Switzerland introduced women’s suffrage at the federal level through a popular vote on 7 February 1971. To most readers this will seem very recent indeed. Yet at the cantonal level it was only in 1990 that the last canton also introduced women’s suffrage. Overall, it took 142 years before every political body at the federal and cantonal levels recognized the right of women to vote and the right to be elected.
The reasons why the full political participation of Swiss women was so delayed are embedded in the complex Swiss political system, lodged somewhere between the boxes marked “direct democracy” and “federalism”. The cantons and communes have full competence to set the franchise in elections. The federal level cannot legislate on these matters. At the same time, the decision to enlarge the electorate must be taken by a majority decision of the voters. Additionally, there must be a double majority of the Swiss citizens and of the cantons to modify the franchise at the federal level.
However, the Swiss political system is not the only important factor. The other factor concerns the historical perception of the female suffrage. For many years, female suffrage itself was considered as dangerous, especially as a danger to the traditional roles of women and men within what has always been a conservative society. Therefore, the capacity of Swiss women to participate in political decision processes was negated.
The first Swiss constitution of 1848 excluded women’s suffrage and gave only Swiss men the right to vote, because the political rights were connected with the duty of military service. One important milestone in the history of the female suffrage is an article dated 1 January 1887 by Meta von Salis, the first female historian and suffragette in Switzerland, demanding women’s suffrage. The article produced a negative reaction even though her approach was quite straightforward: she simply stated that women should have the right to vote because they pay taxes just like men. But for most people the role of Swiss women was understood as wives and mothers and not as political actors. The gender factor was the only reason why women were seen as not having the necessary capacity to vote.
At the end of the 19th century the first feminist organizations were founded. Inspired by the United Kingdom’s suffragist movement, Swiss women started to organize themselves and demanded equality between men and women as well as the female suffrage. During the outbreak of World War I, questions of gender equality and political participation for Swiss women received less attention. Swiss women were focused on organizing social assistance for the Swiss citizens, because at this time Switzerland did not have a state welfare system. However, new inspiration to the female suffrage movement was given by the introduction of the right of political participation of women in the Scandinavian, Anglo-Saxon and neighboring countries.
By the end of the Great War, the first political associations in Switzerland, in particular left wing political parties, were starting to argue for women’s suffrage. In 1919 and under pressure of numerous petitions, two Assembly motions instructed the Federal Council to submit a proposal for the introduction of women’s suffrage to the Federal Assembly. However, the responsible Federal Council member, Heinrich Häberlin, postponed the discussion by arguing that there were more urgent problems.
After the end of World War II, members of the women’s suffrage movements launched new initiatives finally to introduce equal political rights. Nevertheless, initiatives promoting the introduction of women’s suffrage were rejected by large majorities of the (male) electors in eight relatively liberal cantons (Basel-Stadt, Basel-Landschaft, Geneva, Ticino, Zurich, Neuchâtel, Solothurn, Vaud). Symptomatically, when the Swiss Confederation celebrated its 100th birthday in 1948, the festivities were conducted under the banner of Switzerland, nation of brothers. Women’s organizations added a rider to this banner: nation of brothers without sisters. Additionally, they handed over a European map with a black spot in the middle. By this time, all European countries had already introduced women’s suffrage with the exception of Switzerland and Liechtenstein.
The debates about women’s suffrage acquired new momentum in 1957. By this time, certain limited opportunities for political and social participation had been made available to Swiss women. These included running as a candidate for the supervisory school authorities, for the welfare institutions supporting the poor, and for ecclesiastical authorities. These developments did create a new basis to discuss politically the introduction of women’s suffrage. Around the same time, the Federal Council proposed to create an obligation for civil defense for Swiss men and women. Feminist organizations proclaimed loudly that women did not want more duties without political rights. Due to this huge protest and the fear that the proposal would not be adopted, the Federal Council published a report about the introduction of women’s suffrage. The door for the introduction of women’s suffrage had been pushed ajar. Yet again Swiss men rejected the introduction of women’s suffrage at the federal level with 66.9% of men voting against in a referendum held on 1 February 1959.
In 1968, the international year of human rights, the Federal Council expressed the aim of signing the European Convention of Human Rights, whilst entering a reservation in respect of women’s suffrage. Unsurprisingly, feminist organizations were outraged and rejected the idea that “human rights” could somehow exclude women’s voting rights. Finally, in a referendum held on 7 February 1971, Swiss men voted in favor of women’s suffrage at the federal level (by a margin of 65.7% to 34.3%). By October 1972, only two half Cantons held out: Appenzell-Ausserrhoden (1989) and Appenzell-Innerrhoden (1990). Appenzell-Innerrhoden was finally forced to introduce the female suffrage as a result of a decision of the Federal Tribunal.
It has thus only been 26 years that all Swiss women have had the right to vote and to be elected in all political bodies on all levels. The long absence of female voices in the legislation procedure (still) has consequences for women’s issues in the sense that the cause of equality has been retarded in many spheres. Ten years after the introduction of women’s suffrage, in 1981, the Swiss constitution finally guaranteed equal rights between men and women. Nevertheless, today’s challenges such as the current societal, family and economic changes are still embedded in a political male dominated Swiss society. Needless to say that women still earn around 20% less than men in the same position. Furthermore, Switzerland has the second highest rate of part-time employment in OECD countries, which can be attributed to the high number of females working in part-time positions to be able to combine work and family life. Consequently (Swiss) women should be even more dangerous in challenging the role they are currently attributed and stand with a strong political and societal voice to fight for their rights and their equal position in society.
PostDoc, nccr – on the move, University of Neuchatel
Shortened version of her blog post published on the platform Dangerous Women Project on 17 November 2016. The Dangerous Women Project is an initiative launched by the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Edinburgh, whose Director Jo Shaw is also a member of the International Advisory Board of the nccr – on the move.
142 years it took for every political body to recognize the right of women to vote and to be elected. Today, some 25 % of people over 18 years old who live in Switzerland do not have the right to active political participation at the federal level because they are not naturalized and, thus, do not have a Swiss passport. How long will it take for them to get political participation one way or another? The nccr – on the move will publish a series of blog posts on naturalization in Switzerland, providing facts and figures in the run-up to the vote on facilitated naturalization of the 3rd generation of foreigners, which will take place on 12 February 2017.