|Young German speaking Swiss women campaign for the vote in the 1971 national referendum.|
Ask most Americans about what they know about Switzerland and they will mention in no particular order cheese, pocket knives, watches, Alps, William Tell, banks, and neutrality. The Swiss like to brag about their democratic government, fierce independence, and the armed neutrality behind the protective walls of the Alps, that has kept them pretty much out of European wars since the Napoleonic Era. But those same conditions have led to a sometimes isolated and deeply conservative society.
That may be why Swiss women did not get the vote in Federal elections until February 7, 1971. Voters approved a national referendum on the subject on that day by a majority of 621,109 (66%) yes to 323,882 (34%) no. They were the last women in Europe and among the last in the world to gain the franchise.
Some particularly conservative Cantons in largely German speaking eastern Switzerland continued to deny women a vote in Cantonal and local elections for years after. One by one the seven hold-out Cantons revised their constitutions or held local referendums to extend the franchise. The Canton of Appenzell Innerrhoden stubbornly refused to change until 1990 when the Swiss Supreme Court finally ruled that the word citizen in the local constitution included women.
The Swiss Cantonal system has its roots as far back as the Middle Ages and the later short lived Helvetic Republic (1798-1802) and a later government forced on the country by the mediation of Napoleon. In the post-Napoleonic era deep divisions between the three ethnic/linguistic areas of Switzerland—French in the west, Italian in the south, and German in the east and Protestant/Catholic tensions played out with the French cantons, home of rapidly advancing industrialization and the banking industry, demanding liberal governance and reforms and the deeply conservative German Catholics resisting.
After a brief civil war in 1847 in which liberal forces got the upper hand, a new Constitution modeled on the Federalism of the U.S. Constitution was adopted in 1848 that created a Federation of 25 self-governing Cantons with considerable local authority (in 1979 a new Canton, Jura, was carved out of northern Bern.)
Agitation for women’s suffrage began as early as 1886. It was strongly supported by the Trade Union movement and the Social Democratic Party. But these left-wing proponents only hardened the opposition of both conservatives and nominal liberals who controlled the Cantonal governments. The Catholic Church was a leading opponent and found strong support for its opposition among the largely rural eastern German districts.
Cantonal referenda failed repeatedly from the first vote in St. Gallen in 1912 to several conducted in the early 1950’s. Finally in 1957 a referendum vote in Basel let women vote in local (municipal) elections only. A renewed campaign by the Social Democratic Party, unions, and the tiny Communist Party got the issue put on a national referendum ballot in 1959. Conservatives were open opponents. Liberal parties declared their official neutrality and the left was isolated. The referendum was crushed by a vote of 54,939 (67%) no to 323,727 (31%) yes. Only three Francophone Cantons voted in favor. The male voters in those eastern German Cantons rejected it by margins running up to 95% in Appenzell Innerrhoden.
|In the more liberal French speaking cantons support for a 1959 suffrage vote was touted as women supportively joining men in political involvement. The sub text was "don't worry, they will vote like their husbands anyway."|
The same year, to combat any resurrection of the issue the Federation of Swiss Women against Women's Right to Vote was formed to demand a continued separation of gender roles.
As the winds of change blew through Europe in the 1960’s suffrage supporters resumed local campaigns. Basel-City became the first German speaking Canton to approve a referendum in 1966 followed by Basel-Country two years later.
Switzerland’s only Italian-majority Canton, Ticino voted in favor in 1969.
Meanwhile the Federal government was seeking gain entrance to the European Council which was contingent on the country signing the European Convention on Human Rights but it was prevented from doing so by the continued subjugation of the rights of women. It’s announcement of its intention to move toward suffrage was met by a firestorm of protest on the right.
In 1968 as student and worker revolts swept Europe, the youth of Switzerland took to the streets and demanded, among other things, complete citizenship rights and votes for women. Which led, eventually, to the scheduled 1971 national referendum.
|These 1960 commemorative Swiss postage stamps celebrated, or at least commemorated, the failed 1959 suffrage referendum.|
In October 1971, the first elections participated in by women sent 11 women to Parliament, 5.5% of the total members.
It took until 1985 for changes to the Swiss Constitution to pass guarantying women full citizenship rights within the State and equal rights with men within families.