First and foremost, Pro Helvetia is a Board of Trustees, originally consisting of 25 members, and a permanent secretariat which saw considerable development over the years. In 2011, the foundation was reorganised in accordance with the new Culture Promotion Act, and its board was reduced to 9 trustees.
From 1939 to 2011, the 25 members of Pro Helvetia resembled an extraparliamentiary Federal commission, nominated by the Federal council for a term of four years. While one member of the board was appointed president of the foundation by the Federal authority, the rest of the working group shared out the tasks among themselves. The first among them (there were two from 1978 on ) was put in charge of the question of Swiss cultural influence abroad. Beside the Federal Commission of Fine Arts and the National Commission for UNESCO, Pro Helvetia is the only organisation acting on a federal level in regard to international cultural relations.
Between 1939 and 2009, 237 people were trustees of Pro Helvetia, 50 of them women. Only 50? We must remember that before 1971 Swiss women did not have the right to vote in a country, where citizens are called to the ballot-box four times a year. Who then were those famous exceptions, invited to play such an important role in Swiss cultural policy? There are not many great personalities to be found in a country which dislikes extraordinary talents, great men and, obviously even more: great women. Unsurprisingly those who over the years were members of Pro Helvetia remain virtually unknown. Who remembers Maria Trüeb, Berthe de Cérenville or even Michelle Cuénod-de Muralt? The first, journalist for the magazine “Die Schweizerin” and working for women’s suffrage in Luzern, was a member from 1939 to 1956. The second, who was with Pro Helvetia only from 1939 to 1943, ran the private school “Vinet” in Lausanne. The third, her successor until 1952, was vice-president of the Alliance of Swiss women’s organisations.
At close sight, a fair amount of “firsts” can be found at Pro Helvetia. Irma Tschudi, who served as a trustee from 1956 to 1960, was the first woman to receive a post-doctoral degree at the Faculty of Natural Sciences in Basel. Vérène Borsinger, who worked with the Board from 1956 to 1965, was the first Swiss woman to be elected judge of the penal court in Basel, 1953. Margrit Bigler-Eggenberger, having joined Pro Helvetia in 1970, was the first female Federal judge. Lise Girardin, nominated for the board at the same time, was the first female mayor of Geneva in 1968 and became the first female member of the Swiss Council of States in 1971.
Jeanne Hersch’s profile is as atypical as perhaps amazing. When appointed to the Board of Trustees in 1960, the philosopher was already recognised as a moral authority and first class intellectual in Switzerland as well as abroad. Professor at the University of Geneva, she travelled a lot and was also campaigning for the Union of European Federalists. 1961, she was nominated for the National Commission for UNESCO. In January 1960, she was asked to head the new Division of Philosophy of UNESCO in Paris, where she remained until 1968.
The majority of women were appointed to Pro Helvetia because of their participation in a great number of networks. Alice Briod, member of Pro Helvetia from 1953 to 1959 was director of the Secretariat of the Swiss Abroad at the same time. Hortense Anda-Bührle was a shareholder of Oerlikon-Bührle, but also a rich patron. She was with Pro Helvetia from 1960 to 1970, the date of her resignation coinciding with the scandal which tarnished her family’s reputation. Her brother had been found guilty of delivery of arms to South Africa and Nigeria.
It was not until the 1990es that women directly involved with the arts were appointed to Pro Helvetia. For example Maryse Fuhrmann, luthier by profession and director of “L'Opéra Décentralisé Neuchâtel”, dancer and choreographer Anne-Marie Parekh between 1993 and 2004 and, between 2006 and 2009 the conductor Graziella Contratto.
So far, only two women have presided Pro Helvetia. The first was Rosemarie Simmen, former member of the Council of the States for the canton of Solothurn, who served as a president between 1990 and 1997. Then, between 1998 and 2005, there was Yvette Jaeggi, former Member of Parliament and mayor of Lausanne. Still, for now no woman has been nominated director of the foundation.
2012, Pro Helvetia was restructured and its Board of Trustees reduced to nine members, three of which are women.