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“As if women didn’t exist” – Switzerland


One of the reasons why women did not gain the right to vote in Switzerland until 1971 is the Swiss political system. Amendments to the law require the approval of a majority of the electorate – which was only the male population before 1971. Switzerland was one of the last European countries to grant its female population their full rights as citizens.

From 1860 to 1874 Swiss women began mobilising to demand equality. In 1886 they submitted the first petition to Parliament in which Marie Goegg-Pouchlin, a pioneer of the Swiss women’s suffrage movement, pleaded for human rights on behalf of her fellow campaigners.

In the same year, Emilie Kempin-Spiry, the first woman in Switzerland to complete a law degree, claimed her right of admission to the Bar. Despite her equal qualifications, the Federal Court refused permission. In 1896 the First National Women’s Congress was held in Geneva and met with the approval of some men. Many women’s organisations were founded in subsequent years.

The first national referendum on women’s suffrage in 1959 brought a negative response. This led to protests and strikes throughout Switzerland. In the same year women did achieve their first success: women’s suffrage was introduced at cantonal level in the canton of Neuchâtel.

The issue of equality for women took on new urgency in 1965, when Switzerland wanted to join the European Convention on Human Rights, in which the right to free elections had been enshrined since 1952. But the Federal Council played for time. In 1968 feminists criticised the sedate methods of the previous women’s rights associations and organised demonstrations, a rare form of democratic expression in Switzerland before that. The women’s liberation movement FBB also caused a stir by occupying buildings and by aggressive protests. Faced with this pressure, the Federal Council, National Council and Council of States began debating draft legislation. Women’s suffrage was finally approved by 65.7% of male voters on 7 February 1971.

Yet Swiss women did not have political rights on all levels: women in the canton of Appenzell Innerrhoden were not granted cantonal suffrage until the end of 1990 – and not by a vote, but by an Order of the Federal Court. 

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