13 key milestones in the history of women’s rights in Switzerland

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13 key milestones in the history of women’s rights in Switzerland
Swiss Defence Minister Viola Amherd (left) and Justice Minister Karin Keller-Sutter on being voted into the Swiss government in December 2018. Photo: AFP

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 Liechtenstein held out until 1978 and 1984 respectively), it was decades after most of the western world and a full 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. 
One of the key figures in the Swiss women's suffrage movement was Marthe Gosteli. Gosteli headed up the Swiss Women's Associations for the Political Rights of Women before the 1971 vote and later went on to set up key archives documenting the struggle of women in Switzerland to win the vote.
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.
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. 
Elisabeth Blunschy was the first-ever female president of the Swiss National Council. Photo: Walter Rutishauser
5. In 1981 gender equality and equal pay for equal work was written into the Swiss constitution. By 2018 Switzerland was ranked in the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Report as the 20th most gender equal country in the world and tenth in Europe.
Nevertheless, official Swiss statistics for 2016 show that women working in the Swiss private sector continued to earn 19.6 percent less than their male counterparts with the monthly difference in pay some 657 francs once 'explainable' factors including educational background, the number of years on the job and the types of industries worked in 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 canton 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/AFP
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.
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, although a proposal for two weeks leave for fathers is currently before the parliament.
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.
As of January 2019, there are three female ministers in Switzerland's seven-member executive: Sommaruga (environment minister), Karin Keller-Sutter (justice minister) and Viola Amherd, who is Switzerland's first-ever female defence minister. In another first, both Keller-Sutter and Amherd were both voted into the Swiss government during the same federal council election in December 2018.
However it’s a different situation in the Swiss parliament overall, where currently only 33 percent of MPs and 15.2 percent of senators are women. 
In January of 2018, the political institutions commission of the National Council 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.
13. In December 2018, the Swiss parliament passed a salary equality law after lengthy negotiations. The law requires companies with over 100 employees will have to carry out mandatory studies on pay equality and report back to employees and shareholders. However, only around 1 percent of employees work for companies of this size. The Swiss government had previously called for companies with 50 employees or more to carry out this mandatory analysis on pay equality but centrist and right-wing parties in the parliament had argued this would be too great a burden for smaller firms.

A version of this article originally appeared in The Local in March 2018.



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