​Expecting women and mothers in Switzerland were the first in Europe to enjoy legal protection, as far back as 1877. However, they were not permitted to work for several weeks and did not receive any compensation for loss of earnings.

Soon after 1877, the first proposals to establish maternity insurance in the law were made, but these all fell on deaf ears. Among these unsuccessful attempts were the Lex Forrer of 1900, which proposed introducing sickness and accident insurance as well as benefits for women who had just given birth, and a petition in 1904 by the League of Swiss Women’s Associations and other women’s workers associations. The Health and Accident Insurance Act of 1912 brought some alleviation of the consequences of the eight- or six-week ban on work, but only for the few insured women.

A partial success: constitutional obligation of 1945

In 1945, the counter-proposal to the popular initiative in favour of the family (‘Für die Familie’) launched by the Catholic-Conservative party was accepted by the Swiss voters and the cantons. Against a background of labour shortages caused by the war, it had enjoyed the support of both left- and right-wing parties and of the women’s movement. The new article in the Constitution, Article 34quinquies, tasked the federal government with introducing legislation on maternity insurance and family allowances. However, several decades were to pass before legislation was drawn up on either of these issues.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Switzerland became more and more of an outsider in Europe with regard to maternity rights. Nor did the introduction of voting rights for women in 1971 make much of a difference. In 1974, the SP’s popular initiative ‘Social Health Insurance’ attempted to introduce regulations on maternity benefits in legislation on health and accident insurance, but both this and the counter-proposal put forward by the Federal Council and Parliament were soundly rejected at the ballot box.

In the late 1970s, women’s associations, the trade unions and left-wing parties launched the popular initiative ‘For Effective Maternity Protection’, which proposed a revised constitutional obligation, to be implemented within five years. This was rejected when put to the popular vote in 1984. Three years later, the partial revision of the Health Insurance Act, which included a system of financing maternity insurance via salaries, was likewise unsuccessful at the ballot box.

One major reason for the repeated failure of attempts to introduce maternity insurance was the conservative ideal that dominated far into the 20th century of the mother sacrificing herself for home and children and of the father as breadwinner and head of the family. Maternity was considered a ‘private’ and ‘natural’ risk, and so not meriting any special social protection. There was no place for employed married women in this picture. Moreover, warnings of the unforeseeable costs of this type of insurance effectively discouraged voters from supporting initiatives to introduce maternity benefits.

New dynamism in the 1990s leads to a breakthrough

The demands made by the Women’s Strike of 1991 and the accession to office of Ruth Dreifuss (SP/GE, 1940) as Minister for Home Affairs in 1993 brought fresh impetus to efforts to introduce maternity protection in Switzerland. A new bill proposed wages compensation for employed women and a one-off payment for both employed and non-employed mothers. Some business players and the right-wing parties, SVP and FDP, launched a referendum against the bill. In particular they objected to the one-off payment for non-employed mothers. In the vote held in 1999, 61 per cent of voters rejected the proposed legislation. The Canton of Geneva subsequently introduced its own maternity insurance, while in the other cantons, employed women continued to be subject to the provisions of the Swiss Code of Obligations and their employment contracts, and thus to the discretion of their employers, who provided widely varying benefits.

One of the last gaps to close

After the defeat of 1999, there was a general consensus that a solution had to be found quickly. A number of new motions were submitted to Parliament within a short space of time. Among them was National Council member Pierre Triponez’s (FDP/BE, 1943) parliamentary initiative 01.426, which met with broad support in Parliament and had a good chance of success at the ballot box. At last, on 26 September 2004, 55.5 per cent of eligible voters voted in favour of a legal amendment to introduce maternity insurance in Switzerland. The revised legislation came into force on 1 July 2005. This closed one of the last major gaps in the social security system.

However, this breakthrough was not only due to continuing political pressure – especially from committed individuals and the women’s movement – it was also a result of the profound social change occurring in Switzerland in the late 20th century, which had an impact at a number of different levels. By the beginning of the 21st century it had become normal for women with children to go out to work, and promoting a good work-life balance had become a key political concern for (almost) all parties.

Several countries in Europe introduced various models of maternity benefit during the first half of the 20th century. In Switzerland, almost 20 attempts were necessary at federal level before this financial protection for mothers was finally introduced on 1 July 2005. Jacqueline Fehr (SP/ZH, 1963) explains how she found a common denominator with her colleague of National Council Pierre Triponez (FDP/BE, 1943).