Craig Smith reviews Voting Day by Clare O’Dea from Fairlight Books
In winter 1959, the Swiss voters – all of them men – took part in a referendum to decide whether Swiss women should be allowed to vote in future referendums. Of a million voters, 2/3rds voted against it. As a consequence, Swiss women had to wait until 1971 to have a say in their own affairs.
Voting Day is a thoroughly enjoyable, thoroughly maddening novella that follows four women as they go about their business on the day of that 1959 referendum. The women are from a variety of backgrounds and histories, and the book explores the effect the referendum has upon them, both the immediate effect and the less direct.
Vreni is a farmer’s wife who travels from her smallholding in the country for an operation in Bern. She spends part of the day with her daughter, Margrit, who works in an office in downtown Bern. They spend the pocket money that Peter, Vreni’s husband, slips to Vreni to treat herself on the trip. Esther is a cleaner at the hospital where Vreni is due to have her operation. Esther was born into a Yenish family and was placed into care as a child under the auspices of the Kinder der Landstrasse programme. Beatrice, the hospital administrator who found work for Esther among the hospital staff, has been working on the campaign to influence the suffrage referendum. Each woman is dogged by bad luck, tough decisions, and, invariably, the dubious influence of men who do not necessarily have their best interests at heart.
Each tale is beautifully told by first time author, Clare O’Dea, who skilfully depicts the character of each woman and spins the connections between them into a compelling, coherent narrative. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that eventually – eventually – there is a happy ending. In the meantime, each must draw upon their resilience, bravery, and initiative in order to make their lives palatable, workable, bearable, even liveable. Indeed, they achieve most when they pool their resources to circumvent seemingly insurmountable odds.
Three of the four women do not believe the vote will benefit their lives. They are too lost in the routine drudgery of everyday existence, or fighting off the unwanted attentions of their boss, or striving to maintain a roof over their loved one’s heads after being deserted by their husband, to comprehend how their lot in life might be improved by access to the ballot box.
‘The way women are brought up to practically run a hotel for their men and consider that the height of achievement.’
Their energy is expended on the daily grind as they contend with the grief and anger of a life of disappointment. As such, they have never been shown the advantage of being allowed to vote.
Instead, they let men decide what happens in their country. Even in the enlightened offices of the women’s voting committee, they brandish a letter of solidarity from General Guisan, ‘the most respected man in Switzerland’. The women know they cannot do it alone. All they can do is all Swiss women could ever do, which is persuade and influence. They pin their dreams on the hope that the male populace will be far-sighted enough to accept that women deserve a say in proceedings and, as a consequence, will support their cause, that enough men will understand the value to the nation of women’s equality.
‘More like the embarrassment of Europe,’ Marcel retorted, his cheeks flushed with indignation. ‘Are Swiss women not as clever as French women or German women or Austrian women…?’
There are men who get it but, sadly, too many that do not.
The Vote as Democracy
Voting Day reminds us that the vote is a fundamental component of democracy which should be available to all. Sadly, there will always be someone who wishes to take away our right to vote or, in the case of Voting Day, not grant it in the first place.
They will claim that a particular demographic is too feeble-minded to choose wisely. They will suggest that certain people do not know enough about the background to an issue, are not educated to a high enough level, are not vested enough in the community or country to warrant being given the choice. They cite voter fraud as an excuse to put barriers in the way of demographics they wish to disenfranchise. Or they gerrymander the constituencies to co-opt more seats to their own cause, or they rig the result, as First Past The Post does, so votes cast for unelected candidates have little meaning. And we, as a society, let them do it because we might not see how the issues affect us, or because we might think all politicians are venal and corrupt, or because we believe we have more important things to do with our time than vote, or we think the decisions that control our lives are better made by entitled people with historic agency. But voting is integral to our place in society, and we must guard it, fervently.
In Voting Day, the result of the vote comes in the middle of the final chapter. Beatrice hears from her brother how badly the ‘yes’ vote was defeated. As readers, we know this will happen. Beatrice does not, and it hits her hard.
She thought she had braced herself for this, but hope will always wriggle in, that treacherous friend.
Beatrice has actively worked for the vote. She is in a position to be a driver of change because she was brought up with enough privilege to see that change is possible and important. It is to her credit that she chooses to use her privilege to find solutions for other people’s problems rather than to flatter her own self-importance. And even as a woman from an affluent family, she has had to fight for the opportunity to set her own goals in life. Beatrice always cared for the needy whenever she was able. But she does not realise how angry she is until the vote goes against them.
… it felt like a death. On her vote committee they’d been rushing around frantically like doctors trying to save a patient – leafleting, letter-writing, getting the best women in the country on the case, racking their brains for ideas. But the patient never had a chance.
But once the incandescence of her fury has died down, she channels her indignation into finding a practical solution to solve at least one woman’s problems. The campaign has unleashed a drive in her, catalysed by the confederacy of her counterparts in the movement. Through them, she has found a sense of purpose and belonging that spurs her on to improve the fates of those around her.
Nature Versus Nurture
The three boys were all the same size now, built wide and not too tall like their father.
There are four women featured in Voting Day, but in the background is one young boy whose fate is key to each of their lives. Ruedi is emblematic of the need for a kinder, more considerate country. He’s proof that, if you empower women, the entire nation – women and men – will be brought up to be more compassionate, more appreciative, more open.
And therein lies hope, because it is nurture that will determine the boy’s future attitudes, not a primeval self-absorbed nature that society believes cannot be amended. He will be a product of his mother’s time and attention, a mother who learned the hard way how self-centred men can be if they are not encouraged to be sensitive to the needs of others. So Ruedi is an experiment of sorts, wherein the author wishes to prove the hypothesis that decency breeds decency, compassion breeds compassion, love breeds love. I am confident that she is right.
We can only be the people our nations allow us to be. Through Voting Day, O’Dea explains how the wrongs of the past still haunt the present. But there’s always hope, even when circumstances are at their most desperate. Society moves, slow but surely, toward openness and democracy. Oppression is always temporary, even if it seems like a permanent state for those beneath its yolk. The novel teaches us that the world is kinder than sometimes it may seem.
And hope lies at the heart of Voting Day, which is why I would recommend it. Though it does not shy away from the brutality of showing how lightly power can be wielded by greedy people, or how even good people cannot understand their privilege or the cruelty of denying others the opportunities they themselves enjoy, ultimately, this is a kind, heartening story. There is redemption, for individuals and for entire countries. We know Swiss women, after much campaigning, heartache, pain and suffering, won the right to vote in 1971. And once the door was opened, everyone – however previously put upon – had the chance to step through.
Buy Voting Day Here