Elisabeth Kopp, who became Switzerland’s first-ever female cabinet minister in 1984, is celebrating her 80th birthday today. Despite an abrupt end to her political career when she was forced to resign, the Zurich politician from the Radical Party opened the way for other women to follow.
On December 7, 1983 – 12 years after Swiss women got the right to vote in federal elections – the left-wing Social Democratic Party tried to get the first female candidate elected to the cabinet. Zurich parliamentarian Lilian Uchtenhagen tried to succeed Willy Ritschard. But a majority of parliamentarians on the right preferred Otto Stich. That non-election led to a national debate on women’s participation in government.
Less than a year later on October 2, 1984, Zurich politician Elisabeth Kopp of the centre-right Radical Party finally broke through to be elected to the Swiss government. It was a historic moment: the first time that a woman had held a cabinet position in Switzerland.
But her political career took a dramatic turn in autumn 1988 when she found herself at the centre of one of Switzerland’s biggest political scandals after a telephone call she made. Following allegations that she tipped off her businessman husband about federal investigations into a company with which he was connected, she was forced to resign on January 12, 1989.
In November 1989, a parliamentary commission of enquiry criticised her for having breached rules on official secrecy and said her resignation was inevitable. The Federal Court later cleared her of the charges.
She managed to return to public life, giving speeches and taking part in campaigns on various issues such as Switzerland’s move to join the United Nations and maternity health care. More recently she campaigned against the conservative right Swiss People’s Party’s initiative to deport foreign criminals.
Following her resignation, another four years would pass before another woman was elected to the cabinet: Ruth Dreifuss in 1993, Ruth Metzler (1999), Micheline Calmy-Rey (2002), Doris Leuthard (2006) and Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf (2007).
Simonetta Sommaruga became the next female cabinet minister on September 22, 2010 and for the first time the seven-member cabinet was dominated by women. It joined a unique group of countries which had taken a similar step (Finland, Norway, Spain and Cape Verde).
But that situation did not last for long when Micheline Calmy-Rey stepped down in 2011 and was replaced by Alain Berset. After the resignation of Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf in 2015, and her replacement by Ueli Maurer, today only two female cabinet ministers are in office: Doris Leuthard and Simonetta Sommaruga.
Translated from French by Simon Bradley