Universal suffrage in Switzerland, considerations on the 50th anniversary of women's vote

Source: Schweizerisches Sozialarchiv
Source: Schweizerisches Sozialarchiv

Institutional Communication Service

8 February 2021

On 7 February 1971, the Swiss people (or rather the male electorate) voted in favour of a constitutional amendment to grant voting rights to women. This brought Switzerland in line with other Western countries, albeit with a considerable delay: in countries such as Germany and the USA, women's suffrage had been introduced half a century earlier, starting in the 1920s. With political equality, the way was paved for greater gender equality as well, with successive amendments to the Constitution, such as the law on giudicial equality. But fifty years on, and despite the law in force, gender equality still seems far from being effective - just think of salary discrimination. Professor Federica De Rossa, Director of the USI Law Institute (IDUSI) and member of the USI Delegation for Equal Opportunities, helps us to understand these issues from a legal perspective.

The Swiss Federal Constitution states (art. 8, para 3): "Men and women have equal rights. The law shall ensure their equality, both in law and in practice, most particularly in the family, in education, and in the workplace. Men and women have the right to equal pay for work of equal value."


Yet, even today there are significant differences, and not only in wages. Why is this?

"The issue is complex. Although equality is a constitutional right, the realisation of effective gender equality faces a number of legal, but also social, cultural and economic obstacles. With the exception of equal pay, which can also be invoked in relations between private individuals (e.g. vis-à-vis employers), equality - like all fundamental rights - is only binding on the State and lawmakers. In particular, Article 8(3) of our Constitution requires lawmakers to adopt legislation that guarantees equality in practice as well, while leaving much flexibility towards the positive measures needed to achieve this. It wasn't until 1995, in fact, that we saw the first important implementation of this legislation, with the adoption of the Federal Gender Equality Act, which was one of the main achievements of the 1991 women's strike. However, the law is limited to achieving equality in the professional domain and is still not duly applied in the courts. However, a law is not enough. We also need to change a series of archaic legal structures that for centuries have shaped society by the traditional division of roles 'man - public sphere; woman - private sphere' (e.g. social insurance). We therefore need modern family, tax, training and social security policies that are adapted to the current realities and that also encourage the economy to implement the changes that are still necessary".


In terms of gender equality, compared to other European countries Switzerland is not quite a model. What is the reason for this late introduction of universal suffrage?

"It was probably due to a combination of social, cultural and geopolitical factors that defined Switzerland at the time - a conservative country, with rather small and closed communities, and where the right to vote was closely linked to the military service - but also to the fact that Switzerland did not take part in the two world wars, which in other countries had radically changed the social structure, forcing women to replace men who had gone off to war and to take on tasks that traditionally had been reserved for men. The main obstacle to universal suffrage, however, was direct democracy, the pride of our country. The introduction of direct democracy required a change in the constitution approved by a male electorate that felt threatened by this revolution for two reasons: the loss of power, which would have to be shared with women, and the relinquishing of traditional domestic and caring duties by their spouses. The arguments brough forward to oppose women's voting rights were often absurd: the rural Cantons argued, for example, that it would be impossible for women to walk long distances to the polling stations and that they would be forced to temporarily abandon their children and their households. The Cantons with the Landsgemeinde pointed out that the introduction of universal suffrage could lead to the abolition of the institution itself because the public town squares where men would gather to vote were too small to accommodate women as well! Moreover, a number of women's associations fought hard against universal suffrage. In the end, after several unsuccessful attempts, international pressure to ratify the European Convention on Human Rights proved decisive".


While there is still a long way to go in Switzerland, looking across the Atlantic, where women's suffrage has existed for exactly a century, things are not much better. The issue of gender discrimination has been addressed relatively recently. One thinks of the battles fought in the 1970s by Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the second-ever US Supreme Court justice and a true icon of the struggle for civil and gender rights, who recently passed away.

"The statement 'Women belong in all places where decisions are being made' was emblematic of Justice Ginsburg's way of fighting discrimination and contributing to changing society. Equality has been, and unfortunately will continue to be for years, a difficult achievement, because for women it means being able to find a place in places that for centuries were occupied only by men, and for men it means accepting to share seats in parliaments and assemblies, Board chairs, professorships in universities, etc. with women and therefore, in essence, ceding them power. In fact, male-dominated parliaments and other assemblies cannot, on their own, bring about this change. The proof is there for all to see, not only with the recent elections in the USA, but also in our own country: in the first year of a legislature that has seen a significant increase in the number of women in parliaments (at federal level, but also, for example, in Ticino), we can already see encouraging signs of a change in culture (e.g. the recent vote on parental leave in Ticino). For this reason, it is important that lawmakers continue to actively promote equal opportunities through the adoption of positive measures (e.g. work-life balance, fostering a culture of diversity, soft incentives and, where necessary, gender quotas) that will quickly put women in a position where they can freely make their own choices and, again citing Ginsburg, no longer be the exception".