On March 7, 2019, the eve of International Women’s Day, members of the Federal Assembly paid tribute to the first women to be elected to Parliament. In December 1971, eleven women took their seats in the National Council and one in the Council of States. Their full names and the dates of their mandate were engraved below the numbers of the desks they occupied when they took office.
These commemorative plaques not only honour the extraordinary journey of the pioneering women in Parliament, but also acknowledge this major event in Swiss parliamentary history and democracy.
The biographies below give a brief description of the unusual careers of the first female members of parliament. They will appear this summer inside the desks that the women occupied in the chambers.
Some of these women MPs actively campaigned for their civil rights; all of them showed huge determination in their careers. Indeed, these women were pioneers in just about every field in which they were involved, whether professionally or politically.
The 11 pioneers in the National Council
Hedi Lang-Gehri (1931–2004) sat at desk 138 when she took up her seat in the National Council for the SP in 1971, and went on to serve three terms of office. In 1981, she became the second woman ever to be elected president of the National Council. From 1970 to 1978, she was communal councillor in Wetzikon before becoming the first woman in history to be elected to a cantonal government. She sat in the Zurich cantonal parliament from 1983 to 1995. In the federal parliament in Bern, she focused on family and social policy issues and the promotion of gender equality.
Martha Ribi-Raschle (1915–2004) sat at desk 92 when she took up her seat in the National Council for the FDP in 1971. She sat in the federal parliament for three terms of office. She was an expert in the fields of public health and social affairs, and also in training, becoming first deputy and then head of the City of Zurich Medical Service. She went on to obtain a degree in economics parallel to her work and role as mother. A member of the FDP from 1963, she was its national vice president from 1973 to 1983. She was also a member of the Zurich cantonal parliament from 1971 to 1972.
«Josi» (Josephine) J. (Johanna) Meier (1926–2006) sat at desk 150 when she took up her seat in the National Council for the CVP in 1971, and remained for three terms of office. In 1983, she was elected to the Council of States and remained a member until 1995. She was the first female president of the chamber, from 1991 to 1992. In Parliament, she focused on Switzerland’s foreign policy and family and social policy. Well known for her wit, at the women’s session in 1991 she spoke these now famous words: "Twenty years ago, they wanted to hold us back with the slogan ‘Die Frau gehört ins Haus’ [Women belong in the house]. It took us years to understand this properly. At last, with the help of the younger generation, we grasp its full meaning. Of course we belong in the house: in the Gemeindehaus, in the Bundeshaus! [in communal parliament, in federal parliament]." During her first term of office in the National Council, she also sat on the Lucerne cantonal parliament, from 1971 to 1976.
Elisabeth Blunschy-Steiner (1922–2015) sat at desk 78 when she took up her seat in the National Council for the CVP in 1971. She served four terms of office and in 1977 was the first female president of the chamber. With a doctorate in law and as a practising lawyer, in Parliament she sat on the Commission of Experts for the Review of Family Law, where she pursued the fight for the women’s rights launched in the late 1960s. She also advocated an improvement in the situation of women in the state pension system and new legislation on marriage, adoption and childhood.
Lilian Uchtenhagen (1928–2016) sat at desk 32 when she took up her seat in the National Council for the SP in 1971. She served five terms of office, during the first of which she also sat on the Zurich city council (1970–1974). As an economist and doctor of political sciences, she was well versed in economic issues, and in Parliament she spoke out for greater controls on banks. In 1983 she was the first woman in history to stand for election to the Federal Council. She was the only candidate put forward by the SP, but was ousted by the conservative majority, who instead chose her more consensual party colleague, Otto Stich. This event sparked a wave of indignation throughout the country, and in particular within the SP, which considered withdrawing from the government.
Liselotte Spreng (1912–1992) sat at desk 141 when she took up her seat in the National Council for the FDP in 1971. She served three terms of office. A medical doctor from Fribourg, she was very active in the fields of family law, humanitarian action and medical ethics. She was a member of the Fribourg cantonal parliament from 1971 to 1976 and president of the Fribourg Association for Female Suffrage, promoting the development of this movement in the canton of Fribourg.
