On 7 February 1971, 53 years after Germany, 52 after Austria, 27 after France and 26 after Italy, Swiss women were granted the right to vote and stand for election. Women’s associations in Switzerland had had to pressure the Federal Council and work tirelessly to obtain a majority vote among the People and the cantons.
The first demands
In 1868, the women of Zurich demanded the right to vote when the cantonal constitution was revised - without success. In 1893, the Swiss Federation of Women Workers officially called for women to have the right to vote and stand for election. The Socialist Party (SP) was the first party to support the cause of women, starting in 1904. In 1909, a number of associations for women's suffrage came together to form the Swiss Association for Women’s Suffrage (ASSF).
two motions demanding women’s suffrage were submitted to the National Council. They were forwarded to the Federal Council, which left them, ignored, in a drawer.
The conservatism of the inter-war period
In 1929, the ASSF submitted a petition to the Federal Chancellery with 249,237 signatures (78,840 men, 170,397 women) collected by women's associations, the SP and trade unions. This petition, even though it was passed on by Parliament, also came to nothing.
In the 1930s, demands for women’s suffrage became weaker as by the economic crisis made itself increasingly felt. As conservative and fascist tendencies became more widespread, the housewife came to be seen as a key element in a model society.
The failure of the 1959 referendum
In many European countries, women were passionate activists during the Second World War and were subsequently granted the right to vote. In Switzerland, they were not rewarded for their efforts. Several cantons (BS, BL, GE and TI in 1946, ZH in 1947, NE and SO in 1948, VD in 1951) rejected introducing female suffrage and in 1951, a Federal Council report concluded that a federal vote on female suffrage was premature.
At the height of the Cold War, the government wanted to introduce the obligation for women to do civil protection service. This was too much for the ASFF, the Swiss Catholic Women's League and the Alliance of Swiss Women's Societies, which then climbed the barricades. How could the Federal Council impose new obligations on women when they still did not have the right to vote? Public controversy threatened the civil protection project and in 1957 the Federal Council submitted a bill on women's suffrage.
The project was approved by both parliamentary chambers in 1958. On 1 February 1959, voters (all male of course)
refused women the right to vote by 654,939 votes (66.9%) to 323,727 (33%). In three cantons, Vaud, Geneva and Neuchâtel, there was a majority in favour of women’s suffrage and so it was introduced at cantonal and communal level. Basel-Stadt introduced it in 1966.
Victory in 1971
In 1968, the Federal Council considered signing the European Convention on Human Rights, without accepting the clause concerning women's political rights. In the face of massive protests from women’s associations, the Swiss government organised a new vote on women’s suffrage. After 100 years of feminist struggle, on 7 February 1971 Swiss women won the
right to vote and stand for election.
The vote led to the amendment
Article 74 of the Federal Constitution of 29 May 1874.
Thanks to this victory, Swiss women could now be elected to the Federal Assembly. At the start of the 1971 winter session, the first female members of parliament took their seats, each being welcomed with a rose.
Quotes from the presidents of the two chambers:
Arno Theus (SVP/GR), former president of the Council of States (1970-1971)
Madame Girardin, it is my great honour to welcome you as the first Swiss female member of the Council of States. I can assure you that your colleagues in this chamber will always respect you as an equal partner.
Ferruccio Bolla (PLR/TI), president of the Council of States (1971-72)
The presence of a female member of parliament among us for the first time is such an event that it deserves to be highlighted by the outgoing president and his successor. I believe that I saw you, Mrs Girardin, following the debates on the introduction of women’s suffrage from the gallery. I had taken the floor; I began my speech with a striking sentence that, in my opinion, was sufficient to secure support for a belated act of justice and wisdom: "Under federal constitutional law, even the best of women is inferior to the lowliest of men." We have now advanced beyond this state of humiliation.
William Vontobel (Independents/ZH), president of the National Council (1971-72)
But I am delighted that, for the first time in the history of the Confederation, I can welcome women as equal members of this parliament. Following a long struggle and a number of failed attempts, we have at last arrived at this point. We are all very pleased and extend a particularly warm welcome to our female colleagues.