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Suffrage for Swiss Women – A More than 100-Year-Long Struggle

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The following is a guest post by Anne-Cathérine Stolz, a foreign law intern working with Jenny Gesley in the Global Legal Research DirectorateLaw Library of Congress.

On June 14, 2019, Swiss women organized a strike to highlight the gender inequalities in Swiss society and particularly disparities in wages. This was the second time Swiss women have gone on strike. The first strike was staged in 1991 out of frustration at the lack of legislative action on gender equality, even though an equal rights article had been inserted into the Swiss Constitution ten years earlier. The movement towards gender equality has been slow in Switzerland. For example, despite early attempts to introduce women’s suffrage, Switzerland instituted political rights for women only in 1971, making it one of the last countries in the world to do so. In contrast to Switzerland’s relatively recent introduction of political rights for women, the United States guaranteed women’s right to vote in 1920. The centennial anniversary of the ratification of the 19th amendment is next year and the Library of Congress celebrates this special occasion with an exhibit on the suffrage movement currently on display.

Legal Framework

Although the Swiss Constitution of 1848 included the principle that all individuals are equal, this doctrine was not applied to gender.

The Constitution stated in article 4:

Alle Schweizer sind vor dem Gesetze gleich. Es gibt in der Schweiz keine Unterthanenverhältnisse, keine Vorrechte des Orts, der Geburt, der Familien oder Personen. (All Swiss citizens are equal before the law. There are no subordinates in Switzerland, no privileges by virtue of location, birth, family, or person.) (Translation by author).

The section on political rights in the  1848 Constitution simply stated that “Swiss citizens” have the right to vote and did not explicitly bar women from the right to vote or to stand for election. However, the prevalent legal practice at the time treated women and men differently based on their biological differences.

Article 63 of the Constitution declared that:

Stimmberechtigt ist jeder Schweizer, der das zwanzigste Altersjahr zurükgelegt hat und im Übrigen nach der Gesezgebung des Kantons, in welchem er seinen Wohnsiz hat, nicht vom Aktivbürgerrecht ausgeschlossen ist. (Every Swiss citizen having surpassed twenty years of age is allowed to vote provided that, according to the cantonal law in his domicile, he is not barred from doing so.) (Translation by  author.)

Article 64 set forth that:

Wahlfähig als Mitglied des Nationalrathes ist jeder stimmberechtigte Schweizerbürger weltlichen Standes. (Every lay Swiss citizen eligible to vote is allowed to stand for elections to the National Council.) (Translation by  author.)

Legal scholars were of the opinion that it was the intention of the writers of the Swiss Constitution to keep women from exercising political rights. (Kägi Werner, Der Anspruch der Schweizerfrau auf politische Gleichberechtigung, at 16 et seq., cited in Botschaft des Bundesrates an die Bundesversammlung über die Einführung des Frauenstimm- und -Wahlrechts in eidgenössischen Angelegenheiten, at 79.)

One strategy of women’s suffrage proponents was attempting to get the Swiss courts to change the interpretation of the articles on political rights to include women in the definition of “Swiss citizen” and “citizen.” This strategy became particularly interesting after several attempts to introduce political rights for women at the cantonal level failed at the ballot box between 1919 and 1921. In the 1920s, Léonard Jenni, founder of the Swiss League for Human Rights, sued twice on behalf of women seeking the right to vote. The Swiss Federal Supreme Court decided that customary law prevents the interpretation of the Swiss Constitution as including men and women in the articles relating to political rights and that an amendment of the Constitution was necessary to grant women the right to vote and stand for elections.

“All together now! Stop her!” Keppler, Udo J., artist. 1914. Library of Congress Prints and Photograph Division.

Legislative Actions

Parts of Swiss civil society started to call for a constitutional amendment as early as 1893. In 1909, the Swiss Association for Women’s Suffrage (Schweizerische Verband für Frauenstimmrecht), the first association with the explicit goal of gaining women’s suffrage, was founded. The organization was the driving force behind the first attempt to provide women with political rights at the federal level and submitted a petition signed by 249,237 citizens and supported by the Swiss parliament. The Swiss Federal Council–the Swiss government– took no action to introduce legislation.

This reluctance by the Federal Council to act on the issue became a recurring theme over the following decades. Several attempts by Swiss parliamentarians to get the Federal Council to act were unsuccessful as well. The Federal Council continued to refuse to address the issue until 1951, when the Federal Council responded to the parliament that it was too early to introduce political rights for women. However, in the late 1950s, women’s suffrage threatened to bring down one of the Council’s priorities, the introduction of a civil protection service obligation. Women’s associations fought back against the additional civil duties without getting political rights. The Federal Council feared that the controversy could sink its proposal on the civil protection service obligation and prepared an amendment to the Constitution providing women with political rights. The Swiss parliament accepted the amendment to introduce women’s suffrage in 1958. However, in the following popular vote (in which only men could vote), the proposal was rejected 66.9% to 33%.

The next step towards women’s suffrage in Switzerland was triggered by Switzerland’s intention to sign the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) with reservations regarding the equality of men and women in 1968. The lack of political rights for women would have violated article 14 of the ECHR, which states:

The enjoyment of the rights and freedoms set forth in this Convention shall be secured without discrimination on any ground such as sex, race, colour, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, association with a national minority, property, birth or other status.

Several women’s associations feared that the step of signing the ECHR without women’s suffrage would legitimize the lack of political rights for women under international law. (Bericht des Bundesrates an die Bundesversammlung über die Konvention zum Schütze der Menschenrechte und Grundfreiheiten, at 1142). A large demonstration was successful in demanding a second vote on women’s political rights. The subsequent proposal of the Federal Council included women’s suffrage at the federal level, but left voting at the cantonal and communal level to be determined by cantonal law. On February 7, 1971, Swiss men accepted women’s suffrage 65.7% to 34% after a more than 100-year long fight.

Cantonal Voting Rights

At the time of the vote on women’s suffrage in 1971, several cantons had already provided women with political rights, and others followed shortly after the popular vote. However, one canton, Appenzell Inner Rhodes, refused to give women the right to vote at the cantonal and municipal level, and only backed down when the Swiss Federal Supreme Court decided in 1990 that the cantonal constitution violated the equality principle in the Swiss Constitution, in particular article 4, paragraph 2, which established gender equality.

Article 4, paragraph 2 of the 1874 Swiss Constitution as amended in 1981 states:

Mann und Frau sind gleichberechtigt. Das Gesetz sorgt für ihre Gleichstellung, vor allem in Familie, Ausbildung und Arbeit. Mann und Frau haben Anspruch auf gleichen Lohn für gleichwertige Arbeit. (Men and women are equal. The law seeks equality particularly concerning the family, education and work. Men and women have the right to equal pay for equal work.) (Translation by author.)

The decision of the court ended the Swiss women’s struggle for suffrage at all political levels. In total, more than 70 votes at the federal, cantonal, and communal level were necessary to introduce political rights for women on all political levels.

Current Debate

There is an ongoing debate as to whether the main factor for the delayed introduction of women’s suffrage can be found in the Swiss tradition of direct democracy or whether Switzerland would have been late to provide women with political rights even with a more republican system given the Swiss public’s conservatism. Support for the latter hypothesis stems from the Federal Council’s inactivity and its decision to sit on the issue for a long time instead of taking a proactive role. However, there is no way to determine whether the Swiss men would have accepted the introduction of women’s suffrage earlier if the Federal Council would have pushed the issue.

Sources Consulted

Selected Law Library Resources on Women’s Suffrage in Switzerland and Around the World

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