Over 100 years of struggle: A brief history of women's suffrage in Switzerland

Over 100 years of struggle: A brief history of women's suffrage in Switzerland

In comparison to its neighbours, Switzerland has been slower to give women the right to vote. Through a combination of a publicly run political system and cantonal nation structure, the history of women’s suffrage in Switzerland has been described by parliament as over “100 years of struggle.”

Switzerland delayed in giving women the vote

53 years after Germany, 52 years after Austria, 27 years after France and 26 years after Italy, Swiss women were finally given the right to vote in Swiss elections and referendums in 1971, as well as the right to stand for election themselves. Being so late in comparison to its neighbours, it begs the question as to how women won the right to vote in Switzerland - and why it took so long.

A brief history of women’s suffrage in Switzerland

The first Swiss constitution signed in 1848 established the Swiss government and state as we see it today. In the constitution, equality under the law was given to all human beings but did not include women explicitly. Subsequent laws placed women in a state of inferiority when compared to Swiss citizens (that is - men), and femininity became heavily associated with homemaking and childbirth.

First suffragettes in Switzerland

The first suffragette societies in Switzerland sprang up in the mid to late 19th century. In Zurich, the first attempt to grant women the vote fell on deaf ears in 1868, when the cantonal constitution was revised.

It was when the federal Swiss constitution was revised in 1874 that real discussions began as to what a woman’s role in society was and whether they should be granted voting rights. A notable form of protest was seen in 1887 when the first woman in Europe to be granted a doctorate of law, Zurich-born Emilie Kempin-Spyri, demanded she have the right to become a lawyer. Her request was refused, but her example inspired Zurich to amend its own law so that women could become lawyers in 1898.

Formation and hesitancy

In 1893, the Swiss Federation of Women Workers was formed to demand the right to vote for women. In 1909, several other suffrage organisations came together to form the Swiss Association for Women’s Suffrage (ASSF). In 1918, amid the Swiss general strike, politicians sympathetic to the ASSF submitted two motions demanding women’s suffrage to the Federal Council, both of which were ignored, despite passing parliament. In 1934, the Federal Councillor responsible for enacting each motion went into retirement, telling his successor, "The material for women's suffrage lies in the middle drawer to the right of your desk."

In 1929, the ASSF submitted a new petition for women's voting rights, this time with over 249.000 signatures. Despite passing parliament, the motion also came to nothing. In the 1930s, the rise of fascism and the increasing economic hardship stifled the movement until after the end of the Second World War.

Reform and defeat at the ballot box

After the end of the war, Basel, Geneva, Ticino, Zurich, Neuchâtel, Solothurn and Vaud all rejected referendums to introduce female suffrage between 1946 and 1951. In 1951, the Federal Council concluded that the results from each canton meant a nationwide vote on the issue was “premature.”

Women’s rights activists had another chance to secure women the vote in the late 1950s. At the height of the Cold War, the government hoped to force women to complete civil protection service - a form of national service. As national service was the duty of a citizen, women's rights groups argued that it was unfair for women to complete their duty while not benefiting from citizenship.

Dismay and the first cantons to give Swiss women the vote

The issue forced the Swiss government to agree to a vote on women’s suffrage that would take place on February 1, 1959. The vote was rejected by 66,9 percent of voters - who were, naturally, all male. Only Canton Vaud, Geneva and Neuchâtel approved of the referendum at the time, which convinced their cantonal authorities to approve women’s suffrage at the cantonal and communal level between 1959 and 1960, the first places in Switzerland to do so. 

Canton Basel-Stadt followed in 1966, then Basel-Land (1968), Ticino (1969), Valais (1970) and Zurich (1970). 

Switzerland allows women to vote federally

In 1968, Switzerland faced a dilemma. The Federal Council was considering signing the European Convention on Human Rights, but crucially, would not accept the clause concerning the political rights of women. Massive protests followed and in 1970, the government accepted a new vote on women’s suffrage.

On February 7, 1971, after more than 100 years of feminist struggle, Swiss women won the right to vote and stand in federal elections for the first time. Article 74 of the Federal Constitution was signed into law in May 1974, concluding the matter. With it came the first-ever federal female politicians, with Lise Girardin becoming the first woman to sit on the Council of States. 

Warning: Please be aware that the beginning of this video has flashing lights and images.

Video: YouTube / ParlCH

Is it true that Switzerland didn’t give women the right to vote until the 1990s?

By the time of the federal vote, only 13 of the 26 cantons had given women the right to vote on the cantonal and communal levels. Women gained the right to vote in most Swiss cantons in 1971, but in the two Appenzell cantons, it wasn't until 1989 and 1990 respectively, that the legislation went through.

Appenzell Ausserrhoden would grant women the right to vote in April 1989. Finally, as Vanilla Ice dominated the charts, Appenzell Innerrhoden would approve women’s suffrage in November 1990, after pressure from the Federal Supreme Court of Switzerland.

Why did it take so long to give women the vote in Switzerland?

One of the main reasons why Switzerland took so long to grant women the right to vote was because of its political system. For a vote on women’s suffrage to pass, it had to win the majority of support from the electorate - in this case, men. 

This means that unlike in other countries like the UK, US and Germany - which had suffrage movements of similar strength to Switzerland - granting the right to vote could not be approved without the consent of the general public as a whole. Instead, unless the majority of men and cantons were in favour, women’s suffrage would be at the mercy of the attitudes of the time, causing the lengthy malaise.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, there was a strong feeling among men and some women that women were meant to lead non-political lives. Posters against both attempts at federal suffrage showed neglected children and wayward young women as a "sign of things come." This idea took a long time to change, as is evidenced by how long it took for a vote on women's voting rights to pass.

Jan de Boer


Jan de Boer

Jan studied in York and Sheffield in the UK, obtaining a master's in broadcast journalism and a bachelor's in history. He has worked as a radio DJ, TV presenter, and...

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