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14 fascinating facts about the history of women’s rights in Switzerland

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14 fascinating facts about the history of women’s rights in Switzerland
Swiss justice and police minister Simonetta Sommaruga. Photo: AFP
10:22 CET+01:00
On International Women’s Day, The Local outlines a few things you may not have known about the evolution of women’s rights in Switzerland.
1. In 1971 Switzerland finally granted women the right to vote at national level. Though it wasn't quite the last country in Europe to do so (Moldova and the principality of Leichtenstein held out until 1978 and 1984 respectively), it was decades after most of the western world and a whopping 78 years after New Zealand became the first country to grant women’s suffrage in 1893. Under Switzerland’s system of direct democracy, men had to vote for this change to the constitution in a referendum. In 1971 they finally did so on the second attempt, after previously rejecting the idea back in 1959. 
2. The successful 1971 referendum meant women could not only vote but also participate in political life. Later that year ten women were elected to the Swiss lower house of parliament, the National Council, for the first time.

Women were elected to the Swiss parliament in 1971. Photo: Peter Klaunzer/AFP
3. The cantons of Vaud and Neuchâtel became the first to give women the right to vote at cantonal level in 1959, followed by Geneva in 1960. However many others held out until after the 1971 federal referendum. Therefore when Elisabeth Blunschy became one of the first women to be elected as an MP in 1971, she was still unable to vote on cantonal matters in her canton of residence, Schwyz.
4. Blunschy became the first woman president of the National Council in 1977. 
5. In 1981 gender equality and equal pay for equal work was written into the Swiss constitution. By 2016 Switzerland was ranked in the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Report as the 11th most gender equal country in the world and sixth in Europe.
Nevertheless, official Swiss statistics for 2014 show that women working in the Swiss private sector continued to earn 19.5 percent less than their male counterparts with the monthly difference in pay some 585 francs once 'explainable' factors including educational background and the number of years on the job had been taken out of the equation.
6. Elisabeth Kopp became the first female member of the Swiss Federal Council, the government's seven-person executive, in 1984.
7. In a September 1985 referendum women were granted equal rights with men within family life. Until this date men had legal authority over their wives, meaning a husband could prevent his wife from working, choose where she should live and manage her money, including preventing her from opening a bank account without his approval. 
8. In 1990 the famously conservative region of Appenzell Innerrhoden became the last canton in Switzerland to give women voting rights at cantonal level – and then only because the federal supreme court forced it to. 

In Appenzell Innerrhoden votes are still taken by residents raising their hands. Photo: Sebastien Bozon
9. Ruth Dreifuss became the first female president of Switzerland in 1999, under the rules of the country’s annually rotating presidency. There have since been four others, including current president Doris Leuthard who has occupied the role once before, in 2010.
10. Abortion on request became legal in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy in 2002. Also that year, the morning after pill was released for sale without prescription.
11. Pregnant women became legally entitled to paid maternity leave in 2005, but only after the idea had been rejected by voters in four previous referendums. Many companies did offer paid maternity leave before this point, but it was not statutory. Nowadays mothers are entitled to 14 weeks paid maternity leave – far lower than some other European countries – at up to 80 percent of their salary to a maximum of 196 francs a day. There is no statutory paternity leave.
12. In 2010 the election of Simonetta Sommaruga to the Swiss Federal Council meant the government’s executive contained more women than men for the very first time. However it’s a different situation in the Swiss parliament, where currently only 32 percent of MPs are women.
The election of Simonetta Sommaruga in 2010 created a majority female government for the first time. Photo: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP

13. In January of 2018, the political institutions commission of the National Council, the lower house of the Swiss parliament, rejected a move to introduce a female quota for the seven-member federal government. While the federal constitution guarantees a fair representation of regions and languages in the government, it says nothing about women. Making its decision, the commission said it was not opposed to a better representation of women in the government but that this did not need to be anchored in the constitution. Currently there are just two women in the Swiss executive: Doris Leuthard and Simonetta Sommaruga.

14. On February 28th, the Council of States – the upper house of the Swiss parliament – snubbed a Swiss government proposal aimed at guaranteeing equal pay for women and men. Under the proposal, firms with over 50 employees would have been required to undergo an audit every four years with information on how much they paid to male and female staff made available to the public and shareholders.

While the upper house said it was not opposed to an overhaul of the 1981 law on gender equality, it voted against the government’s plans. Critics of that decision fear a new watered-down version of the plans will be the result.

A version of this article originally appeared in The Local in March 2017.


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