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

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
When women in Switzerland were finally granted the right to vote at federal level 50 years ago, 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.

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.

 

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