1. Switzerland is a young democracy
People like to think of Switzerland as one of the world’s oldest democracies. But when it comes to one of democracy's core elements, the right to vote, the country was out of step for many years.
Women and men have only been equal under federal law in the country since 1971. Switzerland was the only country in the world to enact women's suffrage not through a top-down decision, but rather by nationwide referendum – a majority of men decided on 7 February 1971 to extend the right to political participation to women as well as to themselves.
On a canton level, women have only enjoyed equal rights across the country since 1990. The last canton to enact women's suffrage in 1990 was the canton of Appenzell Innerrhoden, by order of the Federal Supreme Court.
2. The long road to political equality
Swiss women are well-organized
Women in Switzerland are some of the best organized anywhere in Europe. At the turn of the 20th century, one in five women was active in a women's suffrage association or women's organization. In 1968 the figure was one in four.
Swiss women persevered
The origins of the Swiss women’s movement and the fight for equality go all the way back to the 1860s, when middle-class women in particular began campaigning for civil rights and economic equality, although unsuccessfully at the time. Their focus in 1886 was on political equality. 139 women submitted a petition for the introduction of women's suffrage to parliament. It was unsuccessful, as were many other subsequent attempts.
The approval of women's suffrage in 1971 was preceded by around 70 votes at the municipal, canton and Swiss confederate level. These were accompanied by countless public interventions, petitions and campaigns by women’s organizations, as well as parliamentary motions, postulates and interpellations from male sponsors at all three state levels.
3. Why so late?
Reason no. 1 for the late introduction: dualistic gender hierarchy
“There is just one reason to be against women’s suffrage – the fear of losing power”, said Alois Grendelmeier (Landesring der Unabhängigen – Alliance of Independents), 1951.
The main reason women were excluded from political participation in Switzerland for so long was the entrenched dualistic gender hierarchy that existed within the country.
The dualistic gender hierarchy – “the divine order” – assumes that there is a (god-given) order that assigns men and women different roles and duties. It postulates that the sexes harmoniously complement one another.
The arguments put forward by the women’s rights movement for women's suffrage related to both the dualistic and egalitarian concepts of gender.
The dualistic concept of sex, Proponents of women's suffrage wanted to transfer the dualistic concept of sex, with its division of work and gender complementarity, should be transferred to the state. The goal of women’s suffrage should be that women could play their part in fulfilling governmental responsibilities.
The egalitarian position was based on natural law premises or on modern democratic theories. From this standpoint, political equality was an act of justice.
The Swiss women's movement developed a line of argumentation that combined these two positions. The dualistic position, in particular, continually resonated because it tended to offer answers to the image of women created by middle-class society, which emphasized “feminine abilities.” In this view, granting women the right to vote would be an act of gallantry and chivalry. Proponents wanted to avoid portraying women as autonomous political subjects. They did not speak about self-determination or equality, but rather of a sense of duty and responsibility, or of how women could be of use to the nation.
Reason no. 2 for the late introduction: the political system
Another reason for the late introduction of women's suffrage were the unique features of the Swiss political system – the referendum-based democracy, with opportunities for direct democratic participation through citizens’ initiatives and referendums, served first as a legitimation for denying political rights, since these avenues are especially challenging, and second had a prolonging effect that delayed the right to vote. In contrast to parliamentary democracies such as Germany, France or Italy, where the population only elects its representatives, in Switzerland the population has the last word in votes. In Switzerland, granting women the right to vote meant giving up power, more power than in a parliamentary democracy.
In addition, federalism and concordance also did their part in long maintaining conservative gender politics in Switzerland – the federalist structure makes reform more difficult because it fragments opportunities for political action, thereby limiting the capacity to mobilize.
Reason no. 1: the desire to ratify the ECHR
We might ask ourselves why Switzerland after all did introduce women’s suffrage at the federal level in 1971.
The first reason was the desire to ratify the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), which gave the country the push it needed to grant suffrage at the federal level in 1971. Switzerland had joined the European Council in 1963 without signing the ECHR. The Bundesrat planned to sign the ECHR with a reservation, i.e., excluding women's right to vote. However, ratifying the ECHR with a reservation would have meant disassociating the bill from the question of women's suffrage. The goal of the women’s rights movement was to prevent this. The movement was successful in retaining its tactical weapon and ensuring that the two bills were not divided. The convention was ratified without reservations in 1974, since the 1971 vote had been successful, introducing women’s suffrage.
Signing the ECHR garnered international respect for Switzerland, and was important for this reason – more important than continuing to resist women’s voting rights.
Reason no. 2: positive experiences at the canton level
The yes vote was also thanks to experiences in the nine cantons that had already introduced women's suffrage. These cantons had shown that doing so changed nothing in terms of the balance of power between parties. Developments in the cantons with women’s suffrage also indicated that women were able to exercise their political rights without neglecting their households, which the proponents of the dualistic gender hierarchy had feared.
Reason no. 3: 100 years of campaigning by the old women’s movement
The fight for political equality that had been waged by the so-called old women's movement for over 100 years, laying the groundwork for the reversal, should not be underestimated. The old women’s movement, united in Arbeitsgemeinschaft der schweizerischen Frauenverbände für die politischen Rechte der Frau (Working group of Swiss women’s associations for the political rights of women) represented half a million women in 1968 – one in every four adult women.
Reason no. 4: changing images of women
The economic boom of the 1960s, which saw strong growth in the service sector, broke down resistance against women working outside the home, as they contributed to the economic success. In addition, the so-called new women’s movement (Frauenbefreiungsbewegung – women’s freedom movement) powerfully challenged the traditional roles of men and women and the dualistic concept of gender as part of the 1968 movement.
All of these circumstances accelerated the shift throughout society, convincing the majority of voting-age men to vote for women's suffrage. It was clear in advance that the vote would be a success. In these circumstances, none of the political parties wanted to throw away their chance to benefit from the support of potential female voters. Their voting recommendations reflected this – all the governmental parties and professional associations recommended a yes vote on the bill, with no exceptions.
Sibylle von Heydebrand, Arlesheim, completed her Ph.D. in the Faculty of Law at the University of Basel on the topic of “Voting rights and cantonal autonomy. General and equal suffrage based on the example of Northwestern Swiss cantons” - Stimmrecht und kantonale Autonomie. Allgemeines und gleiches Stimmrecht am Beispiel der Nordwestschweizer Kantone. In 2016 she presided over the association “50 Jahre Frauenstimmrecht im Kanton Basel-Stadt” (50 years of women’s suffrage in the Basel City Canton), which staged numerous events to commemorate the introduction of women's suffrage in the canton of Basel City, the first canton to do so in German-speaking Switzerland, in 1966.