More than a million and a half Swiss citizens alive today were born facing the prospect that they could never vote – despite their country’s democratic tradition.
It was not until February 7, 1971, just 40 years ago, that Swiss men finally voted in favour of women’s suffrage.
Looking back, it seems extraordinary that Switzerland waited so long before giving women the vote, but although the campaign for women’s suffrage had lasted for decades and its proponents had been very active, by no means all women were caught up in the movement.
swissinfo.ch asked five ordinary Swiss women who gained the vote in 1971, what they remembered about it, and what it had meant to them.
“It was very important for me, something I had wanted for a long time,” said historian Barbara Vannotti from canton Zurich, who was 25 at the time.
“I was thrilled,” said Ruth Zbinden, who was coming up for 30. Her husband was a member of the Fribourg cantonal parliament, and had made many speeches in favour of women’s suffrage.
But both admitted that they had too much going on in their lives for them to have got very involved personally, and that was certainly true of Margarete Kläy, who lived just outside Bern, was in her mid 40s and had three children to look after and not much money coming in.
Kläy was extremely active in voluntary associations in her village, so hardly indifferent to the general well-being, but politics was not part of it.
“I really didn’t have time to think about it,” she said, a sentiment echoed by her near-contemporary Janine Bourgknecht, who lived in more comfortable circumstances in Fribourg.
“I was always interested in politics, so was my husband, we used to discuss things and listen to the radio, but I had four children, and I felt I had enough to do with them,” she explained.
Preconceptions about the role of women were widespread – as anti-suffrage campaign posters made clear. Many of them implied that if women took part in politics, their children would suffer neglect; others played on the idea that only “mannish” women were interested in politics.
“What annoyed me were all those ultra-feminist movements, with all their demands,” said Bourgknecht.
Schoolteacher Lotti Reist, who was also in her mid-40s, and bringing up three children alone, expressed similar sentiments.
“I found it great really, but the women who were pushing for it really put me off,” she confessed. “They were too feminist. I can see that there was a need for fighters, and I was grateful to them for doing it, but I really didn’t like what these women understood being a woman meant.”
Several of swissinfo’s interviewees mentioned the social pioneer Emilie Lieberherr – perhaps in their minds because she died only a few weeks ago [see video] – as an exception to this rule.
“We would hear Emilie Lieberherr on the radio, and she gave us self-confidence.
She made us feel: ‘Yes, we count too’,” Kläy recalled.
Reist also admired her. “I was grateful for her fighting spirit,” she said.
Hearth and home
But the idea that politics was not for women died hard, and many women shared it. Vannotti explained some of the arguments that they used, and admitted that her mother probably felt the same way.
“Women should stay at home, they shouldn’t get involved in politics because they really don’t understand it… What would they want to get involved for anyway? It’s much too tough a business.”
Nevertheless, her godmother, whom she greatly admired, was very political, and became one of the first women in the Aargau cantonal parliament.
“She was regarded as a bit strange,” Vannotti recalled. The family didn’t exactly criticise her, but there was something of the feeling that she ought to be spending more time looking after her husband and four sons.
For her own part, Vannotti couldn’t understand why anyone should be against women voting.
“For me it was always a human right; it has nothing to do with being a man or a woman.”
Equal – but not the same
And yet many women were evidently worried about combining politics with “being feminine”. Zbinden felt that it was important to get across the idea that women had the same right as men to be heard – “but if you insist too much, your feminine side gets a bit lost”.
The same rights don’t mean everyone is the same. “Often we women make decisions perhaps more according to feeling, and men more by understanding,” she suggested. “Women react differently; I think more women in power would mean fewer wars.”
Bourgknecht had objected to some things she heard on the radio on the subject at that time.
“There were so many programmes addressed to women, telling them they had the right to fulfil themselves, that they didn’t have to spend all their time in the kitchen and so on. I don’t think that’s very helpful: it makes women who have to look after their children feel guilty when they stay at home.”
“I think there are now so many women everywhere… Women have children later – I wonder if it’s a good system. You can’t do everything.”
Off to the polls
All the women told swissinfo.ch they were interested in politics, followed current affairs, and used their vote.
Reist, who was divorced, listened to her three children. “We had our ‘round table’ and talked about all these things. Or rather, they discussed them, and they educated me.”
She admitted that it was only in the last few years, since her daughter had died, that she had started to develop her own opinions. But she has always voted.
Zbinden discusses politics with her husband, and is in the same party – but they don’t always agree.
Even Vannotti’s mother, who was by no means convinced that women needed to vote, used to go along to the polls – with her husband.
“I imagine she voted the same way as my father, since she was convinced she didn’t know anything about it.”
Forty years on, Vannotti thinks the votes of women have made a real difference in some areas, particularly to do with family life.
And she looks forward to this month’s vote calling for Swiss army weapons to be stored in the arsenal rather than at home.
“I can almost believe it will be adopted – thanks to women.”
The struggle for the vote
The fight for women’s suffrage in Switzerland goes back to the end of the 19th century.
The Swiss Female Workers’ Association called for votes for women in 1893.
In 1904 the Social Democratic Party of Switzerland included women’s suffrage in its manifesto.
In 1912 and 1919 a number of cantons rejected moves to give women the vote at cantonal level.
A petition calling for women to get the vote at federal level collected nearly 250,000 signatures, but was ignored.
The first breakthrough came in 1957, when canton Basel City voted to allow communes to give women the vote at commune level. Riehen was the first to do so, in 1958.
In a federal vote in 1959, women’s suffrage was rejected by 67%.
Vaud gave women the right to vote at cantonal and commune level in February 1959, followed by Neuchatel in September and Geneva the next year.
Basel City was the first German-speaking canton to follow suit in 1966; Basel Country did the same in 1968, and Italian-speaking Ticino in 1969.
Women were finally granted the right to vote at federal level on February 7, 1971.
In October 1971 the first 11 women were elected to parliament.
Women still did not have the vote in all cantons and communes. The last to hold out was canton Appenzell Inner-Rhodes.
Women got the vote there in 1990, after a Federal Court.decision.
A recent study shows that the number of women aged between 18 and 29 who exercise their voting rights has dropped from 38 to 26 per cent since 1971.end of infobox