Beside me on my desk lies my Ballot for the US Presidential Election just a few short weeks away. I don’t like to vote. I am not a political junkie. Making sense of the issues is exhausting. But, I vote. I vote because I see it as my duty as a US citizen and it is … my right.
It only became my constitutional right in 1920 with the passing of the 19th Amendment. Although some states, such as Colorado, were very progressive granting full voting rights to women as early as 1893, the struggle for women’s suffrage was a long hard road. Whether or not I like the voting process, the issues or the candidates, I cast a ballot today because I can !
Thinking about the upcoming election sparked my curiosity about women’s suffrage in Switzerland, my adopted country and current home. My impression of Switzerland has always been that it is a more “advanced” political state. Women are not only active in the political arena but also hold the highest political offices in the country. Surely this has always been so ….
Switzerland’s journey to women’s suffrage was also a difficult journey and a prolonged one due, in part, to the very system that makes Switzerland unique — the popular vote is the law. [INFOGRAPHIC]
Direct Democracy and the Road to Women’s Suffrage
Women’s suffrage has been an issue at some point or another for many countries in spite of constitutions claiming equality for their people. Switzerland was no exception and was, in fact, one of the last Western European countries to approve women’s right to vote.
There are two main reasons cited:
First, the hard held belief that women had no business in politics — not an uncommon belief.
“ widespread conservative conviction that roles within the family should be clearly assigned. Such prejudice was evident on the campaign posters of those opposed to the introduction of women’s suffrage; these figured carpet beaters, baby’s dummies and children and husbands neglected by their mothers and wives, women who preferred to get involved in the political life of the country instead of dedicating themselves to the family “ source: www.ch.ch
Second, direct democracy which gives a tremendous amount of power directly to the electorate — the male electorate.
“For women’s suffrage to be introduced, at cantonal level the majority of the electorate had to be in favor, and at federal level the majority of the electorate and cantons had to agree. By contrast, in other countries adopting women’s suffrage was a more simple process, since this could be the result of a decision by Parliament, without having to put the decision to the vote by the whole male population” source: www.ch.ch
The journey for women’s suffrage first began in 1886 and continued for 80+ years before the male electorate in 1971 finally approved women’s suffrage on the Federal level. It is important to note that this did not grant women the right to vote on local and cantonal matters. Some Cantons, Vaud and Neuchâtel, approved women’s right to vote as early as 1959 while others, such as Appenzeller Innherhoden , would delay until 1990. See Table 1
The road was a complicated process for Swiss women. The male population in their majority needed to be convinced that women were “mature” enough to handle the political world. There were even conservative women’s groups AGAINST women’s suffrage only adding fuel to the fire. While this knowledge sets my teeth on edge, some kudos are in order: Once the decision was made to grant women the vote, the country marched forward with total commitment— this is not to say there was never any prejudicial actions forthcoming against women, but overall women were welcomed to the fold. The Federal Elections to Parliament on October 31,1971, the first in which women could participate, is evidence.
Female Presence in Government Post 1971:
It is important to note that Switzerland was the first country where Women’s Suffrage was approved by the popular vote, cast by men, versus an elected body of representatives for the people. With the populous behind the decision ( 66%— Yes to 34% — No ), it can be argued that women in Swiss politics would face less obstacles advancing their political careers than counterparts in countries where women’s suffrage was a legislative decision. The initial evidence would suggest this theory is true. In the Federal Elections to Parliament on October 31,1971, women acquired 5% of the seats in the Swiss National Council ( Lower House) and 1 in the Swiss Council of States ( Upper House). Several of these pioneers would go on to capture higher offices within the Federal Assembly or become the first to hold an office on the Cantonal ( State ) level. See Table 2&3
Progress not Parity
Over the next 30 years, the trend of women in Swiss politics would continue positively and some might suggest quickly when measured against the time it took for them to win the right to vote, more than 8 decades! According to the World Economic Forum’s “The Global Gender Gap Report”, an annual study carried out in 128 countries to measure the gap between the sexes in various areas of society, Switzerland ranks 11th:
“In the rankings for political life, Switzerland has moved up from 40th position in 2007 to 11th position in 2010, behind the countries of Northern Europe, New Zealand and the Philippines but ahead of Great Britain, France and Italy.”
2010 was indeed an astounding year in Swiss Politics. It was the first time women surpassed men in the Swiss Federal Council (Executive Branch) and held the top positions in both the Executive and Legislative branches. Women were “leading” the country — a feat that 40 years prior would have seemed impossible. See Table 4 & 5
Nevertheless, disparity between the genders in Parliament continues. Per an annual report furnished by Inter Parliamentary Union, as of September 30, 2012 , Switzerland ranked 33 out of 190 countries evaluated for the presence of women in parliament: 28.5% — National Council; 19.6% — Council of States and once again, men surpass women, on the Federal Council: 4:3
In spite of this lack of parity in Parliament, Switzerland out ranks France, Italy, USA, and UK, but is outranked by Germany. See Table 6
… the journey continues
Being a woman with a ballot laying beside me waiting to be cast, I thought it would be interesting to skim the topic of Women’s Suffrage as it pertains, specifically, to my adopted home. Although I can not vote in Switzerland, I can in the US. In both countries and in many countries around the world, long hard battles were fought so that I may participate in the conversation. So with great appreciation for those efforts, I shall.
… And hope you will as well.
Front Image Photo Credits:
- “Suffrage féminin, Pour une Suisse Vivante, toujours jeune, Oui” Artist: Gilsi, René ; Commission: Zurich : Comité d’action suisse pour le suffrage féminin, 
- “Si vous ne voulez pas ça ! Votez non contre le suffrage féminin” Artist: Fontanet, Noel; Commission: Genève : [s.n.], 1946