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

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.

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
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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EXPLAINED: What happened after Swiss women got the right to vote in 1971?

When women in Switzerland were finally granted the right to vote at federal level on 7 February 1971, it was the culmination of a long struggle. But there was plenty more to do, writes Caroline Bishop, whose debut novel explores the ongoing fight for women’s rights in the 1970s.

EXPLAINED: What happened after Swiss women got the right to vote in 1971?
A woman holds a sign reading "Feminism = Equality" as she takes part in a nation-wide women's strike for wage parity outside the federal palace, on June 14, 2019 in the Swiss capital Bern. Photo: FABR

Way back in 1868 women in Zurich petitioned for the right to vote, the first move in a battle for women’s suffrage in Switzerland that would take more than a century to win.

In 1971, when Swiss women were finally granted the vote at federal level, it was a whopping 78 years since New Zealand had enfranchised women – the first country in the world to do so. 

Gaining the vote and the right to stand for election was a major milestone, but the fight for women’s rights in Switzerland was far from over.

In the past 50 years there have been many more issues to tackle. Here are some of them.

The right to be treated equally 

In 1981 gender equality was written into the Swiss Constitution, a federal commitment to the equal treatment of men and women in terms of education, training, jobs and pay.

Historically, women hadn’t had the same opportunities as men in terms of accessing higher education and jobs, while some schools still required girls to take compulsory lessons in homemaking.

The constitutional amendment was a step towards reducing inequalities, however ten years later the lack of progress in real terms sent women to the streets in the first Women’s Strike.

It wasn’t until 1996 that a new law prohibited sexual discrimination and made equal pay for equal work a legal right.

IN PICTURES: Women in Switzerland rise up in demand for equal pay 

The right to be equal in marriage 

In 1985 the Swiss populace voted to grant married women equality with their husbands.

Prior to that date, the patriarchal system designated the husband head of the family, legally able to control the family’s money – even savings his wife may have had before marriage – and dictate whether his spouse could have a job.

That ended when the new matrimonial rights law, which stated marriage was an equal partnership, came into force in 1988.

The right to keep your nationality after marriage 

Until 1992, a Swiss woman who married a foreign man would automatically lose her Swiss citizenship, unless she put in a special request to retain it.

However, a foreign woman who married a Swiss man would automatically gain Swiss citizenship.

The law changed in 1992 to remove this dominance of the man’s nationality and create equality between how male and female citizens were treated, as well as recognising dual nationality for the first time.

The right to abortion 

Legal abortion on demand was central to the cause of second wave feminists in the 1970s. At that time abortion was only allowed if it posed a serious threat to a woman’s physical health or her life itself.

The law was applied differently across the country – while some conservative cantons were so strict that abortion was practically banned, more liberal cantons had a looser interpretation of the law.

READ MORE: Despite changing attitudes, Swiss women still fear having a baby will harm their career 

This led to abortion tourism, with many women travelling to progressive cantons including Vaud and Geneva for terminations, while others resorted to illegal means.

As the years progressed, elective abortion was essentially decriminalised, but it wasn’t until 2002 that the Swiss finally voted to allow the right to request an abortion in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. 

Women have had the right to vote in Switzerland since 1971. Photo: FABRICE COFFRINI / AFP

The right to maternity leave  

When, in 1877, a new Swiss law forbade women from working for up to eight weeks after the birth of their child, the country was the first in Europe to protect the health of new mothers in this way – yet women received no financial compensation for their time out of work.

READ MORE: Switzerland rolls back ‘antiquated’ ban on women showing their shoulders in parliament 

In 1945 Swiss men voted in favour of the principle of maternity benefit, yet nothing concrete was agreed for decades. Various proposals were rejected in four separate referendums in the 70s, 80s and as late as 1999.

Over the years many employers did offer maternity benefit to their female employees, funded by the companies themselves, however it wasn’t until 2004 that statutory paid maternity leave of 14 weeks was finally approved at referendum.

It came into effect the following year.

What’s next?

While things have changed hugely in the past 50 years, Switzerland still lags behinds other western countries when it comes to women’s rights and equality.

Swiss voters recently approved two weeks’ paternity leave for fathers, but that’s a long way from the shared parental leave schemes enjoyed elsewhere in Europe, meaning women in Switzerland still disproportionately shoulder the burden of childcare.

With statutory maternity leave still at just 14 weeks (by comparison, the UK offers 52 weeks, 39 of which are paid), and a shortage of public nursery places, women often have to give up work or reduce hours, perpetuating the traditional family model.

What’s more, the continuing gender pay gap of 20 percent on average – one of the largest in Europe – was one of the issues that provoked women into a second strike in 2019

Of course, nowhere is perfect.

The US has no statutory maternity benefit at federal level; only an estimated two percent of new fathers choose to share parental leave in the UK; and many western countries are still waiting for a female head of government, while Switzerland has had five women presidents (over eight terms) since the first in 1999.

But nevertheless, it’s clear that Swiss women still have plenty more to fight for.

Caroline Bishop’s debut novel, The Other Daughter, which is partly set during the Swiss women’s liberation movement of the 1970s, is published on 18 February. Available at bookstores in Switzerland including Payot, Orell Fuessli and Books, Books, Books.