Women's suffrage in Switzerland

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Women in Switzerland gained the right to vote in federal elections after a referendum in 1971.[1] In 1991 following a decision by the Federal Supreme Court of Switzerland, Appenzell Innerrhoden became the last Swiss canton to grant women the vote on local issues.[2]

A previous referendum on women's suffrage was held on 1 February 1959 and was rejected by the majority (67%) of Switzerland's men. Despite this, in some French-speaking cantons women obtained the right to vote in local referendums.[1] The first Swiss woman to hold political office, Trudy Späth-Schweizer, was elected to the municipal government of Riehen in 1958.[3]

The Swiss Political System and Universal Suffrage

The introduction of federal and cantonal universal suffrage necessitated the vote of the majority of the electors, men in this case, for a referendum. Moreover, a new federal constitutional reform must likewise be approved by the majority of the cantons. Another reason is the tight connection, since the constitution of 1848, between the right to vote and military service in the Swiss army, traditionally reserved for men.

Women in the Federal Assembly of Switzerland

The number of women in the Swiss National Council, the lower house of the Federal Assembly of Switzerland, went from 10 in 1971 to 50 in 2003, and from 1 to 11 in the 46-member Swiss Council of States, the upper house, in the same period. In 2008 there were 59 women out of 200 members total (29.5%) in the National Council.

Women in the Swiss Federal Council

The first female member of the seven-member Swiss Federal Council, Elisabeth Kopp, served from 1984 to 1989. Ruth Dreifuss, the second female member, served from 1993 to 1999, and was the first president of the Swiss Confederation in 1999. Two women, Micheline Calmy-Rey and Ruth Metzler-Arnold, served on the Swiss Federal Council from 1999 to 2003; when Ruth Metzler-Arnold failed to be re-elected in 2003, the number fell back to one. With the election of Doris Leuthard in 2006, there were again two, and, after January 2008, three with the arrival of Eveline Widmer Schlumpf. On September 22, 2010, the Federal Council changed to a female majority with the addition of Simonetta Sommaruga. Micheline Calmy-Rey was elected President of the Confederation in 2011.


The Constitution of 1848

The constitution of 1848, the origin of modern Switzerland proclaims the equality in the eyes of the law of all human beings (in German, Menschen) but does not explicitly include women in that equality. However, the laws that followed that constitution rigidly placed women in a situation of legal inferiority.

Debate Over Women's Rights 1860–1887

From 1860 to 1874, the first feminist movements were organized and, contemporaneously, the first constitutional revision of 1874; the political rights of women became the object of numerous discussions. In 1886, a first petition was presented to the Federal Assembly from a group of eminent women by Marie Goegg-Pouchoulin. The attention attracted by this initiative opened the way for the first article about the claims of women in a large daily, Ketzerische Neujahrsgedanken einer Frau (Heretical New Years' Thoughts of a Woman), by Meta von Salis published in 1887 by the Zürcher Post. In the same year, Emilie Kempin-Spyri demanded before the federal court the right to become a lawyer. Her request was refused.

Women's Rights Organizations 1894–1898

In 1894, von Salis organized meetings in the principal cities of Switzerland on the theme of the right to vote for women. Her conferences had little success and she often had to confront numerous demonstrations of hostility. Two years later, in 1896, the first congress of Swiss women was held in Geneva. Numerous male speakers called for an alliance between men and women, and, at the same time, for moderation in the demands. The importance that these demands acquired in the public debate led to the creation of the first parliamentary commission for the "woman question."

Advances and resistance 1900–1959

Around the turn of the 20th century, women organized in the entire country, and formed various women's organizations, for, as well as against, women's suffrage. The two most important were the Confederation of Swiss Women's Associations (Bund Schweizerischer Frauenvereine (BSF)), under the leadership of Helene von Mülinen, and the Swiss Alliance for Women's Suffrage (Schweizerische Verband für Frauenstimmrecht (SVF)).

During the First World War, the movement came to a halt, as more critical problems came to the forefront. Among others, the women's alliances carried out the collective welfare work during the war, since Switzerland at this time still had no social insurance.

In the Swiss General Strike of 1918, women's suffrage was the second of nine demands. In December, the first two advances for women's suffrage at the federal level were made by the National Councillors Herman Greulich (SP) and Emil Göttisheim (FDP). In two motions, the Federal Council was called upon to "introduce a report and motion regarding the constitutional granting of the same voting rights and eligibility for election to female Swiss citizens as to male Swiss citizens".

