There are more women than men in Switzerland. But not in the federal government. After Doris Leuthard steps down, Simonetta Sommaruga will be the only woman left in the Federal Council. The gender issue is being debated by policy makers and the public: How important is gender balance in politics? Should it be incorporated into the Federal Constitution? What strategies do the parties use to promote their women candidates? Let’s take a closer look, and cast a glance back at the events of the past.

Disruptive action and maverick candidates

In 2006, the CVP ran with a single candidate, Doris Leuthard, who was elected in the first round. Things don’t always run that smoothly. In 1983, the SP nominated the first official woman candidate, Liliane Uchtenhagen. Her rival, Otto Stich, won only a few votes within the parliamentary group. And yet, to the consternation of the SP and Uchtenhagen, Parliament chose her male rival. Ten years later, history nearly repeated itself: the SP nominated Christiane Brunner, yet Francis Matthey was elected and 10,000 women demonstrated a week later on the square in front of the Federal Palace. As a result, the SP considered setting itself up in opposition. Under pressure from the party, Mr Matthey pulled out of the election, but Ms Brunner withdrew her candidacy from the second election round. This opened the way for another female trade unionist, from the SP, Ruth Dreifuss.




Ruth Dreifuss after her election in 1993 (SF DRS, news clip, 15 September 2010)

Women in government – also a man’s business

Ms Brunner’s non-election encouraged women across the country to mobilise: In the 1990s, the proportion of women in the cantonal parliaments and in the National Council rose to over 20 per cent for the first time. What is the situation 25 years later? "Politics is still a man’s world," says Géraldine Savary, Council of States member for the canton of Vaud, "created by and for men." Today, women make up one third of the National Council, one fourth of the cantonal governments and 15 per cent of the Council of States. Most of the members of the Federal Council come from these bodies. For this reason, Raphaël Comte, Council of States member (FDP) from the canton of Neuchâtel, submitted a parliamentary initiative in 2017: ‘For an appropriate representation of the sexes in the federal authorities’.




Women in Parliament

Who is responsible?

Mr Comte is not requesting the addition of a quota to the Constitution, but rather seeking to indicate ‘a moral obligation’. Nonetheless, the Political Institutions Committee rejected the initiative, fearing that too many criteria would leave Parliament too little room for manoeuvre. The committee’s speaker, Peter Föhn, told the Council of States that it was the responsibility of the parties to increase the proportion of women candidates. Committee member Werner Luginbühl disagreed, claiming that the election of women to the Federal Council would encourage women to get involved in politics. Géraldine Savary, the only female member of the Council of States to state her position, pointed out that the situation might one day be reversed, with men being able to benefit from a rule. Mr Comte is in fact concerned with achieving a balance between the sexes in the long term, adding that the other criteria were not always taken into account. Unlike the committee, the Council of States ultimately adopted the initiative.




The debate in the Council of States

A heated atmosphere fuelled by the gender debate?

Some women politicians do not attach great importance to gender issues. They are interested in competence and eligibility. Natalie Rickli posted her opinion on Facebook: "Parliament is obsessing over gender issues." However, a broad centre-left coalition is campaigning for the election of two more women federal councillors, drawing attention to the under-representation of women, while looking both to the future and to the past.

Federal Council

In 2011 there were four women in the Federal Council; since then the number has decreased again.


 Anzahl Bundesrätinnen ab Einführung des Frauenstimmrechts 

red = Number of women federal councillors since the introduction of women’s suffrage.

An eventful history

Until 1995, the custom was for one candidate to be put forward for each party seat vacant on the Federal Council. Nevertheless, in 1984 Elisabeth Kopp (FDP) was elected into office beating a male fellow candidate from her party.

"My election as the first woman to the Federal Council has little to do with a personal success," explained the newly elected first woman federal councillor. "Rather, I see it as a recognition of the political achievements of all women at the various levels of our state system."

Four years later, Kopp’s political career came to an abrupt end when her husband’s shady business deals were exposed. She was accused of violating professional confidentiality, and stepped down in 1989. In 1990, the Federal Supreme Court acquitted her of the charge.
A decade later, the CVP succeeded in putting Ruth Metzler, a member of the Appenzell Innerrhoden cantonal government who was unknown nationally, onto the Federal Council on a ticket with two women candidates. Four years after that, in 2003, the rising SVP obtained one of the CVP’s two seats with Christoph Blocher. Joseph Deiss was able to stay, and Metzler had to go. The tables were turned when Blocher was forced out of office in the following renewal of the government: Parliament voted for his fellow party member Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf instead. As a result, the SVP excluded her and her Graubünden chapter from the party, and a new splinter party, the BDP, was formed. Widmer-Schlumpf represented this party in the Federal Council until 2015.


This brings us back to the present. What kind of signals is the Federal Council sending out today? "It would be better," says Ignazio Cassis, "if the relationship between women and men were balanced." Outgoing federal councillor Doris Leuthard is not interested in quotas, but calls instead for commitment. "We need more women in politics!" she announces in a video clip for the ‘half-and-half’ campaign launched by the Federal Commission for Women’s Issues FCWI. In the video female representatives from all parties encourage women to play a greater part in politics. What is their motivation? What is their motivation? Lisa Mazzone: "Our experience as women also shapes our views." What part will women play in our government in future? We will find out the first part of the answer on 5 December.

Doris Leuthard 

Doris Leuthard: «We need more women in politics!»