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Swiss women tell own story of migration to US

Susann Bosshard-Kälin researched an area of migration that had been neglected MC Bonzom

The history of the immigration of Swiss women to the United States is finally being told in written form.

“Westward: Encounters with Swiss-American Women” by Susann Bosshard-Kälin is the first book to uncover the “ordinary and unique” experience of these women.

 So when Bosshard-Kälin started work on her book in 2007, she had very few bibliographical sources on which to base her research.

“There are not a lot of documents about women immigrants and none about Swiss women who immigrated to the United States in the 20th century,” the author told in Washington, where she was presenting her book.

Based on dozens of hours of meetings, the book comprises 15 portraits of women who left Switzerland for the US between 1940 and 1965.

In addition to compiling these stories of women’s immigration in the 20th century, Bosshard-Kälin asked Leo Schelbert – a specialist in the history of immigration to the US, which he taught for 32 years at the University of Illinois – to tell the story of four Swiss women who crossed the Atlantic in the 18th and 19th centuries.

It was in fact Schelbert who suggested the idea of writing the book. “This book is important because  the history of Swiss immigration was a man’s story until now,” he said.

The history of Swiss women’s migration to the US, as told in the book, is both “ordinary and unique”, Schelbert says in one of the essays he edited for this book.

“These women are not historical figures, they’re not famous, but they lived successes and defeats between two countries, cultures and languages,” noted Bosshard-Kälin.

“The people I’ve met during my lectures about the book tell me that they can really compare their lives to the lives of these women and people are touched by immigration stories which are, above all, human stories, stories about a journey and a quest.”

Adventurous by nature

One of these ordinary and unique women is Rosa Schupbach-Lechner, who arrived in the US from Zurich on her own in 1959. Aged 31, she only intended to stay four months.

“But I got captivated by New York, by American life, and America offered me many more opportunities that I didn’t have as a woman in Switzerland at the time,” she said.

“I’m not afraid, I came here not with a man, brother or husband. I came here alone as a single woman, I didn’t know a soul in the United States and so I had nobody to rely on except myself.”

With evident pride, she talks about completing her studies in New York, having several jobs – big and small – and marrying an American and being widowed shortly after.

Now about to turn 83, she is vice-president of the Swiss American Historical Society and recently received a certificate from the mayor of New York for 30 years of service as a volunteer police assistant.

“I patrol New York City streets at night with another volunteer at least twice a week, we don’t carry a gun, we only have a radio to link us up to the police station. But three volunteer auxiliary police officers were killed a few years ago, so we  wear bullet proof vests,” she said, with no sign of anxiety.

Schupbach-Lechner,who describes herself as “adventurous by nature”, clearly considers the US her home.

“Home is where my friends are, where my jobs – all unpaid – are, it’s where I feel comfortable, where I feel happy, and for me, that’s here in the United States,” she said.

“Switzerland is fine but it’s not really home for me, all my family is gone, I only have descendants of cousins and a few good friends there.”

Yet even someone as adventurous as Schupbach-Lechner admits to being “torn between Switzerland and the United States”.  

“When I’m here in the United States, I want to be there, and when I’m in Switzerland, I want to be here.”

“Some of these women are only attached to the United States, others are attached to both countries, but all of them have a part of their heart in Switzerland because they spent their youth there,” said Bosshard-Kälin.

“Westward: Encounters with Swiss American Women” is the first book written on the history of Swiss woman migrants to the US. The original version, in German, was published in 2009.

The volume is published by the Swiss American Historical Society, with the support of the Museum of the Swiss Abroad in Penthes, Geneva.

Long history: Between 1700 and 2009 some 460,000 Swiss emigrated to the US. The number of Americans with Swiss roots is estimated at more than one million.

75,252 Swiss live in the US (2010 figure), more than 10% of the Swiss resident abroad.

Diplomatic relations: Switzerland opened its first consulates in Washington and New York in 1822. Sixty years later it opened its first embassy outside Europe in Washington.

Intermediary: Switzerland represents American interests in Iran and Cuba, and Cuban interests in Washington.

Enterprises: More than 550 Swiss firms have a base in the US, employing 400,000 people.

(Translated from French by Morven McLean)

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR