When women were told to ‘cook not vote’

The first women in the Swiss parliament in 1972 Keystone

“They just don’t want it – you can’t do anything about it,” a disappointed female resident of canton Appenzell Inner Rhoden told Swiss public television, SRF, in 1982, after male voters in the rural region decided against letting their mothers, wives and daughters have a say at the cantonal level.

This content was published on March 8, 2017

Swiss men really held out for a long time. While women in New Zealand have been able to vote since 1893, Swiss women had to wait another 78 years: until 1971. What’s more, the only reason female residents of Appenzell Inner Rhoden can have their say at the cantonal level is because the Federal Court put its foot down in 1990.

Is Switzerland particularly backward? History books show that power and co-determination around the world have been almost exclusively in male hands for thousands of years. Men – as kings, dictators, presidents, parliamentarians or judges – determined the interests of a country.

In most cultures, women did not have any political rights. Unfortunately Switzerland is no exception. Rather, the oppression of women is a terrifyingly universal phenomenon.

What is special about Switzerland, however, is direct democracy. In contrast to most other countries, women’s suffrage in Switzerland was not prescribed by the government, but by male voters. Paradoxically, the fact that Switzerland has long had a strong (men’s) democracy blocked democratisation for women.

“Women should be at home cooking rather than out voting.” Female resident of Appenzell Inner Rhoden, 1982

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Nobody likes to give away power and privileges. If other countries had asked men whether they wanted to share the right to vote with women, maybe it would have taken even longer.

Conservative attitude to women

It is worth looking at other peculiarities. This includes the welcome fact that Switzerland was spared from being directly swept up in wars in the 20th century. The two world wars, in other Western countries, led to upheavals that favoured the introduction of women’s rights.

Conscription also played an important role. For a long time in Switzerland the accepted rule was that conscripts may vote on whether to go to war. After all, they are the ones who have to fight. Giving the vote to non-conscripts – women – challenges this equation.

Of course, a conservative attitude towards gender roles also delayed the introduction of female voting rights in Switzerland. This is reflected in some of the comments by Swiss men – and women! – given to Swiss television. “Women should be at home cooking rather than out voting,” said one female resident of Appenzell Inner Rhoden in 1982.

The fact that, despite this sort of adversity, the majority of male voters ended up supporting women’s right to vote is remarkable – especially since the men halved their own political voices by saying “yes”. Many men put justice and social peace ahead of their own interests.

Today many still do – and their numbers are growing – adding to hopes that gender equality in business, politics and society can someday be achieved.

Why do you think Switzerland was so late to give women the vote? Let us know. 

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