Half a year later, in June 1919, 158 women's associations prepared a petition to grant more importance to the two motions. As a result, the motions of Greulich and Göttisheim were accepted by the National Council and taken over by the Federal Council for completion. However, the responsible Federal Councillor, Heinrich Häberlin (FDP), postponed the action, due to "urgent problems." Fifteen years later, in 1934, Häberlin handed over the unfinished business to his successor with the instruction, "The material for women's suffrage lies in the middle drawer to the right of your desk."

In 1923, a group of women from Bern prepared a constitutional complaint. They wanted to exercise their voting rights in community, cantonal, and federal matters; however, they were rejected by the federal court by reference to customary law (Gewohnheitsrecht).

Five years later, Leonard Jenni applied to the Federal Council with a petition demonstrating that the concept of "Stimmbürger" (elector) in the German language included both sexes. The petition was rejected on the following grounds:

"When one now asserts that the concept is also supposed to include Swiss women, then one oversteps the boundaries of the allowable interpretation and thereby commits an act that contradicts the sense of the constitution..."

In the summer of the same year, the Swiss Exhibition for Women's Work (Schweizerische Ausstellung für Frauenarbeit (SAFFA)) took place. A memorable vehicle accompanied the procession; a snail named "women's suffrage." The organizers were strongly criticized[by whom?] for the snail and some critics saw this entirely as a sign of the political immaturity of the women.[4]

In 1929, the SVF launched a new petition for women's suffrage and this time achieved a record number of signatures that even exceeded the required number of signatures for a popular initiative: 170,397 signatures of women and 78,840 signatures of men. The Catholic Women's League (Katholische Frauenbund) distanced itself explicitly from the demands of the other women's associations. Other oppositional organizations reacted as well and, in 1931, the Swiss League Against Political Women's Suffrage (Schweizer Liga gegen das politische Frauenstimmrecht) brought a petition to the Federal Council titled "Position Against the Politicization of Swiss Women." On many occasions, the women and men of the League, among them Emma Rufer, wrote to the Federal Council and the parliament and implored them to abandon the project.

During the 1930s and early 1940s, the effort for women's suffrage was once again overshadowed by international events such as the economic crisis and the Second World War. Women were called upon many times during these years to "protect democracy", to which the women's alliances advocating voting rights responded that in order to do that they needed to have democratic rights at their disposal.

Near the end of the Second World War, the question arose again; in particular, middle-class women, in a counter-move to their entry in the military Women's Support Service (Frauenhilfsdienst), demanded that they be granted their democratic rights. In 1944, National Councillor Emil Oprecht requested in a postulate the introduction of women's suffrage, because important women's political issues were close to the political agenda of the day: old age and survivors' insurance, motherhood insurance, and family protection. The postulate was supported by the BSF with a petition of February 6, 1945 in the name of 38 women's alliances. The Swiss Women's Association for the Public Good (Schweizerische Gemeinnützige Frauenverein) did not express an opinion on the question; however, the Catholic Women's League (Katholische Frauenbund) departed from the conservative line of the Catholic church and gave its members a free voice. In 1945, the Swiss Action Committee for Women's Suffrage (Schweizerische Aktionskomitee für Frauenstimmrecht) was established as an opinion-forming instrument.

In 1948, celebrations of the one hundred-year existence of the federal constitution were carried out, and "Switzerland, a people of brothers," celebrated. The women's associations rephrased the motto as "a people of brothers without sisters," and symbolically presented the Federal Council a map of Europe with a black blot in the middle. At this time, all European countries, with the exception of Switzerland and Liechtenstein, had established women's suffrage. Like the SAFFA snail previously, this symbolic map was interpreted by critics[who?] as a sign of the political immaturity of the women.

In 1950, the Federal Council put a report before the Federal Assembly about the procedure for coming to an agreement for the establishment of women's voting rights. In 1951, the Swiss Women's Circle Against Women's Voting Rights (Schweizerische Frauenkreis gegen das Frauenstimmrecht), under the leadership of Dora Wipf, wrote a letter to the Federal Council that said: "[...]We do not believe that our country requires politicized women[...]"

A year later, in 1952, Antoinette Quinche, president of the Swiss Women's Circle for Women's Voting Rights, and 1414 other disputants from her community, demanded to be entered into the voters' register. With the argument that the cantonal constitution at that time did not explicitly exclude women's voting rights, they went with their demand before the Federal Court. Again as in 1923, they were rejected by reference to customary law.

In 1957 a plebiscite was held, by which the civil defense service (Zivilschutzdienst) became mandatory for all Swiss women. During the plebiscite, a scandal took place. Encouraged by the community council, the women of the Unterbäch community of the canton Valais (Wallis) voted. The community council explained that according to the terms of the constitution, the community is legally authorized to set up the voting register.

