The first women’s wrestling event in Aeschi bei Spiez attracted some 15,000 spectators (of both sexes).
The first women’s wrestling event in Aeschi bei Spiez attracted some 15,000 spectators (of both sexes). ETH Library Zurich

Fighting in and out of the ring

Schwingen, the traditional, homegrown style of wrestling, is as much a part of Switzerland as chocolate and watches. At least, as long as it’s men who are donning the breeches. But when it comes to women’s involvement in the sport, it’s a whole different story ‒ one that has caused quite a few scandals.

Chiara Zgraggen

Chiara Zgraggen

Chiara Zgraggen is a journalist and history student at the University of Lucerne and works as a research assistant at Swiss Sports History and the Institute Cultures of the Alps.

Aeschi bei Spiez, a sleepy village in the Bernese Oberland bordering on 2,000 inhabitants, is a place where all seems right in the world. A place that, even today, could be the setting for one of the rural dramas popularised by 19th-century novelist Jeremias Gotthelf. And the very place that is the starting point of a story in which women donned belted breeches in 1980 to wage war on a bastion of manhood. On one side, the women who, like their brothers and fathers, longed to compete in the ring. Facing them on the other, their opponents, who were unable to reconcile the mental image of women in baggy jute wrestling breeches with the surrounding Alpine scenery. It was all too much to contemplate. It is significant that the push by women to muscle in on the sport first emerged in rural areas, given that traditional Swiss wrestling owes its growing popularity to the urban population. But that’s another story.
Aeschi bei Spiez, pictured in 1988.
Aeschi bei Spiez, pictured in 1988. ETH Library Zurich
On 15 August 1980, the Brückenbauer magazine (now the Migros-Magazin) published an article that opened with the words “One of the last, and sturdiest, male bastions is in danger”. The reason for the article: one week before the Eidgenössische Schwingfest, the Federal Swiss Wrestling Festival, was due to be held in St. Gallen, women were planning to stage a wrestling event of their own, for the very first time, in Aeschi bei Spiez. This “curious occurrence” led the Brückenbauer to conduct an interview with Hans Bäni, the then head of the Federal Swiss Wrestling Association, the Eidgenössischer Schwingerverband. While the journalist’s questions were reasonably neutral, Bäni’s answers come across as emotionally charged. He admitted that the association was not keen on the idea, “as we believe that Swiss wrestling is a sport which is not necessarily intended for women and for which they are not particularly suited.” In response to the question of whether women’s wrestling had any hope of a future, he answered: “I, personally, consider the whole thing to be more or less a joke.” He went on to say that he would certainly not be sending any delegates to the event, as the competition in Aeschi bei Spiez was a “maverick” event. Neither did he believe that women’s wrestling had a future. In that point, he was to be proven right – except regarding the first women’s event.
Interview about women’s wrestling in the Brückenbauer magazine of 15 August 1980.
Interview about women’s wrestling in the Brückenbauer magazine of 15 August 1980. e-newspaperarchives
In his 2019 book “Schwere Kerle rollen besser” [Rolling with the Bad Boys], journalist Linus Schöpfer describes the first gathering of female wrestlers as the “Woodstock of women’s traditional wrestling”. And the 1980 festival in Aeschi bei Spiez has indeed remained the highpoint of women’s involvement in the sport thus far. The event in the Bernese Oberland attracted an audience of between 10,000 and 15,000. An economic windfall for the surrounding villages, where beer, cigarettes and cigars apparently sold out within a short space of time. “It was a real invasion. We never imagined that so many people would come along to watch. And we lost a lot of money because we hadn’t bought in enough food and drink,” one of the organisers, Dora Hari, recalled 40 years later in an interview with the Blick daily newspaper. It’s not clear why such a huge crowd chose to attend the very first Frauenschwinget. Unlike the (mostly male) reactions, which are as clear as day. Take Paul Dätwyler, for example. The then Chairman of the Basel Swiss Wrestling Association’s Anniversary Committee wrote in “75 Jahre Schwinger-Verband Basel-Stadt”, a publication issued in 1982 to mark the association’s first 75 years in existence: “However, the sawdust ring is no place for women! Sights such as that belong in a circus or variety show, but not in a wrestling arena.” He believed that the women, “who could more aptly be described as cavorting around than actually wrestling”, shouldn’t expose the sport to ridicule. Women’s wrestling as an object of curiosity remained a rather entrenched attitude, even after the major success of the event in Aeschi bei Spiez.
Women’s wrestling remains controversial in certain circles to this day. YouTube
And what happened next? The Eidgenössischer Schwingerverband still writes on its website today that prior to the foundation of the Women’s Swiss Wrestling Association in 1992 women merely practised the sport in secret at home with their brothers. However, this was not actually the case, as demonstrated by an article in Der Bund newspaper on 24 August 1981: another women’s wrestling festival was held in Aeschi bei Spiez in mid-August 1981, this time attracting around 2,000 spectators. Emulating the tone of those seeking to dismiss women’s wrestling as an aberrance, a journalist from Der Bund surmised that the drop in visitor numbers was due to the fact that the previous year’s event had satisfied the crowd’s craving for sensation. And he went on to conjecture that the disappointment in the sporting level on display at the first women’s wrestling festival must have been too great. Nevertheless, the female wrestlers went on to form their own association in 1992. However, this did not lead to increased acceptance.

No desire for men and women to share a Swiss wrestling festival

A lot was happening in 2006, both in Switzerland and elsewhere in the world – Montenegro and Serbia declared their independence, avian flu reached Switzerland, Michael Schumacher ended his career, and driving operations for the NEAT railway link through the Alps got underway. Things were happening in the sport of Swiss wrestling too: women and men fought in the same sawdust ring for the first time at a regional wrestling competition in Ried in the canton of Fribourg on 14 May of that year. In an interview with the Freiburger Nachrichten newspaper on the occasion of the festival, Irène Bodenmann-Meli, daughter of top Swiss wrestler Karl Meli, stated that she felt acceptance of women’s wrestling had grown since the sport’s humble beginnings in 1980. “Things have improved since people realised that we can do more than just bake cakes.” However, that acceptance remains muted in Swiss wrestling circles even now in the 21st century. For example, the competition in the canton of Fribourg was not without consequences for the local wrestling club: it received a reprimand from the Federal Swiss Wrestling Association and was called upon to refrain from organising any further festivals where women lined up alongside men. The Kerzers-based club agreed for the sake of its members, not wishing to put any obstacles in their way. Women were no longer allowed to take part in 2007. A decision that was not universally welcomed. One editor at the Murtenbieter newspaper commenting on 19 January 2007 on women’s participation in the “scandalous festival” of 2006 wrote: “More than 1,000 enthusiastic spectators attended this event, indicating that it is high time for the association to open up.”
Even in the 21st century, traditional Swiss wrestling largely remains a male preserve.
Even in the 21st century, traditional Swiss wrestling largely remains a male preserve. Swiss National Museum
Acceptance of women’s wrestling is higher now than it was when the Federal Women’s Swiss Wrestling Association was founded in 1992, as is shown, among other things, by the way in which the sport is now reported. While Swiss TV soundtracked a 1992 item on the first official Federal Swiss Wrestling Festival with the song “It’s A Man’s World” by James Brown, today’s media houses are not so judgmental in their reporting. But differences remain ‒ in financial matters for example; at the 2022 Federal Swiss Wrestling Festival in Pratteln ‘wrestler king’ Joel Wicki was able to take his pick from donated goods worth over CHF 1,000,000, while the prizes available to the women came closer to CHF 25,000. That this could be a sign of the lesser acceptance of women’s wrestling by the sponsors is just one possible explanation. The history of Swiss wrestling, especially Jörg Abderhalden’s crowning as Swiss Personality of the Year in 2007, shows that the “sturdy bastion of manhood” has been growing in popularity in recent years. Women’s wrestling has done nothing to curb the sport’s rise to prominence. Quite the opposite.

Swiss Sports History

This text was produced in collaboration with Swiss Sports History, the portal for the history of sports in Switzerland. The portal focuses on education in schools and information for the media, researchers and the general public. Find out more at

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