​The Federal Assembly could have granted women the right to vote at federal level as early as the 1950s if it had supported the Valais-born Conservative member of parliament Peter von Roten. It could simply have added “man and woman” after the word “Swiss” in the Federal Act on Popular Votes.

The word ‘Suisse' – Swiss person – has a neutral value, a generic meaning encompassing the feminine and masculine, argued National Council member Peter von Roten in the early 1950s. Based on this grammatical rule, he continued, the Federal Assembly can amend Article 10 of the Federal Act of 17 June 1874 on Popular Votes on Federal Laws and Decrees and grant women the right to vote in federal matters.

Peter von Roten, whose wife Iris von Roten penned the Swiss feminist manifesto 'Women under Surveillance', wanted to avoid putting women’s suffrage to the ballot box at all costs. The Second World War had been followed by the Cold War, so mistrust between supporters of the two blocs was fostering conservative values. The historical gender roles of the 19th century returned in full force, with women responsible for child rearing and running the home, while political rights, public life and work were left to the men. The time was hardly ripe to ask the Swiss to grant voting rights to their wives, mothers, sisters and daughters.

The Federal Council also feared that the initiative would fail. It carefully hid in a bottom drawer the motions for women’s suffrage that had been submitted at the end of the First World War by the Liberal Emil Göttisheim and the Zurich Socialist Hermann Greulich, just after Parliament had turned them into postulates. The same fate befell the petition to grant women the right to vote, which had been signed in 1929 by a quarter of a million men and women.

The president of the Socialist Party, Hans Oprecht, took over in 1944 with a postulate to include equal civil rights for men and women in the Federal Constitution. The Federal Assembly supported him in order not to offend the powerful Swiss Association for Women’s Suffrage (ASSF). The Federal Council, however, did nothing.

Peter von Roten had no chance of success in Valais either in 1945. His Catholic Conservative Party, which had a majority in the cantonal parliament and council, would not listen to his motion to grant political rights to women,

Motion - The cantonal council is invited to submit to the cantonal parliament a draft act granting women political rights.
Peter von Roten’s 1945 motion to grant voting rights to women. English translation
CH AEV, 1001-1, No 276, protocol of the cantonal parliament meeting, November 1945 session, photo by Jean-Philippe Dubuis, 2021

However, this defeat did not move the fronts. In December 1948, the doors of the National Council were opened to the feminist Peter von Roten, who wasted no time in submitting a postulate signed by 24 members from all parties. It stated that the Federal Council should report on “the way in which political rights can be extended to Swiss women”. The text easily passed by 71 votes to 42.

National Council

1949 winter session
167. (5780) Von Roten Postulate of 21 December 1949
The Federal Council is invited to report to the Councils on the way in which political rights can be extended to Swiss women.

Extract from the National Council minutes – Federal Archives, English translation

During the revision of Federal Act on Elections in the People’s Chamber in 1950, Peter von Roten also made a gallant final attempt to allow women to sit on the National Council, but without success.

On 25 November of the same year, the ASSF asked the Federal Council to introduce the right to vote for women based on the inclusive interpretation of the Swiss legislation and federal constitution.

Peter von Roten relayed the ASSF’s request to the National Council.

“You will remember that last summer, when dealing with the basis of the National Council's election, I also proposed that women should be given the right to stand for election and vote in the National Council. That was starting from the wrong end. At the time, I thought that it would be good to start with the possibility of opening up female representation in (federal) Parliament as a first step. Unfortunately, I did not get a majority in our Council, which leads me to believe that I will get your support by doing this the other way round; in other words, that women should first be given the right to decide on concrete issues. It is not me who is proposing this, but the Swiss Association for Women's Suffrage, which represents women interested in politics. This proposal also has a second major advantage, namely the practical advantage of making the popular vote, in reality the 'men’s' vote, superfluous, by making Parliament, i.e. the two chambers (the National Council and the Council of States) competent to carry out this change of law. I have thus adequately described to you the way proposed by the Swiss Association for Women's Suffrage.”

Extract from the minutes of the National Council meeting of 20 December 1950, English translation.

The Federal Council considered it necessary to amend the Federal Constitution, as it said in its report in response to the two postulates from Oprecht (1944) and von Roten (1949) published on 2 February 1951. In view of the recent failures of the votes on equal rights in eight cantons, it urged women to first take their place in church committees, social affairs and education.

Peter von Roten then submitted a motion for a legislative solution – a revision of the Federal Act of 17 June 1874 – in the debate in the National Council. The Conservative group rejected the motion in favour of the Federal Council's position. Between 1952 and 1954, the chambers addressed several postulates to the Federal Council on introducing women's right to vote. Still nothing happened.

