The voting booth that women could step into fifty years ago in Switzerland represents a powerful symbol of equality. It also enabled their voice to be heard as citizens. It’s a belated act of justice and wisdom, making one of the oldest democracies, in essence, a young one. Since 1971, the picture of women's political representation nationally in Switzerland looks good. Yet, Swiss politics is local first, as many decisions are taken at a local level.
February 7, 2021 marks fifty years since women in Switzerland have secured the right to vote. This was, in the words of Ferruccio Bolla, the president of the Council of States (1971-72), ‘a belated act of justice and wisdom’.
Many in Switzerland and beyond are looking back and celebrating this achievement. I’m also cheering up the event here in Bern, the seat of the Federal Government. Others, like Eleonore Lepinard, a sociology professor at Lausanne University, caution us that this ‘should in many ways be a national shame because it came so late’.
I’m more interested in whether women’s right to vote has translated into ensuring gender equality — not just in casting votes and being elected, but also in many aspects of women’s life. I believe we all can learn from this, in particular how Switzerland has built a reasonably equal society.
Like many countries, and sometimes even more so, complex social norms and political processes have shaped the long history of gender relations in Switzerland. Such factors, among others, may explain the slow process of gender equality in the country.
The societal and political factors may seem to defy the level of economic development and Switzerland’s regional and global role. No wonder many people cannot hide their surprises when they hear or read about the state of gender equality in Switzerland – its least distinguished records.
History is past politics….
In Switzerland, men started voting in 1291. The country established one of the oldest democracies in the world. But the system only served half of the population, leaving women disfranchised. In this sense, it’s fair to say that it’s a ‘young democracy’.
The 1951 publication of Time magazine fittingly summarized Swiss politics at that time — an advanced democratic country finds itself in a strange company of 14 countries that barred women from voting. The others were Afghanistan, Colombia, Costa Rica, Haiti, Honduras, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Ethiopia, and Saudi Arabia.
Better late than never. The voting booth that women could step into fifty years ago in 1971 represents a powerful symbol of equality. It also enabled their voice to be heard as citizens.
We all may wonder why Switzerland, compared to its neighbors (Italy, France, and Germany), was a foot-dragger. Even though the success came in 1971, women in Switzerland fought for their rights for almost 100 years. The resistance to granting women their rights was due to a combination of ‘societal norms’ and ‘political tradition’.
To cite an example, a 1920 poster in the cantons of Basel-Stadt and Zurich suitably described the prevailing shared expectations or informal rules among Swiss people. A strong social norm prevailed among many, assuming that if women were granted the right to vote, they would be ‘angrier’, and this would ‘destroy the social fabrics’ of the country.
Others also argue that the Swiss tradition of direct democracy was the cause for the delay. The democratic tradition known as the Landsgemeinde, which periodically assembled all citizens eligible to vote, didn’t ‘provide the appropriate mechanisms to control the exercise of political power’. In other words, the federal system allowed such a tradition to continue in many cantons.
On top of this, a strong local direct democracy in which citizens had the right of a referendum to make constitutional amendments delayed the process. This may seem paradoxical, but it was a barrier to women’s suffrage. Even some Swiss women had to wait until 1991 to vote. The Federal Tribunal, Switzerland’s highest court, had to force the canton of Appenzell Innerrhoden on November 27, 1990 to comply with a federal Equal Rights Amendment.
… and politics is current history
Fast forward to June 2019. I was at the Bundesplatz, the public square in front of the Swiss parliament building, joining thousands of women and men demanding greater gender equality. The same square saw 5,000 women and men on March 1, 1969, demanding the right to vote.
Since then, Switzerland has come a long way. As a result of the persistent and coordinated movement by Swiss women (and men), the October 2019 election produced massive shifts in party power in Switzerland. Eighty-four women were elected to the House of Representatives, bringing the proportion of women in the largest parliamentary chamber to a record 41.5%. Switzerland now has the 12th-highest proportion of women in the House of Representatives worldwide. In Europe, it ranks behind Sweden and Finland.
What has happened so far in politics is current history. From the process, I’ve learned a lot both by reading the history of Switzerland and also living through its politics and society for the past six years.
One lesson is that to challenge institutionalized and legitimized exclusion in policymaking and laws, we need to think and work politically. Political participation is critical. Social mobilization and alliance building matter. This applies to all countries.
Another lesson is gender equality doesn’t necessarily come because a country is advanced or rich. Good performance in gender equality doesn’t always connect with the level of economic development. In other words, economies can present a distorted view of gender equality – I wrote about how Japan and Switzerland fared in the Global Gender Index.
Enabling a rising tide to lift all boats
Nationally in Switzerland, the picture of women's political representation looks good. Yet, Swiss politics is local first, as many decisions are taken at a local level. And at the local level, women's representation is still low except for the governments in the cantons of Vaud, Zurich, and Thurgau that have more women than men.
Why the difference?
I said earlier that it’s better to be late than never. However, the delay in granting women the right to vote and participate in Swiss politics fifty years ago has its impacts, according to Isabelle Stadelmann-Steffen, professor of comparative politics at the University of Bern: ‘on average, women in Switzerland have less political expertise, interest, and access to significant social and professional networks than men’.
As a result, it seems that most women remain at risk of being invisible. Productive, reproductive, and community roles require access to and use of resources. The challenge is such realities are built into the ways that institutions operate, and that have the effect of excluding women and minorities (including migrant women in the country).
Again, it’s important to remember the powerful role of social norms and navigating them carefully to effectively influencing positive changes. Such norms are still deeply ingrained in much of the country.
The good news is that 85% of Swiss people in 2020 describe themselves as very or somewhat interested in politics. The issue of gender equality, in addition to climate change and the impact of COVID-19, has contributed to the positive trend. This will indeed create more opportunities to identify and engaging trusted ‘messengers’ and ‘champions’ for more gender equality in Switzerland.
Let me conclude by inviting you to watch the Swiss director Petra Volpe's comedy ‘The Divine Order’ (2017) which examines Swiss women’s fight for suffrage in a microcosm.