Fifty years women’s suffrage
14 January 2021
The Swiss Confederation introduced universal suffrage for men in 1848 as the first democracy in Europe and one of the world’s first nations.
However, women’s right to vote at the national level would only become a reality on 26 March 1971 following the referendum of 7 February of that year.
Switzerland was almost the last country in Europe and the western world. Australia and New Zealand already introduced it in 1900. In Europe, Finland was the first country in 1906.
After the First World War, many other (new) European countries followed, and after the Second World War the rest, except Switzerland and Liechtenstein (which was the last European country in 1984).
The current top positions of women in municipal, cantonal and national politics in Switzerland give a different impression than a systematic disadvantage and “old-fashioned” mentality.
As early as 1867, women could study at Swiss universities and in 1868 they demanded the right to vote. Marie Vögtlin (1845-1916) was the first woman to study medicine in 1869. Emilie Kempin-Spyri (1853-1901), die niece of the writer Johanna Spyri (1827-1901, Heidi, 1881), obtained her doctorate in 1887, the first woman in Europe.
Many women participated in social and political organisations and activities anyway.
In the field of legal and de facto equality, Switzerland is in the European top ten nowadays.
There are several reasons for the late introduction of suffrage for women.
The constitutional and federal organisation
Any amendment of the national Constitution must be approved by the People in a referendum and by a majority of cantons in the Council of States (Ständerat), and of course by the National Council (Nationalrat). This chamber was more progressive and based on the system of proportionality (Proporzsystem) since 1918/1919.
The biggest obstacles were the referendum and the Council of States.
According to the Federal Constitution of 1848, the people, thus the voters, and the Council of States representatives were exclusively men, as was the case in all European countries.
For a long time, men frustrated and rejected this right to vote after 1918 in various cantons (Basel-Stadt, Glarus, Genf, Neuenburg, Zürich, St. Gall).
Would this have been different in other countries in 1918 or 1945 in case of referendums and the Council of States ?
The World Wars
Women (and men) had already organised themselves for this right at the end of the nineteenth century and found an increasing audience, also after the First World War.
However, because of neutrality in the First World War, women could not play such an indispensable and emancipatory role as in other European countries.
This period contributed significantly to the emancipation of women in these countries.
In 1918, it was also an essential issue in politically turbulent Switzerland, but neither the male representation nor many women favoured it. Referendums (for men only) were held in various cantons but without success.
The leading and heroic role (this was at least the perception) in the Second World War was played by the male soldier who, under the leadership of General Henri Guisan (1874-1960), had saved the country from the German invasion through the so-called Reduit. Women did not distinguish themselves (that was the perception) and emancipate as in other countries.
In other European countries, the right to vote meant something else than equal rights. Until the fifties and seventies/eighties, (married) women were legally subordinate to men in most European countries, just as they were in Switzerland (which embedded gender equality in the Constitution in 1981).
In the Federal Parliament and the cantons, women’s suffrage was an important issue after 1945. Referendums took place in the cantons Zurich, Neuchâtel, Vaud, Tessin, Solothurn, Geneva, Basel-Stadt and Basel-Landschaft, in vain, until 1957.
In 1957, the canton of Basel-Stadt was the first canton to allow voting in municipalities (after a referendum); the municipality of Riehen was the first to introduce it in 1958.
On 1 February 1959, the first national referendum (for men on women’s right to vote) took place. It was rejected by a majority of voters and in the Council of States.
On the same day, the canton of Vaud was the first canton to introduce the right to vote for municipalities and the canton after a referendum.
The cantons of Geneva and Neuchâtel followed soon after. One canton after another followed, particularly in the urban areas.
A majority in the Council of States and People was needed and became a reality in 1971. Eight cantons voted against in the Council of States: Appenzell Innerrrhoden, Appenzell Ausserrhoden, Glarus, Obwalden, Schwytz, St.-Gall, Thurgau und Uri. Zwei Kantone wehrten sich nachher noch eine Zeit lang.Two cantons even resisted for a longer time.
In 1990 the federal judge in Lausanne had to intervene in the canton of Appenzell Innerrhoden. The Landsgemeinde in Appenzell Ausserrhoden had already kept the honour to itself in 1989.
The late introduction of suffrage for women has its main causes in the country’s constitutional and federal structure, the neutrality in both World Wars and the male-dominated political culture in the direct democracy of referendums and the cantons in the Council of States.
This Council’s composition and the ratio of smaller rural conservative cantons to the more liberal urban cantons is also a point of attention and discussion in other referendums, People’s Initiatives and parliamentary votes.
Every country has its more (religiously) conservative regions and political parties, which is not typical for Switzerland.
Moreover, men and not women distinguished themselves in both world wars (at least in the perception), which was so crucial for introducing women’s suffrage in 1918 and 1945 in other countries.
Due to the (peaceful) fate of history and the country’s constitutional set-up, women had to wait a long time.
The first female president of the country was already elected in 1999.
It shows Switzerland’s resilience and dynamism that women and men have turned the backwardness into an advantage in politics, science, business, and culture within a few decades.