Peter von Roten, who had participated in founding the Valais section of the ASSF, also demanded that Swiss women should at least be able to vote in referendums on concrete issues that concerned them, but to no avail.

A resounding 'no'

On Sunday 1 February 1959, the male electorate voted against introducing women's suffrage in the Federal Constitution by a two-thirds majority. Only the Socialist Party, the Alliance of Independents and the Swiss Worker’s Party recommended voting for it. The Radical Free Democratic Party and the Christian Social People's Party (now the CVP) left the vote open. The Farmers', Trades’ and Citizens' Party (now the SVP) said no. On the same day, Neuchâtel, Vaud and Geneva granted women the right to vote at cantonal and communal level.

In the end, it was Switzerland's entry to the Council of Europe in 1963 and the demand for gender equality contained in the European Convention on Human Rights that forced the Federal Council to hold the vote – a winner for suffragists and suffragettes – on 7 February 1971. At that day, Swiss women became citizens.

Advocating women’s right to vote at both cantonal and federal level

Peter von Roten fought his battle at cantonal and federal level simultaneously. At the beginning of February 1954, he declared before the Cantonal Parliament that in Valais, as at federal level, there was no law that explicitly excluded women from political rights. The cantonal constitution recognises that 'citizens' have the right to vote without specifying that this word defines men to the exclusion of women. For him, women must be able to register in the electoral roll of their commune.

Women won’t vote tomorrow!

(YG.) The attraction of yesterday's session in the Cantonal Parliament was an interpellation by MP Peter von Roten on granting women the right to vote. The proud MP stated that neither the cantonal constitution nor the 1938 law on voting and elections formally excluded the participation of women in civic life.

His interpellation failed to convince the Valais MPs. They decided to postpone the solution to this problem until (much) later: Councillor Lampert expressed the opinion that, for the time being, it was preferable to let propaganda work in favour of an idea that is not yet ripe; because in a region like Valais, where political struggles are particularly passionate, people are less impatient than in other regions to see women enter political life.

Newspaper Le Nouvelliste valaisan, English traduction

In 1957, the ball was back in the Federal Council’s court when it proposed that women should also be required to do civil protection service. Feminists were up in arms – for them, there would be no new obligations without the right to vote! In order to give its proposal for a new civil protection service a better chance, and nine days before the popular vote, the Federal Council responded to the recent Picot and Grendelmeier postulates with its dispatch to the Federal Assembly on introducing women's suffrage in federal matters.

But in French-speaking Switzerland and in Ticino, associations in favour of women's suffrage had already called on women to register to vote. Against the advice of the Federal Supreme Court, a few communes joined this call to action, including the Upper Valais mountain hamlet of Unterbäch. This was led by Peter von Roten, who had a chalet in the village and a comrade-in-arms in the president of the communal council, Paul Zenhäusern. Under the glare of the Swiss and international press, no fewer than 33 of the 86 women living in Unterbäch voted together with the men on the civil protection service.

The mixed civil protection project was rejected. The women's ballots were not recognised by either Valais cantonal council or the Federal Council. Peter von Roten and Paul Zenhäusern’s commitment to feminism cost them their re-election on 3 March 1957, after more than ten years in office.

Call to the women of Valais
(Valais media library – Sion, special collections, printed political material)

Peter von Roten – feminist and conservative

Peter von Roten, 1916–1991.
(AEV, portrait collection)

Peter von Roten was born in Raron, Valais, in 1916. He studied law in Fribourg, Paris and Bern, and then opened a law and notary's office in Visp and Leukerbad before entering politics. From 1943 to 1945, he was a communal councillor in Raron and from 1941 to1957, a conservative member of the Valais cantonal parliament, of which he was president in 1948.
He was elected to the National Council in 1948, where he served for three years. He became prefect of the western district of Raron in 1953 and remained so for 33 years, even after moving to Basel in 1954. He was a contributor to the Walliser Bote, the conservative newspaper of the Upper Valais, for 50 years.

As the husband of the Basel feminist Iris Roten-Meyer, the editor of the ‘Schweizer Frauenblatt’ (the Swiss Women’s Newspaper) and a lawyer, he used his political power to promote women's suffrage. In 1945, he submitted a motion to the Valais cantonal parliament in favour of women's political rights, and in 1954 an interpellation. He submitted a postulate to the National Council in 1949 and a motion in 1951 also aiming at introducing women's suffrage. As a founding member of the Valais Association for Women’s Suffrage, he encouraged the women of Unterbäch to vote in 1957 and was behind the candidacy of Mathilde de Stockalper for the Valais cantonal council in 1965. Throughout his life, Peter von Roten was as much appreciated for his political and editorial activities in favour of equal rights for women as he was controversial.