Book cover

Marie, Tilo and Marie-Claire: three of 50 sensational Swiss women from three different periods

Swiss history is replete with exceptional women. A book published this year profiles 50 of them: co-produced by five authors and one illustrator, it is aptly titled 50 Suissesses sensationnelles (50 sensational Swiss women). We have selected the portraits of three Swiss women who, through their convictions and experiences, contributed in their time and continue to do so to this day to advancing the cause of women and gender equality in our society. We hope that these portraits will encourage you to discover others !

Marie-Claire Graf, 1996

The Woman Who Fights for Climate Justice                         

When Marie-Claire Graf first visited the Morteratsch Glacier as a child, she imagined a huge, mighty white beast on the mountainside. She was disappointed. What she saw was a sad, grey, shrivelled-up slab of ice. Marie-Claire learned that over the past hundred years, the glacier had shrunk by over two kilometres and that, year by year, it was shrinking even more. Soon there might be nothing left of one of the longest glaciers in eastern Switzerland. This was the first time that she came face to face with the changes global warming was causing around the world. 


Growing up, Marie-Claire was inspired by people like Bruno Manser, who fought to save the rainforest and its people, and Ursula Brunner, who fought to establish fair trade in Switzerland. She wanted to fight against climate change, but she wasn't sure how. The people around her didn't seem very worried about the topic. She felt lonely and frustrated. 

Marie-Claire Graf


This changed when Marie-Claire moved to Zurich for her studies. Suddenly, she met lots of people who wanted to take action to fight global warming. At their university, they set up a Sustainability Week full of workshops on topics ranging from turtles and plastic pollution to vegan cooking classes. At the end of the week they served a huge zero-waste buffet meal. The buffet was leftover food collected from nearby restaurants in just one evening – food that otherwise would all have been thrown away. 
The week was a huge success. Students at different universities around the world took up the idea, and have now organised their own Sustainability Weeks. 

Marie-Claire attended international climate conferences, but she was still only twenty-two years old. Many people didn't take her seriously. How could she make young people's voices heard ? 

Then, in early December 2018, she met Greta Thunberg at a conference. Six months earlier, Greta had been just a Swedish teenager striking by herself in front of the Swedish parliament. Now she had spoken at the UN and was famous around the world. 

We already have all the solutions to stop the climate crisis. All we need now is courage and determination.

"Why don't you just strike?", Greta suggested. Marie-Claire decided to give it a go. She created a 'school strike' group on her phone. Within hours, hundreds of people had joined the group, and a couple of weeks later, the first school strike took place in Zurich. She knew now that lots of people cared and wanted change. It was just a question of bringing everyone together. So that's what she did.  

In September 2019, six million children worldwide took to the streets, demanding that governments take action to tackle the Climate Crisis. 100,000 people marched in Switzerland alone. Leading the way was Marie-Claire Graf. 

Tilo Frey, 1923–2008 

The Woman Who Broke Barriers

In Neuchâtel, there was once a square that was named after a scientist who tried to prove that white people were superior to people of colour. Different groups around the world followed his racist theories, leading to death and pain for many people. But today, that square is named after someone else. Today, that square is named after Tilo Frey. 

Tilo's father was Swiss and her mother was from Cameroon. She moved with her father to Neuchâtel when she was five, and immediately noticed that she was different. People called her names like 'la négresse', a hateful term that taunted her for being black, and even suggested that she was less than human. Tilo's father wanted her to be safe and fit in as much as possible. He advised her to "act as white as a lily," meaning that she should act like the people around her – who were mostly white. 

Tilo Frey
Tilo Frey


Tilo was always very driven. When she finished her studies, she taught business classes and was even the director of the École Professionnelle des Jeunes Filles. But she was also interested in politics. She was the first woman of colour elected to the Neuchâtel Grand Council in 1969. In 1971, she decided to run for a seat in the National Council. That was unheard of! A mixed-race woman running for one of the highest offices in the country? Her political programme was clear. If elected, she would push for women's rights, but would also help Switzerland build closer relations with other countries – in particular, developing countries.

Women have to do twice as much and then smile.

Unfortunately, the newspapers and TV reporters didn't care about her programme. Instead, they criticised her because of who she was. She had dark skin. She wasn't married. She was ambitious. It scared them. 
Tilo was so certain she was going to lose the election that she went home early on election night. She didn't even bother to stick around to hear the results. But much to everyone's surprise, she did win, and was among the first group of women to ever be elected to the National Council. 

Tilo was so certain she was going to lose the election that she went home early on election night. She didn't even bother to stick around to hear the results. But much to everyone's surprise, she did win, and was among the first group of women to ever be elected to the National Council. 
Tradition had it that members of the National Council wore dark colours in the parliamentary sessions. But for once, Tilo wanted to be white as a lily. This time, it was not to fit in, but to stick out. So she wore white in the sessions. She was one of the first women to be elected to the National Council, and the first person of African descent. She was proud of who she was and decided to dress as she wished. And now, in changing the square to Espace Tilo Frey, the city of Neuchâtel has shown that it too is proud of her. 


Marie Heim Vögtlin, 1845–1916 

The Woman Who Became a Doctor Against All Odds

No matter where she went on the University of Leipzig campus – the lecture hall, the operating room, the clinic – Marie Vögtlin couldn't escape the whistles, boos and insults. In 1873, as the only female student among 3,700 men, she was bullied and harassed, even during classes. Often, it got so bad that professors had her listen to lectures from an adjacent room with the door open. 

Rewind six years. Marie is doing all her work behind closed doors. In Bözen, Aargau, in the late hours of the night while her father is sleeping, the twenty-one-year-old is secretly studying Latin, mathematics and science. She knows her father wouldn't approve of it, but she is determined to get into medical school.The University of Zurich first allowed women to attend classes in 1867, but those who did so were all foreigners. The following year when Marie announced her intentions, there was an uproar. A Swiss woman wanted to go to university! To be a doctor! Articles appeared in newspapers calling her a criminal and mentally unstable. They said women were too weak-minded to learn medicine. Marie was about to prove them all wrong. 

Marie Heim Vögtlin
Marie Heim Vögtlin


Though at first hesitant, her father wound up fully supporting her. Even though she was an adult, she was also a woman, and needed his permission to study. Thanks to his support, she was admitted to the University of Zurich in 1868. She completed her medical studies, then went on to specialise in gynaecology (women's health) by training in Leipzig, Germany. Despite being harassed and taunted there, she never gave up. Marie officially became Switzerland's first woman doctor in 1874. 

I can work with my scalpel as deftly as I can sew with a needle. 

Yet once again, she needed her father's consent; this time, in order to receive a license to practice medicine. After obtaining her license, she opened a gynaecology practice in Zurich. Her dedication and her keen desire to help all women, from the poorest to the richest, made her immensely popular. Women would line up outside her practice early in the morning. They would take their lunch, as the line was often so long that they might have to wait for hours. Wealthy women even paid poorer women to keep their spots in line for them ! 

Despite her success, Zurich authorities still treated her like a child because she was a woman. When she got married in 1875, her husband had to give written approval for her to keep working as a doctor! She had two children and continued working, despite societal pressure to do otherwise. 
In 1901, Marie helped found the first women's clinic and nursing school in Switzerland. The clinic was for women, and was run and staffed by women. For decades, she fought so that women could learn medicine in the lecture hall alongside the other students – where they belonged.