Nation of brothers with late arriving sisters

Stefanie KurtStefanie Kurt holds a Master degree in International and European Law from the University of Bern and a PhD in Law from the University of Neuchâtel. She completed her studies with an Erasmus exchange at the University Louvain La Neuve (Belgium), where she focused on Islamic Law and Law, Society and Religion. She worked as a research fellow at the Institute of European and International Economic Law at the University of Bern and at the Centre for Swiss Migration Law at the University of Neuchâtel. After an internship in the directorate for International Cooperation at the Federal Office for Migration, she worked as a general secretary for the Swiss Observatory for Asylum and Migration Rights in Bern. In her publications she discusses questions of Migration Law and Policy, with a particular attention to Fundamental Rights and the notion of Integration in Switzerland and Europe.

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 recognised 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. Last but not least, women’s suffrage was also seen as a dangerous foreign import.

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 presumption of women’s incompetence and their perceived lack of qualifications of a moral and intellectual nature all supported the exclusion of Swiss women from the political decision making process. In summary, 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 organisations 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 organising 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 neighbouring 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. 15 years later, in 1934, he handed over the dossier to his successor with the comment that the material for the female suffrage could be found in the centre drawer on the right side of the desk. This dismissive comment shaped the next decade of the struggle for the introduction of women’s suffrage. The economic and societal boost after World War I slowed down and the rise of right wing movements reduced the possibility of introducing women’s suffrage. The role of women was again seen in a traditional conservative context as the importance of protecting the Swiss nation grew. At this time, women’s suffrage itself was no longer perceived as an inherent element of a democracy, but as a potential reward for the good (and not the dangerous) female citizens. The image of the female Swiss citizen, who respects the traditional male dominated societal and economic life without putting these conceptions at risk, was predominant.

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 organisations 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 (e.g. Germany, Austria 1918, France 1945) had already introduced women’s suffrage with the exception of Switzerland and Liechtenstein (1984). The symbolic act of handing over a map was interpreted by mainstream Swiss male opinion as highlighting the insufficient political maturity of Swiss women. The political participation of women in political parties and in politics was considered to be a danger to the family and to solidarity between women themselves. Consequently, it did not seem likely that the political call for female suffrage could advance any further in public debate. The social role of women was still understood as wife and mother and this conception was not to be weakened by the burden of suffrage.

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 defence for Swiss men and women. This proposal was very controversial. Feminist organisations 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. Regardless of this proposal, the Swiss men rejected mandatory civil defence for both genders. The door for the introduction of women’s suffrage had been pushed ajar. However, the initial signs were not good: so far only the canton Basel-Stadt had allowed its local communities to introduce it. 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. Once again, the traditional conservative understanding of the female role as mother and wife had prevailed. Women’s suffrage was still considered as a danger to the nature of the Swiss women and a danger to the male dominated traditional political institutions. Only two Cantons, Vaud and Neuchâtel introduced women’s suffrage at the cantonal level in 1959. So there were still 24 cantons and the federal level holding out.

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 organisations were outraged and rejected the idea that ‘human rights’ could somehow exclude women’s voting rights. By this stage, the women’s movement had gained more traction in Switzerland and the cantons and municipalities slowly started to think about introducing women’s suffrage. It seemed that pressure towards equal political rights was building. But patriarchal attitudes to women persisted with some suggesting that women’s suffrage might divide marriages if husband and wife voted for different candidates. Furthermore, the presumption was made that women would vote as the clergy told them to do. The organisation against the female vote claimed that the great majority of Swiss women saw absolutely no violation of human rights in the fact that they did not have the right to vote. Women’s suffrage would rather hinder than advance the cause of Swiss democracy. Consequently, it would be only left-wing women who would want to vote and pretty soon Switzerland would be submerged by communism. Therefore, women’s suffrage was characterised as a dangerous foreign import. Finally, though, in a referendum held on 7 February 1971, Swiss men voted in favour of women’s suffrage at the federal level (by a margin of 65.7% to 34.3%). By October 1972, 17 of the 26 cantons had introduced women’s suffrage, leaving only two half Cantons holding 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. Currently, there are two women on the seven member Federal Council and 30% female representation in the National Parliament, which is surprisingly high when compared to other countries. 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. This provision has had a strong impact in the legislative process but also in the interpretation of the law. For example, selective public schools were no longer permitted to demand higher grades from girls than from boys. Furthermore, from 1992 Swiss women no longer lost their citizenship and civic rights if they married a foreigner. And finally, since 1 January 2013, married women are permitted to retain their birth names and the couple has to decide which name to give to potential children. Additionally, women also keep their cantonal and communal civic rights.

Today’s challenges such as the current societal, family and economic changes are still embedded in a political male dominated Swiss society. The political and societal emancipation of (Swiss) women is still considered as a danger to the traditional understanding of motherhood and marriage. This becomes particularly visible when it comes to equality rights regarding access to the labour market and equal payment. (Swiss) Women who are fighting for these rights are looked down upon as feminists who do not respect the traditional role of motherhood and marriage. In fact, the labelling feminist does not hold a positive connotation within the Swiss society. Women who fight for equal rights and payment are confronted with insults and vilification, because they do not fit in the classical role of a “feminine” – not dangerous – woman. 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.


Further reading

Federal Commission for Women’s Issues FCWI: (general information available in English, specific publications and position papers are available in German, French or Italian)

Historisches Lexikon der Schweiz / Dictionnaire historique de la Suisse / Dizionario storico della Svizzera, (German, French or Italian)

Gatten Emma, Swiss suffragettes were still fighting for the right to vote in 1971, (02.11.2016).

Petrello Etter Michele, Women’s Suffrage in Switzerland: The Journey,