Community president and chief councillor Paul Zenhäusern and the Valais (Wallis) National Councillor Peter von Roten were the initiators of the women's vote. 33 of the 84 potentially eligible Unterbäch women took part; Katharina Zenhäusern, wife of the community president of Unterbäch, was the first Swiss woman who placed a ballot in a Swiss ballot box. The women's votes, that were collected in a separate ballot box (the men's votes thus remained valid) had to be annulled, because the women's participation at that time still had no legal basis. Nevertheless, these first national women's votes wrote Swiss history, because they gave an important push for the later official establishment of women's suffrage. Thus Unterbäch was the first community in Switzerland to establish the communal voting and election rights for women – in spite of the ban by the Valais (Wallis) executive council.

After the canton of Basel-City empowered the three city communities to establish women's suffrage in 1957, the community of Riehen was the first in Switzerland to introduce women's suffrage on June 26, 1958. In the same year, Gertrud Späth-Schweizer was in the city council and therefore became the first Swiss woman elected to a governing body.

In 1958, the Federal parliament voted for the first time for a referendum on the establishment of women's suffrage for national issues; the proposal was accepted in the National Council with 96 to 43 votes, and in the Council of States with 25 to 12 votes.

On February 1, 1959, the first people's vote on national women's suffrage decisively failed with a voter participation of 67 percent in the people's vote (33% to 66%) and cantonal vote (3 to 16 plus 6 half cantons). Protest actions and women's strikes followed in all of Switzerland. Only in the cantons of Vaud, Neuchâtel, and Geneva (Genève) did a majority speak for women's suffrage.

The proponents, however, were able to record their first success at the cantonal level. On February 1, 1959, the canton of Vaud accepted women's suffrage. The cantons of Neuchâtel (September 27, 1959) and Geneva (March 6, 1960) followed, as well as the German-speaking cantons of Basel-City (June 26, 1966), and Basel-Country (June 23, 1968). Likewise, before the establishment of a national women's suffrage, the cantons of Ticino (October 19, 1969), Valais (Wallis) (April 12, 1970), and Zürich (November 15, 1970) gave voting and election rights to women at the cantonal level.

Women's Suffrage at the Cantonal Level – 1960s

It was necessary to wait for the 1960s for eight cantons to introduce women's suffrage at the canton level. Twenty more years were necessary for this right to be generalized for all the cantons. In a judgment of November 27, 1990 in the case of Theresa Rohner et consorts contre Appenzell Rhodes-Intérieures (ATF 116 Ia 359), the Swiss federal court declared unconstitutional the exclusive male suffrage as had been practiced in the half canton of Appenzell Innerrhoden; the principle of equality between men and women as was guaranteed by the federal constitution ordered, in effect, an interpretation of the Appenzell constitution such that women's suffrage should be equally possible. The voters of the canton had stood against women's suffrage in 1959 by 2050 votes to 105.

Introduction of Women's Suffrage at the Cantonal Level

Date Canton
1 February 1959 Vaud
27 September 1959 Neuchâtel
6 March 1960 Geneva
26 June 1966 Basel-Stadt
23 June 1968 Basel-Landschaft
19 October 1969 Ticino
12 April 1970 Valais
25 October 1970 Lucerne
15 November 1970 Zurich
7 February 1971 Aargau, Fribourg, Schaffhausen and Zug
2 May 1971 Glarus
6 June 1971 Solothurn
12 December 1971 Bern, Thurgau
23 January 1972 St. Gallen
30 January 1972 Uri
5 March 1972 Schwyz and Graubünden
30 April 1972 Nidwalden
24 September 1972 Obwalden
30 April 1989 Appenzell Ausserrhoden
27 November 1990 Appenzell Innerrhoden (by decision of the federal court)
The Jura, created by secession from Berne on 20 March 1977, has always had women's suffrage.

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 "The Long Way to Women's Right to Vote in Switzerland: a Chronology". History-switzerland.geschichte-schweiz.ch. Retrieved 2011-01-08.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. "United Nations press release of a meeting of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), issued on 14 January 2003". Un.org. Retrieved 2011-09-02.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. Manz, Ev (23 July 2010). "Die Wegbereiterin aller Bundesrätinnen". Tages-Anzeiger (in German). Retrieved 23 July 2010.CS1 maint: unrecognized language (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. "Mutige Manifestation der Frauen: Die SAFFA 1928". SAFFA – Stiftung Frauenarbeit (in German). Retrieved 2011-06-22.CS1 maint: unrecognized language (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

Further reading

  • Banaszak, Lee Ann. Why Movements Succeed or Fail: Opportunity, Culture & the Struggle for Woman Suffrage (1996) 291pp compares the success of pro-women's suffrage campaigners in 48 American states and 25 Swiss cantons.

External links