swissworld.org - Switzerland's official information portal

swissworld.org - Switzerland's official information portal

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The right to vote

Votes for women? What a ridiculous idea! Their brains are smaller than men's, which proves they are less intelligent. They are prone to extremism, and would go out to campaign without asking their husbands' permission. And it wouldn't promote equality because their natural modesty would stop them going out to vote when pregnant, and since rural women have more babies than those in towns, this would give an unfair advantage to the latter. And if women were actually elected, what a source of humiliation for their husbands! They would be forced to do the cooking...

Such were the arguments that convinced Switzerland's male population to turn down call after call to allow women the vote. Never mind that they had had it in New Zealand since 1893 and most of Europe since the end of World War I. Never mind that both chambers of the Swiss parliament finally gave the green light to women's suffrage in 1958 - more than 50 years after Europe's pioneer, Finland. When put to the people - to half the people, that is - in 1959, as required by the Swiss constitution, two thirds of them turned parliament's recommendation down.

It wasn't as if women had stood idly by waiting for their rights to drop into their laps. The first feminist association was established in 1868, calling for civil rights, and the right to attend university. There had been calls to include women's suffrage in the 1874 constitution. In 1929 a petition for voting rights managed to collect a quarter of a million signatures - but was ignored.

By giving voters the final say on legislation, Switzerland's system of direct democracy kept women out, but at the same time the extensive autonomy of even the smallest administrative units gave them their chance to break in to political life. It was a tiny commune in Canton Valais that, in 1957, was the first to allow its women members to vote. Several cantons gradually followed suit, and in the 1960s women started occupying more and more important positions in local parliaments and governments. In 1968 Geneva, then the country's third largest city, had a woman mayor - but she still couldn't vote in federal elections.

This advance did not prevent Switzerland from suggesting that when it signed the human rights convention of the Council of Europe, it should opt out of those parts calling for sexual equality. The uproar this provoked forced the government to revise its position. A new referendum was put to the country.

The result: on February 7th 1971 Swiss males, by a two thirds majority, finally gave their female compatriots their full federal voting rights.

Emilie Kempin-Spyri (1853-1901), Switzerland's first woman lawyer, claimed that the article of the Federal Constitution which stated "All Swiss are equal before the law" meant that men and women had equal rights. This assertion was rejected by the Federal Court who described the notion as being "as new as it is bold."

 

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