Swiss Women Gain the Right to Vote

Switzerland was the last independent Western democracy to grant women the right to vote in national elections. After the vote was granted in 1971, Swiss women made considerable progress in gaining election to political office.

Summary of Event

Universal suffrage is a cornerstone of democracy. The lateness with which Swiss women were granted the right to vote, then, is a paradox. Switzerland is a well-established democracy, yet it was the last Western democracy to extend the national suffrage to women. Until 1971, Swiss women did not possess the right to vote in national elections or to run for national office. An amendment giving women the right to vote was added to the Swiss constitution by referendum on February 7, 1971. The referendum was approved by a vote of 621,403 to 323,596. Women;suffrage
Switzerland;woman suffrage
Voting rights;Switzerland
[kw]Swiss Women Gain the Right to Vote (Feb. 7, 1971)
[kw]Women Gain the Right to Vote, Swiss (Feb. 7, 1971)
[kw]Right to Vote, Swiss Women Gain the (Feb. 7, 1971)
[kw]Vote, Swiss Women Gain the Right to (Feb. 7, 1971)
Switzerland;woman suffrage
Voting rights;Switzerland
[g]Europe;Feb. 7, 1971: Swiss Women Gain the Right to Vote[00200]
[g]Switzerland;Feb. 7, 1971: Swiss Women Gain the Right to Vote[00200]
[c]Civil rights and liberties;Feb. 7, 1971: Swiss Women Gain the Right to Vote[00200]
[c]Women’s issues;Feb. 7, 1971: Swiss Women Gain the Right to Vote[00200]
Blunschy-Steiner, Elisabeth
Girard, Gertrude
Girardin, Lise
Uchtenhagen, Lilian
Willis, Frances E.

The slowness in extending the franchise to women is difficult to reconcile with the emphasis in the Swiss political system on direct democracy and citizen participation. Changes to the Swiss constitution are subject to a compulsory referendum, whereby a majority of individuals and of the cantons (states) must vote affirmatively for amendments to be ratified. Other forms of direct citizen input include the popular initiative for legislation, in which people may by petition vote to add legislation, and facultative referendums, in which voters may petition to review certain types of laws. In addition, in some cantons, open-air town meetings, or Landsgemeinde, are held to debate and decide issues of local concern.

Switzerland is a multicultural nation. It has adopted three official languages (German, French, and Italian), and most of its people are members of two major religious denominations (Protestants and Roman Catholics in almost equal percentages). Peaceful coexistence among groups is fostered by strong local governments and by representation of major linguistic and religious groups in national government. Switzerland is subdivided into twenty cantons and six half cantons, many of which have distinct linguistic and religious identities. As in the United States, political rights not expressly granted in the constitution to the federal government are delegated to the cantons. For example, each canton determines its official language or languages, which then become the standard in public school instruction and government documents and regulations. Diversity is thus preserved through a commitment to strong cantonal rights.

In addition, a balance of major political and linguistic elements is maintained in the Federal Council, a seven-member cabinet chosen by the legislature, and in the Federal Assembly, a parliament made up of the National Council and the Council of States (similar to the U.S. Senate). For example, the constitution provides that no more than one federal councillor may come from any one of the cantons (which reflect linguistic and religious groups), thus helping to maintain a representation of various groups.

The stable working relationship developed in Switzerland among diverse groups has been cited as one explanation for resistance to the women’s vote. Woman suffrage was viewed as potentially disruptive in a system in which group interests were carefully balanced. Woman suffrage also met resistance because of the Swiss concept of the citizen-soldier. By practice and tradition, all Swiss men between the ages of twenty and fifty hold the responsibility for ongoing active military service. Swiss men must keep uniforms, arms, and ammunition in their homes. The Swiss policy of armed neutrality is linked to maintenance of a permanent army composed of the entire male citizenry. Historically, Switzerland’s small size and vulnerable geographic position amid powerful neighbors created a need for an able defense. The close linkage between the role of citizen and soldier in the minds of the Swiss was thus an additional barrier to women’s voting rights, as women do not serve in the military.

