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50 Years of Women’s Suffrage in Switzerland

50 Jahre Frauenstimmrecht. Picture by Eidgenössische Kommission für Frauenfragen (EKF). Used with permission.

This year, Switzerland celebrates 50 years of women’s suffrage. In a referendum held on February 7, 1971, 65.7 % of (male) voters approved the right of Swiss women to vote and stand for election at the federal level. As a result, article 74 of the Swiss Constitution was amended to state in paragraph 1:

Bei eidgenössischen Abstimmungen und Wahlen haben Schweizer und Schweizerinnen die gleichen politischen Rechte und Pflichten. (For all federal votes and elections, Swiss male and female citizens have the same political rights and duties.) (Translation by author.)

In the first federal elections in which women were allowed to participate, held on October 31, 1971, ten women were elected to the National Council (lower house of parliament) and one woman to the Council of States (upper house of parliament).

The first referendum on women’s suffrage held in 1959 was rejected by 66.9% of voters and an overwhelming majority of the Swiss cantons (states). Three cantons, namely Vaud, Geneva, and Neuchâtel, that had voted in favor of women’s suffrage, started granting women political rights for cantonal and municipal elections after the failed first federal referendum. Basel-Stadt subsequently introduced women’s suffrage in 1966. However, not all remaining cantons followed suit after the 1971 federal referendum, with paragraph 4 of the amended article 74 retaining the sovereignty of the cantons with regard to cantonal and municipal elections. Women in the Swiss canton of Appenzell Inner-Rhoden had to wait until 1990, when the Swiss Federal Supreme Court (Bundesgericht, BGer) held that not allowing women to vote in cantonal elections violated the equality clause of the Swiss Constitution (Bundesverfassung, BV), which was adopted in 1981. (BV, art. 8, para. 3; formerly art.4, para. 2.) On April 28, 1991—30 years ago today—women in Appenzell Inner-Rhoden were finally able to join their peers and vote in cantonal elections (Landsgemeinde). Interestingly enough, women in Appenzell Inner-Rhodes have a voting card, whereas men can present either a voting card or a sword (Seitengewehr) to show their voting eligibility.

Shall women vote? Ehrhart, Samuel D.,1862-1937. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.26363.

Female Representation in Politics Today

In the most recent federal elections, held in 2019, more women than ever were elected to the National Council and the Council of States: 42% and 26.1%, respectively. Switzerland now ranks 20th in a global ranking of the percentage of women in national parliaments. In the Swiss Federal Council (government), three out of the seven members are women. The bipartisan initiative “Helvetia Ruft” (Helvetia is calling) and the website “Bundesrätinnen” however contend that their work is not done after the 2019 federal elections. On a cantonal level, female representation is still low, with women making up an average of 30% of members in the legislative bodies. The trend might be changing though. On April 18, 2021, elections for the cantonal parliament of Neuchâtel took place. For the first time, the majority of those elected were women (58 women and 42 men).

However, full gender equality has not yet been achieved. This was highlighted in a nationwide protest on June 14, 2019, when hundreds of thousands of women took to the streets to demand equal pay, better reconciliation of family and working life, and protection against sexual harassment in the workplace, among other things.

Gender Quotas

Switzerland’s neighboring countries Germany and France have enacted or are discussing parity laws aimed at countering female underrepresentation in parliament. In 2019, a parliamentary initiative was submitted in Switzerland to require all parties to present an equal number of female and male candidates on the electoral party lists; however, parliament did not take up the issue. In general, support for parity acts in politics is low, as shown in a survey conducted among the Swiss parties in 2019. Most female politicians interviewed for the survey agreed that such laws are “well-meaning but misguided.” Instead, they advocated for “reducing the triple burden of family, work, and politics.” On the other hand, gender quotas for boards of large companies were adopted by the Swiss parliament in June 2020. The obligation took effect on January 1, 2021, and requires companies to comply or to explain why the quota is not met.

Poster commemorating 50 years of women’s suffrage, providing data and facts on women’s suffrage and gender equality from 1971 onwards. Created by Swiss Federal Commission for Women’s Issues (FCWI). Used with permission.

Further Resources

If you are interested in issues concerning women’s suffrage in Switzerland or women’s suffrage and women’s rights in general, feel free to consult the following selected resources:

One Comment

  1. Claudia M. Goetz
    April 28, 2021 at 9:58 am

    Thank you, Jenny, for this article and kind regards from Switzerland.

    PS: My Grandmother, Martina Haelg-Stamm was the first woman in the parliament of the Canton of Thurgau.

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