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Christian Democrats pay tribute to Josi Meier

(Keystone)

Politician Josi Meier will be remembered as a long-time defender of women's rights and the first ever woman speaker of the Swiss Senate.

Known as the "Grand Old Lady" of Swiss politics, Meier – who died on Saturday- was one of the first women in parliament after female suffrage at federal level was finally won in 1971.

Meier, who hailed from Lucerne and was a member of the centre-right Christian Democratic Party, was known for her wit and her determination during her long political career.

She died in her home city, the Lucerne Christian Democrats said in a statement.

"Above all Josi J. Meier will be remembered for her tireless and fierce commitment to women's rights and for her concern for the needy," said the party.

Economics Minister Doris Leuthard, a fellow Christian Democrat, called Meier her political role model and a politician with a great knowledge of issues who carried out her work concisely but with style.

Josephine Johanna Meier was born into a poor family in 1926. Her father was a hotel porter.

After attending school in Lucerne she studied law at Geneva University. In 1952 she became a registered lawyer and set up her own practice in Lucerne, which she continued until her death.

Women's rights

Her fight for women's rights was crowned in 1971 when she was elected into the Lucerne cantonal parliament. Shortly afterwards she became one of the first 11 women to sit in the House of Representatives in the Swiss parliament.

In 1983 she moved to the Senate – the chamber that represents the Swiss cantons - and in 1991 was the first woman to be elected its speaker.

Meier fought long and hard against old-fashioned attitudes towards women and politics.

"Twenty years ago people wanted to stop us with the slogan, "women belong in the house," she said in a 1991 speech marking the 20th anniversary of women in parliament.

"It was years before we finally understood this sentence. We have now finally taken it in with the help of the younger generation. Of course we belong in the house, in the House of Representatives..."

The politician was active in other areas – she fought for better social and family policies and was a member of the committee that investigated dormant accounts in Swiss banks dating back to the Second World War era. She was also instrumental in the revision of the Swiss constitution.

Meier, who had a distinctively high voice a result of an operation on her vocal cords, was known for her forthright opinions and her humour.

"Other people can afford a yacht or a horse," she once said. "I can afford my own opinion, that is just as expensive."

Respected

Highly respected, her political engagement even earned her the accolade as the "old warhorse of Lucerne".

This title is said to have pleased her the most - she was fond of saying that she was married to the canton of Lucerne.

In 1995 Meier retired from the Senate and from active politics, although she continued to lend her support to causes. This summer, despite being in poor health – she had been diagnosed with cancer – she campaigned against the tightening of the asylum law.

Meier told journalists on her 80th birthday in August that she did not fear death – she had for a while been the head of a commission looking into assisted suicide legislation - and that she had already arranged her funeral. "I am no heroine," she said.

swissinfo, Isobel Leybold-Johnson

In brief

In Switzerland women make up about one in four parliamentarians (worldwide average 16.3 per cent).

But in a recent worldwide ranking of female representation in parliament, Switzerland came in 27th, behind Burundi and Afghanistan.

There are two women in the seven-strong Swiss cabinet: Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey (Social Democrats) and Economics Minister Doris Leuthard (Christian Democrats).

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Women's suffrage

Women won the right to vote in Switzerland at the national level in 1971 – one of the last countries in Europe to do so.

In November 1971, 11 women were voted into parliament.

Some cantons already had female suffrage at the time and others followed. The last canton to allow women the vote was Appenzell Inner-Rhodes, which was compelled to adopt female suffrage by a court order in 1990.

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