Swiss perspectives in 10 languages

Women were “stationary engine” of migration

"A fall in the mountains" (1859) by Ticino artist Giovanni Antonio Vanoni

Hard hit by the emigration of their menfolk in the mid-19th century, the valleys of Italian-speaking Switzerland became a domain of women.

In the absence of their husbands, these women played a key role in alpine communities, taking on the toughest jobs and managing day-to-day affairs.

Women are not normally thought of as playing an important role in the mountain environment – taking second place to men, who figure prominently in the popular imagination as mountaineers, smugglers or emigrants.

The evidence of women’s activities is scanty, seen as it was through the eyes of those who held power, kept the official records, and therefore determined whether they were remembered or not.

Silent bystanders in a typically masculine environment, their role was often perceived and presented as accessory: they provided support, but their activities were secondary to those performed by men. The stereotypical image is that of the energetic housewife, or the peasant woman bent under a heavy burden.

Recent research, however, shows that the truth is more complex. Women were not just “beasts of burden”, to use a term that often crops up in contemporary accounts. With self-abnegation, courage and initiative, they filled the gap left by the male exodus.

“Women paid the real price of emigration,” points out Giorgio Cheda, historian and expert on emigration from Ticino.

From peasants to businesswomen

Seasonal or long-term emigration caused a serious imbalance in alpine communities in the late 19th century.

In 1870, explains Cheda, there was a very large disparity between the sexes, with women outnumbering men by two to one in some areas. At Corippo in Val Verzasca, for instance, there were 146 men and 148 women in 1850; 20 years later, the figures were 54 and 108 respectively.

“The departure of the menfolk obliged women to undertake a whole series of tasks, some of them very physically demanding,” explains historian Marina Cavallera, of Milan University.

It fell to the wife to manage the work in the fields, care for the livestock on the mountain pastures, safeguard the family property and look after the children. “As well as playing an active part in the economic life of the village as farmers, nurses or labourers, they took on new tasks of an entrepreneurial or cultural kind. A good number of women abandoned farming to manage small businesses, or bought property with the money remitted by their fathers or husbands who had emigrated overseas.

Despite the distance, the men continued to depend on their womenfolk, not only for moral support and affection, but also in economic and social matters. “A woman who stayed in the village – notes Cavallera – was transformed into a “stationary engine” around which daily life revolved, giving those who had emigrated a further reason for one day returning home.


Paradoxically, then, life in the mountains gave women “the opportunity to experience an unusual degree of independence, with more room for manoeuvre that they would have enjoyed in a city environment,” explains Nelly Valsangiacomo, assistant professor at Lausanne University.

“Performing functions vital to the continuity and support of their families – continues the Ticino-born historian – women made a decisive contribution to the preservation of alpine society, as custodians of its identity, history and traditions”.

They also took the key decisions regarding the education and socialisation of the younger generation. And this was effectively a mission to set people free in a rural society where illiteracy was more the norm than the exception.

Story in waiting

We should not, however, be deceived by the central position of women in alpine communities, and their relative freedom of action, stresses historian and teacher Susanna Castelletti. The world of the Ticino and Graubünden valleys was distinctly bi-polar, with a clear subdivision of responsibilities.

“Only the men were able to acquire vocational skills: they could therefore leave home in search of new opportunities. The women, on the other hand, owned next to nothing and were completely tied down.

Officially, women could have no money of their own and needed the permission of their father or husband to run any kind of business. In practice, though, the departure of the men meant that women managed the family’s financial affairs, albeit with supervision from relatives.

The initiative, courage and perseverance of thousands of women therefore kept alive the Ticino and Graubünden valleys and the villages of the neighbouring Valtellina. The lack of manpower was offset by the ability of many women to make the best possible use of the money sent home by emigrants. As guardians of tradition and channels of oral and written history, these women have handed down to us the evidence of a little-known world.

The story of the women of our valleys is one of love and suffering, a story each of us has benefited from, but which still awaits its “historian”.

swissinfo, Stefania Summermatter

There are a number of contemporary accounts bearing witness to the difficult conditions in which the women of the Italian-Swiss valleys lived in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. “We saw (…) heavily pregnant young women succumb under am almost double burden, and exhausted mothers seemed to be dragging those delicious grapes to their graves. And among them, not a man to lend a hand,” wrote the Danish poetess Federica Brunn.

In official documents we read that, “for women there are neither schools nor public education. They are born, live and die like two-legged animals”.

Also of great interest is the account of the Lavizzara-based doctor Angelo Pometta, who in 1862 noted that the young brides of Brontallo (Valle Maggia) and their babies were always in mortal danger in childbirth (source: Giorgio Cheda).

As they were obliged to bear heavy burdens from a very young age, many women suffered from serious malformations of the pelvis.

“…since the local people are obliged, from childhood, to carry everything they need on their shoulders, climbing up and down, they put continuous pressure on their sacrum. This inhibits its proper development at the rear and restricts the diameter of the pelvis between sacrum and pelvis: hence the aforementioned difficulty in delivering women who are certainly not suffering from rickets”.

Most Discussed

In compliance with the JTI standards

More: SWI certified by the Journalism Trust Initiative

You can find an overview of ongoing debates with our journalists here . Please join us!

If you want to start a conversation about a topic raised in this article or want to report factual errors, email us at

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR