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Stories & Secrets

  • Writer's pictureSamantha Aeschbach

HERstories - Women History in Zurich - Volume 1

Updated: May 31

The Stories of the Four Annas that Sealed Zurich's Fate Forever

Fraumunster church and the guild yum meisen with a fiery sunsent in the background
Fraumunster and the Zufthaus zum Meisen (Guild)

An Insider's Guide

Dear Cultured and Curious Traveler,

In this article, you are not just a mere tourist but a time traveler, delving deep into the inspiring stories of women whose resilience and ingenuity made an enduring impact on Swiss history and profoundly shaped Zurich's identity.

As we explore Zurich from HB to Niederdorf, we notice a conspicuous absence: where are the monuments celebrating these extraordinary women?

Fear not, for I'll introduce HERstories in a small collection, shining a light on both the famed and the forgotten figures, as Zurich's history appears to be selective in its memory...

In this first compilation, we encounter the occasionally amusing world narrative. It seems that the name Anna was a secret code for "extraordinary woman" in Zurich. So, let's meet this quartet of Annas and hear their story—HERstory.

Anna Pestalozzi-Schulthess (1738–1815)-motherly love

portrait of a woman with a white head cover
Detail of Anna Pestalozzi-Schulthess portrait - G.Schöner, 1804

In the heart of Zurich's exclusive shopping street, Bahnhofstrasse stands the statue of Heinrich Pestalozzi, the world-respected and famous educational reformer.

Yet, I want to share with you today not Heinrich's legacy but the one of Anna Pestalozzi-Schulthess, a woman of immeasurable love, devotion, and resilience who humbly emerges from behind her husband's monument.

Born into a wealthy family, yet in a world bound by rigid conventions and abusive parents, Anna's life unfolds in timid defiance and true love.

She chooses the less traveled path, a lonely one, when she marries Heinrich against her family's uncompromising orders, leaving her house with nothing more than what she carries.

Beyond the threshold of their home, she was the linchpin that held their miserable existence together, managing their household, saving them from bankruptcy several times, and lovingly nurturing the many children they took under their wing as part of Heinrich's educational experiments.

Her unwavering support was the bedrock upon which Heinrich built his legacy. Her belief in his vision was unshakeable even as they navigated the storm of financial insecurity and society's side-eye glances.

In her later years, she was affectionately dubbed "Mother Pestalozzi," a testament to her role as the soul of their home and the broader educational community they fostered together.

Her legacy endures as a silent testament to the indomitable spirit of a woman who, alongside her husband, helped lay the foundations for modern education. The power of love.

Anna saves the day! Well, the entire city of Zurich! (15th Century CE)

In the very soul of Zurich, ancient cobblestones whisper tales of yesteryear, and Rennweg unfurls as a street not just of commerce but of legends and ... heroines!

The Rennwegtor beginning of the 16th century - Drawing by J. C. Weissmüller
The Rennwegtor beginning of the 16th century - Drawing by J. C. Weissmüller

Imagine a time when this bustling artery was the city's lifeline, a vibrant nexus where the industrious hum of artisans filled the air, horses raced, and the street's name echoed since the 11th century.

Yet, amidst the chronicles of trade and tradition, a singular act of bravery emerges!

The stage is set in the midst of the Old Zurich War, a period marked by turmoil and the cacophony of battle.

The city finds itself on the precipice of invasion following the battle of St. Jakob an der Sihl on that fateful day, July 22, 1443. The city's mayor, Rudolf Stüssi, dies on the battlefield.

Enter Anna Ziegler, the gatekeeper's wife, a woman whose name was destined to be engraved in the annals of heroism. She just did not know it yet.

The city's men away, the Rennwegtor (city's gate) unmanned, Anna stands alone between her beloved Zurich and the advancing Confederates, their victory fueling their unrelenting march.

The air is thick with tension, and with the enemy at the gates, Anna seizes the moment with unwavering resolve to protect her home, her people, and her city.

She lowers the gate's portcullis with her heart pounding deafeningly in her ears! And yet, never did the finality of that heavy gate's thundering sound as it crashed down ring more beautiful to Anna's ears. Her swift, solitary act of bravery ensured Zurich's safety and secured its future.

This extraordinary deed did not go unrecognized. In Zurich's tax register of 1467, a revealing entry stands as a testament to Anna's heroism: "Alt Ziegler sin wip gratis." Anna is now exempt from taxes, a rare honor that underscored the depth of the city's appreciation.

Anna Ziegler's story vividly reminds us that history is not merely shaped by the glorious actions of the many but also by the bold, decisive acts of the few.

Anna Waser (1678-1714)-Baroque Artist

Our next story unfolds in the dim streets of Niederdorf, on the right side of the Limmat River, where history whispers through the narrow bohemian alleys and the air is thick with tales long forgotten.

Here, just beside the H. Schwarzenbach Store, a place where time stood still amidst jars of spices and freshly roasted coffee from a world long past, stands a modest reminder.

A plaque in honor of Anna Waser
Anna Waser's Commemorative Plaque

This unpretentious plaque marks the memory of Anna Waser, a beacon of talent in an era that scarcely knew what to make of a woman in a society where the quill and brush were still deemed the sole purview of men. One of Switzerland's first renowned female painters.

Born into the twilight of the 17th century, Anna's life was a canvas upon which the stormy hues of passion, art, and tragedy were painted.

Defying the rigid mores that sought to confine her, Anna's father saw the flicker of genius in his daughter's young eyes. He did what few others dared— he nurtured that spark, setting Anna on a path that would lead her far beyond the stifling expectations of her time.

Under the tutelage of Johan Sulzer and, later, the astounded Joseph Werner in Bern, Anna's talent blossomed. The maturity and depth of her brushstrokes captured the essence of life with a vibrancy that belied her tender years.

As commissions from the highest echelons of society began to adorn her portfolio, including works for tsars and queens, Anna's star seemed destined only to rise high in the firmament.

Yet, fate, capricious and cruel, had other plans. The call of familial duty summoned her back to Zurich, dimming the bright promise of further studies in Paris.

In 1708, amidst the shadows of a lingering depression, Anna reached out to Jacob von Sandrart, seeking to engrave her name into the annals of art history through his lexicon. Alas, his death extinguished that window of opportunity.

And when hope's ember was rekindled five years later by the invitation of Jean-Antoine Watteau to join him in Paris, a cruel twist of fate. A tragic fall from a decayed staircase snatched away her dreams, her life. Her bright star extinguished.

In the heart of Niederdorf, amidst the echoes of a city that marches relentlessly forward, the memory of Anna Waser invites us to pause, to reflect, and to wonder at the fleeting beauty of life and art, forever captured in the brushstrokes of a woman whose journey was as heartbreakingly beautiful as it was tragically short.

oil painting of a youg women
Self Portrait @ the Kunsthaus

Tip: Her legacy, encapsulated in a self-portrait painted at the tender age of 12, hangs amidst old masters at the Kunsthaus and speaks volumes of her depth and vision.

Anna Zwingli-Reinhart (1484–1538) - my story

Beneath the towering spires of the Grossmünster, my story unfolds—a tale intertwining the threads of faith, defiance, and love.

a golden plaque in honour of Anna Zwingli Reinhart
Anna Zwingli's commemorative plaque @ Helmhaus Hotel

I am Anna Zwingli-Reinhart, a name often overshadowed by my husband, Huldrych Zwingli, the spearhead of the Swiss Reformation. Yet, within the echoes of our city's tumultuous past, my journey resonates with its own hymn, marked by the profound devotion and resilience that shaped my life.

My heart dared to dream of a love that transcended the boundaries set before me. I was so lucky to encounter such love with John von Knonau, a union forged not from convenience but from a genuine connection and affection that defied the norms of our time.

Our secret vows, as I married against our family's will, brought me a happiness that was all too ephemeral. At 33 years young I am a widow with three young souls to shepherd in a world that showed little mercy to a woman alone.

It was amidst these hardships that Huldrych Zwingli entered my life—no, he marched into my life. His mere presence is an embrace of hope and understanding.

Our paths crossed initially through the tutelage of my son, Gerold, a bond that deepened into a love and respect that transcended the conventional. Imagine a widow and a priest!

In 1522, we united in a secret marriage, my second one! It was an act of defiance against the chains of clerical celibacy, igniting a flame of controversy and gossip that would burn far beyond the confines of Zurich. That would ultimately shape the world!

Together, our home became a sanctuary for our family as I gave birth to four wonderful children and welcomed all those seeking refuge from the religious storm of change sweeping across Europe.

My life, no longer my own, was deeply entangled with the cause of the Reformation. I found purpose in supporting Huldrych's mission, my actions silently laying the foundations upon which our community could stand and grow.

Yet, with love and faith comes sacrifice. The continuous threats against my husband and our family were a constant gloom that darkened our door.

The tragic loss of Huldrych and my beloved ones at the second Battle of Kappel was a sorrow that no words could capture, a grief that branded me the Reformation's Weeping Mother.

Through the veil of my tears, I found the strength to continue, my spirit unbroken by the weight of my losses.

Though often overshadowed by my husband's monumental figure, my legacy is a testament to the power of individual actions to weave the fabric of our collective history.

I am Anna Zwingli-Reinhart, a woman whose life was painted in the heartrending hues of faith, defiance, and love—a story that, though nestled in the annals of Zurich's past, speaks of the enduring strength and influence of those who dare to love, to believe, and to stand firm in the face of life's greatest storms.

3 statues of Ulrich Zwingli standing next to each other
Statues of Ulrich Zwingli for the 500th anniversary in 2019 of the beginning of the Reformation

Tip: Anna Zwingli-Reinhart is quietly commemorated by a plaque on the Helmhaus Hotel a few blocks from the Grossmunster.

Tip: Ulrich Zwingli's statue is located behind the Water Church (Wasserkirche), just across the Grossmunster.

Last reflections

And now, I turn to you, my dear reader. The Mighty Women of Zurich stories are not just echoes of the past; they are mirrors reflecting the courage within each of us.

Perhaps you've seen glimpses of your own strength and determination in their stories of love, sacrifice, and defiance. What moments of courage define your journey? How have you shaped the world around you in both grand gestures and quiet acts?

I am looking forward to hearing your own stories of bravery and triumph.


signature Samantha Aeschbach

PS Feel free to share your reflections, insights, and experiences, enriching our shared humanity's narrative.


Bonus: Sources for the curious

Extra Bonus: A Feminist View on Prague

If you ever find yourself meandering through Prague's enchanting lanes—or perhaps even its mysterious cemeteries—do yourself a favor and book a spot on one of Averil Huck's legendary tours. It's not just a walk through the city; it's an adventure peppered with Averil's infectious enthusiasm for Prague and an eye-opening dive into Czech women's rights history.

This article is part of a blog series about Mighty Women of Zurich. Please also check out the next articles!

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