Swiss Women’s Rights: What Happened?

In 1869, the territory of Wyoming (population less than 10,000) gave white women the right to vote. The first country to grant suffrage to women (including Maoris) was New Zealand, in 1893. Later came Australia (1902), Norway (1906), Great Britain and Ireland (1918), Germany (1918) and the US (1920), among others. A few more at random: Albania (1920), Brazil (1932), Turkey (1934), France (1945), Greece (1952), and Kenya (1963). Saudi Arabia didn’t give women national suffrage rights until 2011.

Why I am listing these dates?  Because Swiss women couldn’t vote in national elections until 1971, and one of its cantons, Appenzell Innerrhoden, held out until pressure from the federal government made it open up local elections to women in 1991.

This year, 2021, is the fiftieth anniversary of women gaining suffrage. Until 1988—although I didn’t know it when I married my Swiss husband that year and moved to Bern—men were still the legal heads of Swiss families; their decisions about everything from household property to children’s schooling were final. Twelve years earlier, in 1976, a married Swiss woman could finally get a job without her husband’s permission.  And until 1992, a husband could legally demand and enforce his right to have sex with his wife.

Huh? Were Swiss women out to lunch for a century or what?

A fascinating exhibit currently at the Swiss National Museum makes it clear that not all Swiss women slept through the development of civil rights. In 1798, when the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen was adopted during the French Revolution, not only French but also Swiss feminists of the time protested the exclusion of women from the document.

The “Women. Rights” exhibition in Zürich shows that from the end of the nineteenth through the first half of the twentieth century, Swiss women’s organizations were active, fighting for and gaining better working conditions and health insurance coverage for women, better protection for pregnant women, and time off work for new mothers. But even in the 1950s, when Switzerland was one of the only European countries not to have given women the vote (the others were Liechtenstein and Portugal), many powerful Swiss women’s organizations were still emphasizing the supreme importance of women’s role as wife and mother.  In 1959, when women’s suffrage was finally put to a national vote, over two-thirds of men were against it. It took twelve more years, and a decade that saw the protest movements and sexual revolution of the Sixties, to win male support for women’s right to vote.

“Do you want women like this? Women’s Suffrage NO.”

The question remains—what happened? Should Swiss women have chained themselves to the Swiss Federal Palace and gone on hunger strikes, as British suffragettes did? Or are Swiss men just mind-bogglingly sexist?

There is no single explanation for what went wrong in Switzerland, but it strikes me as relevant that the country remained neutral during both world wars. Many countries granted women the vote in or shortly after either 1918 or 1945—in other words, after men had been away for years fighting and women had managed to take care not only of their children but of everything else that needed doing. The Swiss fortified and guarded their borders throughout both wars, and women were left to look after farms and factories. But without the actual fighting and dying, the idea that the nation’s women had proved their strength and earned the right to vote appears to have been missing in Switzerland.

One of the biggest demands Swiss women have today is equal pay. They earn 20% less income than men, and only about half of this difference can be explained by discrepancies in education, job type, and position in the hierarchy. I’ve been part of demonstrations at two Women’s General Strikes, in June 1990 and June 2019. The sense of solidarity both times was heady. Has the income gap closed significantly since I marched in the first demo thirty-one years ago?

I’m afraid not.

“You know, for every dollar a man makes a woman makes 63 cents. Now, fifty years ago that was 62 cents. So, with that kind of luck, it’ll be the year 3,888 before we make a buck.” Laurie Anderson

Clare O’Dea’s excellent and highly readable novella shows the lives of four very different Swiss women on one particular day: the day in 1959 when the men rejected their right to vote.
The book can be ordered from http://www.booksbooksbooks.ch

8 thoughts on “Swiss Women’s Rights: What Happened?

  1. Once again, a super blogpost. I agree with all you say and would add, for your consideration, that in all other cases, the right to vote came via governments “bestowing” female suffrage on the population, it was top down and we’ll never know how long these other nations would have had to wait if it had been the result of a referendum in which only men could vote. What do you think?

    Melina Hiralal Wolf Chemin des Truits 12 CH – 1182 Gilly

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    1. Hi, Melina, and thanks for your compliment to the post. You are absolutely right that the situation in Switzerland was different because women’s suffrage had to be approved by individual male voters, not by a parliament or congress. Direct democracy may be an impressive system, but it doesn’t always lead to decisions that are best for the country and the world, as the recent defeat of the government’s pro-environment law shows.

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  2. Really interesting piece, Kim! And thank you very much for recommending Voting Day. I checked the Women.Rights exhibition and it runs until July 18th. Glad to get this reminder, which I’ve shared on Twitter.

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  3. Astonishing! In Canada “…The federal government granted limited war-time suffrage to some women in 1917, and followed with full suffrage in 1918. By the close of 1922, all the Canadian provinces, except Quebec, had granted full suffrage to White and Black women.

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    1. Canada is right there with the earliest granters of women’s suffrage! It’s hard to understand how a wealthy Western European country like Switzerland could be so sexist. In 1959, the first time men voted on women’s suffrage and turned it down, LOTS of women didn’t want women to get the vote and actively opposed it.

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