The Swiss are also reputed to hold traditional attitudes toward women’s roles. A cross-national Gallup poll showed that, in the late 1970’s, one-third of the Swiss respondents believed that men should be breadwinners while women should remain at home. When U.S. president Dwight D. Eisenhower announced his intention to appoint Frances E. Willis as ambassador to Switzerland in 1953, foreign diplomats speculated that the Swiss would not view positively the appointment of a woman to the position, given their views about women in politics. Even though women were given certain rights in Switzerland earlier than in most nations, such as the right to enter medical and law school in the 1890’s, women’s entrance into positions of authority in education, business, and politics lagged behind that of their counterparts in other Western democracies. The Swiss accepted the Willis appointment, however.

The campaign for woman suffrage in Switzerland occurred over most of the twentieth century. Periodically between 1918 and 1959, petitions were drawn up in support of women’s right to vote. On several occasions, the Swiss national government considered the possibility of submitting a referendum to the voters, but rejected the idea each time. The first national referendum on the issue of granting the vote to women, held in February, 1959, was rejected by a two-to-one margin (655,000 against and 324,000 in favor). Support for the amendment was greatest in French-speaking, urban, predominantly Protestant cantons—namely, Geneva, Vaud, and Neuchâtel—where a majority voted in favor of the referendum. Rural, German-speaking cantons showed far less support.

Rejection of the referendum precipitated a protest by some women. On February 3, 1959, fifty female teachers from Basel Girls’ School in Geneva organized a strike in protest of the referendum vote outcome. The strike was noteworthy because Swiss suffragists generally did not adopt the bold methods of direct protest utilized in some countries. A representative of the Alliance of Swiss Women’s Organizations was quoted as saying that women were “disappointed but not discouraged” by the negative vote. The alliance announced plans for further efforts to penetrate political party organizations to deepen support for woman suffrage and to raise citizens’ consciousness in a national information campaign.

A separate battle for women’s right to vote occurred on the cantonal and national levels. The Swiss constitution permitted cantons to set their own voter qualifications. This required that women win the right to vote on the national level as well as the cantonal level. Prior to 1959, about twenty-five initiatives aimed at granting women the right to vote on the cantonal level had been rejected. In 1958, the city of Basel was the first to grant women the right to vote on the local level. Following defeat of the 1959 national referendum, the French-speaking cantons of Vaud, Neuchâtel, and Geneva exercised their authority to give women the right to vote and seek office on the cantonal level.

Local, cantonal voting rights in Switzerland are important because so much autonomy is granted to cantonal governments. In May, 1968, Lise Girardin, former French professor at the University of Geneva, became Geneva’s mayor, the first woman mayor in Switzerland’s history. Girardin, an elected member of the Geneva Administrative Council, was appointed as mayor by her colleagues on the council. By September, 1970, eight of twenty-five cantons had granted women the right to vote in cantonal elections. In addition, three localities (in places where cantons had not granted the vote) had extended the vote to women. In 1970, both houses of the national parliament granted unanimous approval for a vote, scheduled for 1971, on the suffrage issue. On February 7, 1971, Swiss males agreed to grant women the vote in national elections.


Although Swiss men seemed to fear the impact of women’s voting on the Swiss national political system, in the 1971 election women helped to reelect the same stable party coalition that had been in office since the end of World War II. A number of women, however, were elected to the national parliament during the 1971 election. Women were elected to about 5 percent of seats in the National Council. Girardin, the former Geneva mayor, was elected to the forty-four-seat Council of States. Leaders of the movement to gain the vote for women, including Gertrude Girard, president of the Swiss Association for Women’s Suffrage, who failed to win a seat, expressed disappointment that more of the 263 female candidates for lower house seats were not elected. They pointed out that female candidates possessed a built-in disadvantage because men were acquainted with one another through their military service. Women outnumbered men in Switzerland, but they were not politically organized or networked through membership in clubs and other groups. Candidates can use involvement of this kind to make contacts with potential voters and to build name recognition and support.

