basis. This gives me the opportunity to spend the rest of my time looking after my house and garden with my husband. I really enjoy this and feel privileged I can choose this balance.
You have been active in the women’s rights movement for many years. When did this all start?
I had a very traditional upbringing. I grew up in a small town with two sisters and two brothers and a mother who always stood behind her husband. We girls did the housework while the boys watched television. My father was an architect and it was clear my eldest brother would also become an architect, while little attention was paid to girls’ education at the time. It was a very classical outlook. Something about this didn’t feel right, but at the time I didn’t know what.
I received the answer when I became a student. It was the time after the 1968 student movement, a time when I developed new thoughts and new theories. It was such an exciting, incisive experience, to learn that you have a voice, that you can structure your life as you choose, be independent, take responsibility when you fail or when you don’t seize your opportunities.
This was also the time when I came across the topic of women’s equality and self-determination. It completely changed my view of the world, my view of relationships and my view of equality between men and women. I finally understood why I had felt so out of place before. I consider this the time when I became emancipated as a human being.
What do the terms ’feminism’ and ’emancipation’ mean to you?
For me, feminism and emancipation are about equal rights and equal responsibility, whatever your gender. It’s not a movement against men. It’s about having your own voice, choosing how you want to live your life, taking responsibility for your actions, whether you are a man or a woman.
It also means valuing equally the work of men and women. If a woman chooses to assume a gender traditional role – by looking after the home for instance because she enjoys this work and is good at it – her contribution should be equally valued to a man’s career in business. The same applies to men. This is extremely important to me.
You were previously president of Soroptimist – please tell me about your experience with this organisation.
I’ve always sought out women’s networks. When I first arrived in the Saanenland I joined an organisation called the Frauenforum (women’s forum). It was established in response to the lack of women in regional politics and was focused on political engagement, education and networking.
Then in 2013 the Soroptimist club was founded in the Saanenland and it quickly became clear to me that this was a way for me to develop further connections with women across the region.
Soroptimist is an international organisation focused on humanitarian engagement, giving women and girls the opportunity, choice and power to make healthy decisions for themselves and their families. I attended a Soroptimist conference in Istanbul, where I experienced the true meaning of the woman’s movement. I was so impressed to see what capable and competent women there were in the various clubs around the world and how much they had achieved.
I was honoured to be president of the Gstaad-Saanenland club from 2016 to 2018. Our members come from all walks of life and together we have built up a fantastic network. We discuss topics and work on projects that impact women across the region. I definitely encourage any interested women to contact us.
The Gstaad-Saanenland Soroptimist club recently won an award for a project highlighting domestic violence. Do you think there is greater awareness of domestic violence today?
We were delighted to receive a prize for our exhibition called Welcome Home. This project was the result of fantastic collaboration and close teamwork between different groups in the community, including the church and municipal authorities. There was a great deal of media coverage and we worked with various parties (including schools) to organise tours to the exhibition and highlight awareness.
We picked this really important topic because domestic violence is still considered taboo and rarely discussed. When it occurs, it is often seen as the fault of the woman or the fault of the family or it’s blamed on money problems. But domestic violence affects every corner of society, rich or poor. It is important to speak about it; silence helps to perpetuate the violence. No woman should feel that such violence is in any way tolerated or acceptable.
We should also consider the abuse which occurs without physical violence. In some more traditional regions, there is still a belief that if women speak up and have their own opinions their husbands must be ‘under the thumb’. These are the subtle societal views that are still in place today and can be difficult to overcome.
How do you feel about the future outlook for young women today?
I have the feeling that girls are still more valued for their looks while boys are more valued for what they do, but I also see many positives.
Here in the Saanenland there is an enormous amount of opportunities open to young women. We live in such a prestigious, well-connected region. Young girls have more possibilities than ever before to choose how they want to live their lives, even those who come from what I would call a more traditional family structure.
So I think it’s more a question of what the young women decide to do with the chances they have been given. Do they have the courage and confidence to choose from the vast array of possibilities open to them? Do they make the most of the networking opportunities on offer? Do they trust themselves to really take advantage of all that’s available to them?
Are role models important?
They are extremely important! There are many strong role models available for young girls today, including some quite remarkable women here in the Saanenland, but the problem is that they are not always as visible as the men.
So the question becomes how can we change that? How can we encourage more women to go into the Gemeinderat (municipal council)? Or give young women the courage to fight for other influential posts when they haven’t been brought up to seek such roles?
This is why it’s so important that we work together to make women’s careers more visible. In doing so we show the younger generations how much women are capable of.
How does the women’s rights movement in Switzerland compare to other countries?
There certainly is a woman’s movement here, but it’s taken longer to get going than in other places. Just consider that most cantons didn’t approve women’s right to vote until 1971, with the last following in 1990. This was rather slow.
There are some incredibly strong Swiss women – scientists, journalists, politicians – but they have had to fight very hard for equal rights. And they are still not visible ...
What would your message be to any young people reading this article?
To the young men I would say: do what you can to promote and support women’s careers because a balanced society is a healthy society.
And to the young women: trust your feelings. Understand what it is you want. If something doesn’t feel right, ask yourself why? Don’t subscribe to what other people say you should or shouldn’t do. Take decisions from the perspective of: “yes, that’s what I would like to do, that sounds like fun.” For me it’s most important that we are all able to choose our own path – men and women – not just follow the one assigned by society because of our gender. If we all did this, external role clichés would just fall away.
Finally, I would say it’s such fun to be a woman! There’s unlimited potential in all of us and we’re capable of so much. Go big!