Hanny Thalmann (1912–2000) sat at desk 114 when she took up her seat in the National Council for the CVP in 1971. She was a member for the canton of St Gallen for two terms of office, making her mark on the Vocational Education and Training Act and advocating the introduction of maternity insurance. In 1943 she became the first woman to hold a doctorate in economics from the St Gallen University of Applied Sciences, and she was the first woman to sit on the Education Council of the canton of St Gallen, from 1968 to 1983.
Gabrielle Nanchen (*1943) sat at desk 17 when she took up her seat in the National Council for the SP in 1971. Originally from the canton of Vaud, she had followed her Valaisan husband to his canton and so lost her right to vote at cantonal level. She entered into politics as a reaction to this injustice against women, agreeing in defiance to stand as a candidate for the National Council. During the two terms of offices she served in Parliament, she defended a woman’s right to abortion, advocated equality between the sexes, a flexible retirement policy and parental leave. She was also the first in the national parliament to demand the abolition of the status of seasonal worker. She stood down in 1979, following the birth of her third child.
Tilo Frey (1923–2008) sat at desk 139 when she took up her seat in the National Council for the FDP in 1971. Daughter of a Swiss father and Cameroonian mother, she was the first woman to sit in parliament for the canton of Neuchâtel and the first of mixed race. During her term in office she fought for equal pay between men and women, more equitable family policies and the improvement of women’s inheritance rights. Having entered politics in 1959, the year in which women in the canton of Neuchâtel obtained the right to vote and stand for office, she also sat on the Neuchâtel city council from 1964 to 1974 (president in 1970/71) and was a member of the Neuchâtel cantonal parliament from 1969 to 1973.
Nelly Wicky (*1923) sat at desk 21 when she took up her seat in the National Council for the Geneva Workers’ Party in 1971. She received the most votes on her party list. She served one term of office in the National Council, during which she fought for the introduction of maternity insurance and to defend conscientious objectors. She served for almost thirty years (1963–1991) on the Geneva city council and was an advocate for those living in the working districts on the city’s fringe, where she was a schoolteacher.
Hanna Sahlfeld-Singer, born in 1943, sat at desk 132 when she took up her seat in the National Council for the SP in 1971. A pastor in the Reformed Church in St Gallen, she had to give up her ministry as this was incompatible with her parliamentary mandate. She did not stand for a second term of office as her husband, also a pastor, no longer found a ministry because of his wife’s political activities. The family moved to Germany. Hanna Sahlfeld-Singer was the first woman to bear a child while a member of parliament.
Pioneer in the Council of States
Lise Girardin (1921–2010) sat at desk 18 when she took up her seat in the Council of States for the FDP in 1971. Representing the canton of Geneva, during her single term of office she was an advocate for maternity insurance, decriminalisation of abortion and the law on adoption and filiation. She was the first woman elected to the Council of States, having also been the first woman to sit on the Geneva city government (1967–1979) and the first female mayor in Switzerland (also in Geneva, in 1968, 1972 and 1975).
TWELVE PLAQUES TO REMIND US OF THE LONG STRUGGLE OF WOMEN
In his tribute to Lise Girardin, the president of the Council of States, Jean-René Fournier, emphasised on Thursday morning at the beginning of the session that the election of the first women parliamentarians had brought a successful conclusion to one hundred years of struggle for women’s civil rights (Text of speech to the Council of States). ). He recalled that voters had repeatedly denied women the right to vote and to stand for election.
The president of the National Council, Marina Carobbio, welcomed the two pioneers, Hanna Sahlfeld-Singer and Gabrielle Nanchen, who were present in the gallery for the ceremony in honour of the first women elected to the lower chamber. Ms Carobbio pointed out that the commemorative plaques were there to ensure that new generations would never forget the struggle and courage of the pioneers of parliament (Text of speech to the National Council)