Even though Swiss women gained the right to vote in national elections in 1971, they were not automatically granted the right to vote in cantonal and local elections. Votes cast against national woman suffrage in 1971 were clustered in rural cantons of east and central Switzerland. In 1990, the Swiss Federal Tribunal (similar to the U.S. Supreme Court) ruled that an equal rights clause in the constitution, passed in 1981 by the Swiss voters, overrode the constitutional provision giving each canton the right to decide its own voting requirements. With this decision, women were granted the right to vote in all elections on local, state, and national levels.

Since the vote was granted in 1971, Swiss women have made considerable progress in gaining election to political office. By 1979, women constituted about 10 percent of members of the parliament, a level twice that of similar legislative bodies in the United States and Great Britain. In 1977, Elisabeth Blunschy-Steiner, an attorney who favored change in the patriarchal Swiss family law, was elected president of the National Council. In December, 1983, Lilian Uchtenhagen was named the official candidate of the Social Democratic Party for one of two seats on the Federal Council that the party fills by custom. Uchtenhagen had served in parliament since 1971 and had been active in the woman suffrage movement. The parliament rejected her candidacy in favor of a male Social Democrat. In 1984, another woman, Elisabeth Kopp, Kopp, Elisabeth was elected to the Federal Council. Following her election as vice president of the Swiss Confederation in 1989, she was forced to resign amid charges that she had breached confidentiality by revealing to her husband that a government investigation involving his company was going to take place.

Legal inequalities in the treatment of men and women have also been chipped away. In 1977, the Swiss federal court ruled that male and female civil servants must be paid equally. In 1981, an equal rights amendment to the constitution was adopted. In 1971, husbands still retained rights over their wives’ assets, and consent was legally required for women to take a job or obtain a passport. Divorce laws did not grant women an equal share of joint assets.

In 1985, the women’s vote was credited with passage of a referendum that transformed these and other marriage and family laws. For example, the new laws granted women authority over their own financial affairs and made it unnecessary for women to obtain permission from their husbands to open bank accounts or obtain jobs. Women are still underrepresented in Swiss political office, although the country did elect its first woman, Ruth Dreifuss, Dreifuss, Ruth as president in 1999, and Annemarie Huber-Hotz Huber-Hotz, Annemarie also served as federal chancellor. In 2003, for the first time in the history of Switzerland, a cantonal government was dominated by women, when four women were elected to Zurich’s seven-member cantonal government. Women;suffrage
Switzerland;woman suffrage
Voting rights;Switzerland

Further Reading

  • Banaszak, Lee Ann. Why Movements Succeed or Fail: Opportunity, Culture, and the Struggle for Woman Suffrage. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2001. Provides informative analysis of why Swiss women gained the right to vote significantly later than did women in the United States. Draws on interviews with more than fifty Swiss suffragists.
  • Barber, Benjamin. “Participation and Swiss Democracy.” Government and Opposition 23 (Winter, 1988): 31-50. Describes the various institutions of Swiss government and considers the philosophy of Swiss democracy and citizenship. Also includes a discussion of the various instruments of direct democracy adopted by the Swiss.
  • Barber, Benjamin, and Patrick Watson. The Struggle for Democracy. Rev. ed. Boston: Little, Brown, 2002. Companion volume to a film series by the same title includes a chapter, “Citizens,” that explores the role of women as citizens in several nations, including Switzerland.
  • Charnley, Joy, Malcolm Pender, and Andrew Wilkin, eds. Twenty-Five Years of Emancipation? Women in Switzerland, 1971-1996. New York: Peter Lang, 1998. Collection of essays examines the cultural, social, and political status of Swiss women. Includes discussion of the women’s movement and suffrage.
  • Inglehart, Margaret. “Sex Role, Historical Heritage, and Political Participation in Switzerland.” In Switzerland at the Polls: The National Elections of 1979, edited by Howard R. Penniman. Washington, D.C.: American Enterprise Institute, 1983. Considers various factors that explain the extent to which Swiss women have become integrated into and involved in their political system. Includes a brief history of woman suffrage and of women’s political participation in Switzerland.
  • Norris, Pippa. “Women’s Legislative Participation in Western Europe.” In Women and Politics in Western Europe, edited by Sylvia Bashevkin. London: Frank Cass, 1985. Discusses the relative influence of various factors on women’s ability to obtain legislative seats in Western European nations, including Switzerland.

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