This film tells the story of the lead-up to the 1972 referendum in Switzerland on female suffrage. Yes, astonishingly, until then Swiss women didn’t have the right to vote!
What’s more, there was a law forbidding them to go to work outside the family home without the permission of a husband or male guardian, a fact unknown to the central character Nora until she decides she wants more out of life than washing the socks and being general domestic dogsbody to her all male household – husband, father-in-law and two sons. It’s this discovery that sets Nora on her path to becoming the unofficial leader of the “women’s libbers” in the small semi-rural community in which the story is set and in which that phrase is a term of abuse.
The trailer, with its scenes of handbag-toting ladies scoring verbal points off grumpy old coots, had led me to expect a simple uplifting storyline something like Harper Valley PTA, where the free-spirited female scores an effortless moral victory over her hypocritical male persecutors with some well-aimed sarcasm.
But The Divine Order is surprisingly serious and powerful. I don’t know how the debate played out in the larger urban centres where the absence of female suffrage might have been regarded as an embarrassing historical anachronism that was about to be fixed up. Indeed we see Nora briefly visiting Zurich where she is encouraged by the sight of dozens of women marching in the streets (and in a delightfully played scene experiences a more personal awakening when she attends one of those ‘examine-you-own-vagina’ workshops conducted by a hippy-ish Swedish lady clad in flowing robes).
But out here in the village the revolutionary nature of what the women are demanding arouses an antagonism among the men that is quite scary at times, and one of the film’s strengths is the way it focusses on the consequences of Nora’s activism in the domestic sphere, where so much is at stake: her otherwise loving husband is goaded by his tyrannical father and by his workmates as a henpecked pussy, and even more heartbreakingly for Nora her little boys are tormented by their schoolmates on her account.
Another thing to like about this movie – I wonder if it’s a Swiss thing? – is to have ordinary-looking actors playing the main roles. Nora is no beauty, and come to think of it there’s no one in the cast you would describe as good-looking, except perhaps the Italian divorcee whose restaurant becomes something of an HQ for the women. And Nora’s husband is reasonably tasty. Thank God he – spoiler alert! – ends up seeing the error of his ways.
It’s now a matter of historical record that the referendum was won in a majority of Swiss cantons. But I was astonished to learn, via a footnote to the film, that at least one canton held out to the 1990s before allowing women the right to vote!
Four stars from me.