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 as 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.
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 (the last European country to introduce it 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 studied at Swiss universities. 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), the niece of the famous 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 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 to the national Constitution must be approved by the People in a referendum, by a majority of cantons in the Council of States (Ständerat), and by the National Council (Nationalrat). This chamber was more progressive and has been 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 in all European countries.
For a long time, men 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 the case of referendums and a 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 after the First World War.
However, because of the neutrality in the First World War, women did not play a crucial and emancipatory role as in other European countries. This period contributed significantly to the emancipation of women in countries at war. 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 other than equal rights. Until the fifties and seventies/eighties, (married) women were legally subordinate to men in most European countries, just as in Switzerland (which embedded gender equality in the Constitution in 1981).
Women’s suffrage was an important issue after 1945 in the Federal Parliament and the cantons. 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, a national referendum (for men on women’s right to vote) took place. It was rejected by most voters and the Council of States. On the same day, the canton of Vaud was the first to introduce the right to vote in municipalities and the canton. The cantons of Geneva and Neuchâtel followed the example. One canton after another introduced it, particularly in the urban areas.
A majority in the Council of States and of the People (das Volk) 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 and People’s Initiatives.
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. However, the country’s first female president was elected in 1999.
It shows Switzerland’s resilience and dynamism. Women and men have turned backwardness into an advantage in politics, science, business, and culture within a few decades.